Commentary: What's an election season without a candidate trying to match message to hit music?

The Lexington Herald-LeaderOctober 14, 2012 

Since I was an elementary school kid listening to a Top 40 station on my parents' AM radio, I have been a fan of Fleetwood Mac. Spin Gold Dust Woman and I am ready to hear the album Rumours.

But when Rumours gets to track No. 4, the band's 1977 hit Don't Stop, one image pops into my head: newly elected President Bill Clinton lifting his arms in victory with his wife and daughter. The 1992 campaign inexorably tied Clinton to the classic song, which has the full title lyric, "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow."

As campaign tunes go, it was a good choice, and to this day it is often played when Clinton appears.

Music has been part of presidential election campaigns since the early days of the United States. Recall the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too" from high school history class? It was a campaign song for William Henry Harrison, a hero of the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, and his running mate, John Tyler, in the 1840 election.

A feature on the MSNBC program Hardball recalled a campaign jingle written for President John F. Kennedy, Kennedy for Me, that recently was recast by some folks for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign as Obama for Me.

But the days of songwriters penning campaign jingles for favored candidates are well in the past. What we more often see now are campaigns co-opting pop songs to convey their messages, sometimes with unpleasant results.

Probably the best known example was when President Ronald Reagan cited and played Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. during his 1984 re-election campaign. He said at a campaign stop, "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."

It was quickly pointed out that Reagan and his campaign aides must not have paid attention to the song's lyrics, a dark account of a Vietnam War veteran being let down by the country he served. The Reagan campaign inquired about getting an endorsement from Springsteen, not knowing The Boss's liberal politics.

Decades later, Springsteen performed in support of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in his losing bid against incumbent President George W. Bush. Springsteen's The Rising became the anthem of Obama's winning 2008 campaign, which also used U2's City of Blinding Lights heavily. The Rising had been used by other Democratic hopefuls during the 2008 campaign without objection from Springsteen.

Not all musicians loved Obama, though. Sam Moore of the duo Sam and Dave asked Obama's campaign to stop using their soul classic Hold On I'm Comin' in 2008.

Republicans also have had numerous run-ins with artists in recent years.

When 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was introduced at the Republican National Convention, she took the stage to Heart's Barracuda, riffing on Palin's nickname when she played high school basketball.

Unimpressed, sisters and Heart frontwomen Ann and Nancy Wilson told Entertainment Weekly, "Sarah Palin's views and values in no way represent us as American women. We ask that our song Barracuda no longer be used to promote her image."

But the song kept on playing, with another former band member and co-writer, Roger Fisher, telling Reuters he was going to donate a portion of his royalties from the McCain-Palin campaign's use of the song to Obama.

This year's Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, has run afoul of numerous rockers. Twisted Sister asked him to stop playing We're Not Gonna Take It, and Silversun Pickups asked that he stop using its hit Panic Switch at rallies. After Ryan expressed appreciation for Rage Against the Machine, the band's activist guitarist Tom Morello shared his dislike for Ryan, saying he was "the embodiment of the machine our music rages against."

Despite the entertainment industry's liberal reputation, there is love for Republicans.

While Heart was asking Palin to cease and desist, country star Hank Williams Jr. was with her on the campaign trail. This year, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has had the loud, vocal support of fellow Michigander Kid Rock.

"You know, yeah, I'm a little right-wing, I'm gonna vote for Mitt Romney," Kid Rock said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. "But that's where my politics end, speaking to people who listen to my music, you know?"

Lest he turn off left-leaning fans, Rock sounded a bipartisan note in that story. "If you're not (going to vote for Romney), it's OK. We can still have a conversation and be friends, and maybe enlighten each other on some views. I think thinking differently is what made this country great."

Ted Nugent sounded a far less conciliatory tone at a National Riffle Association convention in April, when he said, "I'll tell you this right now: If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year. We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November."

Lest we think the fine art of campaign songwriting is dead, fledgling country music artist Lane Turner made a sensation at the Republican National Convention with his song I Built It, riffing on a widely misconstrued quote from one of Obama's campaign speeches.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, when election season rolls around, someone will be singing your song or you'll be playing theirs.

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