Winning Elections With Music

Sep 20, 2012

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Music has always been part of political campaigns, vital for firing up crowds of supporters. But these days, candidates are also expected to divulge what songs are on their mp3 players, so we can assess their “hipness”. We know that President Obama likes Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and the Fugees. Mitt Romney goes for The Beach Boys, Garth Brooks and Alabama.

Republican VP nominee Paul Ryan made quite a stir recently when said Rage Against the Machine was his favorite band, provoking this response from Rage guitarist Tom Morello: “He is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”

Politicians have used music for their campaigns since at least 1840 when “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was a popular song for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe.

But often the candidates and the songs are at odds. Ronald Reagan famously misunderstood the message of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA” when he used it during his 1984 campaign. Reagan thought it was an uplifting patriotic tune, but in Springsteen’s own words, the song is about “a working class man in the midst of a spiritual crisis”, a shell-shocked Vietnam vet with nowhere to go.

Tom Petty put the kibosh on Michelle Bachmann’s use of his “American Girl”, and likewise Heart told Sarah Palin to cease and desist with their “Barracuda”.

In case you are not seeing enough political advertising, here are some truly weird songs from some earlier campaign commercials. First it’s Adlai Stevenson versus Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, here’s Stevenson’s ad: 

Now here’s Eisenhower’s ditty:

Frank Sinatra sang a version of “High Hopes” for JFK’s campaign in 1960, but this is the song that ran with Kennedy’s television ad:

And Richard Nixon won the 1972 with the help of this catchy number: