Tuning in: The Role of Music in Presidential Campaigns
- Nov. 1, 2012
- 1 Comment
When former President Bill Clinton walked off the stage after giving a resounding speech at the Democratic National Convention, Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” rang through the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.
“You can stand me up at the gates of Hell/But I won’t back down/No, I’ll stand my ground/Won’t get turned around/And I won’t back down.” —“Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Contrast that to Ann Romney, who, after talking endearingly about Mitt at the Republican National Convention, walked off the stage hand-in-hand with him to “My Girl” by The Temptations.
“I guess you’d say/What can make me feel this way?/My girl, my girl, my girl, talking about my girl.” —“My Girl” by The Temptations
While Republicans and Democrats hold vastly different values and ideologies, they both have one thing in common: music — and plenty of it. Experts say that the choices candidates make in music are used to strengthen their campaigns and gain popularity.
“It’s been used as a tool for a long time,” said Roberta Schwartz, associate professor of musicology at the University of Kansas. “It has been linked to campaigns as far back as Abraham Lincoln, who had a popular taste in music.”
Lincoln, a poet himself, often attended concerts and occasionally brought a musician with him when he was travelling long distances so he could hear music. He would even choose not to speak at some of his ceremonies and instead ask for music to be played for an extended amount of time.
While the Republican and democratic national conventions will typically start with someone performing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” or “God Bless America,” the artists who perform these songs at each event vary drastically. This year at the Republican convention, the Oak Ridge Boys, Three Doors Down and Taylor Hicks performed, among others.
“The Oak Ridge Boys are going to appeal to a blue-collar, older crowd,” Schwartz said. “That’s the audience the RNC is trying to reach. They’re trying to appeal to white and southern voters. I think the DNC has a wider music choice to select from.”
The Foo Fighters, Mary J. Blige, Flo Rida and The Roots performed in Charlotte, despite MTV’s Video Music Awards going on the same night of the convention.
These artists appeal to younger voters, who emphatically supported Obama in 2008. The artists at the democratic convention were more diverse than those at the Republican convention. Various genres ethnical backgrounds were represented. The Democratic Party speaks a message of equality, regardless of gender, race and sexual orientation, and the musicians that the party selected fits this image.
“I always think of it as kind of like a pump-up,” said Eva Hedtke, a 2011 graduate of Kansas State University. “It’s like baseball players coming up to bat. It tells a little about the person.”
While the songs and messages that lie within may vary between parties, the candidates have the same ultimate goal; the music is supposed to unite the party and get everyone excited, and it is usually successful. Presidential candidates tend to use an artist that is both popular on stage and likeable and charitable off stage. They want to choose someone that represents their values but also brings a “cool” factor to the campaign.
U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” was the tune playing before Obama accepted the democratic nomination for president. For Romney, it was “Born Free” by Kid Rock.
“I was born free, born free/I will bow to the shining sea/And celebrate God’s grace on thee.” — “Born Free” by Kid Rock
“If you have a tune that you can play at rallies, it can add to the speech,” said Steven Maxwell, professor of History of Rock n’ Roll at Kansas State University. “‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ by Stevie Wonder was a big one for Obama in 2008.”
“Here I am, baby/Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m yours/You got my future in your hands.” —“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder
Presidential nominees will frequently use the same song throughout their time on the campaign trail.
“The best known example is Clinton, with ‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow’ by Fleetwood Mac,” Schwartz said. “Choosing the wrong song can be a political detriment, though.
For example, when Ronald Reagan was running for re-election in 1984, “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen played at many of his rallies. The song refers to the Vietnam War in a way that is not very positive, but shows how many Americans felt about it at that time. There was a lot of speculation about how much Reagan knew about Springsteen, and if he even knew what the lyrics of that song meant.
“Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hand/Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man.” — “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen
A similar thing happened during the 2012 campaign after Vice Presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan announced that Rage Against the Machine was one of his favorite artists. Lead guitarist Tom Morello came out and publicly denounced Ryan.
“Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades,” Morello wrote in an op-ed to The Rolling Stone.
Maxwell argues that choosing the right musicians can expand the party’s voter base, especially with the younger crowd of 18- to 36-year-olds.
“There’s a new draw to watch when they otherwise wouldn’t and it’s really effective,” he says.
Many artists leverage this influence on their own, and do not hesitate to endorse a candidate. In 2008, Kanye West was a strong proponent for Obama; he performed at the DNC in Denver that year.
“When certain artists do that, you associate that artist and their lifestyle with that party,” Hedtke said. “Kanye is always very blunt, he’s popular and he says whatever he wants to say, and I find that to be kind of similar to Obama, who is such a good speaker. They kind of reflect each other.”
It is hard to tell whether or not the artists actually give the candidates a boost in the polls, but it is clear that music is not leaving the campaign trail anytime soon.
“Music has always been able to get people’s attention,” Schwartz said.
Do you dig these songs? Download a Spotify playlist and get your political groove on.
— Edited by Nikki Wentling
Feature image photo credit: www.flickr.com/wmbreedveld