Politics and pop music have a testy relationship. For every song supporting a particular politician or party, five more bash him, her, or it — and more still hate on the entire political system. Still, the relationship persists, and it’s never more evident than during campaign seasons when candidates use music to connect with various stripes of voters and beef up their personal brands.
Sometimes, the relationship works well for everyone involved — witness President Obama’s recent event at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where he sang a few bars from Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” The clip went viral the next day, giving Obama some positive publicity, and bumped sales of the track by nearly 500 percent. On the other side of the aisle, Herman Cain struck Tea Party gold by playing Krista Branch’s “I Am America” at rallies.
Things don’t always go so swimmingly. Newt Gingrich faces a lawsuit from the co-writer of “Eye of the Tiger,” after he played it at campaign events without his permission, and Ron Paul raised eyebrows by employing the “Imperial March” (also known as the Darth Vader theme) in New Hampshire.
To commemorate election year 2012, we put together a Spotify playlist of presidential campaign songs past and present including one from every campaign since 1933. You’ll also find some notable highlights and lowlights of our political music history below the playlist link:
Notable standouts explained:
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933) – “Happy Days Are Here Again”: Here, FDR took a tentative first step into modern campaigning with a song already popular among the American people, rather than making a new one. Before that momentous decision, campaign songs generally had titles like “Get on a Raft With Taft,” and “Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah.”
Harry S. Truman (1945) – “I’m Just Wild About Harry”: Truman found a middle ground between cheesy, campaign-specific tunes of yore and the appropriated pop songs we’re used to now. “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was a popular Broadway number that happened to prominently feature the candidate’s name — a win-win in terms of making the song his while appealing to popular taste. Alas, it kicked off an unfortunate musical trend of painting candidates in a somewhat romantic light. We wonder how many Truman supporters were thinking about “the heavenly blisses of his kisses” when they stepped into the voting booth.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963) – “Hello Lyndon”: With a name like Lyndon, it was unlikely that LBJ would follow Truman’s lead with a popular song that he could pretend was about his campaign. Instead, he went with the next best thing: getting Carol Channing (the original “Dolly” in “Hello Dolly”), to sing that signature tune with his name instead. We can’t find a recording of it, so we’ll have to settle for sitting here trying to think of words that rhyme with Lyndon.
George McGovern (1972) – “Bridge Over Troubled Water”: …And the award for most oddly subdued campaign song ever goes to 1972 Democratic candidate George McGovern. It’s not that the Simon & Garfunkel ballad isn’t great; I just can’t imagine its quiet instrumentation and reflective lyrics inspiring an impassioned reaction at rallies. It’s almost like McGovern saw his landslide loss to Nixon coming. This may have been his way of warning us.
Bob Dole (1996) – “Dole Man”: Continuing in the tradition of “Hello Lyndon,” Dole had Sam Moore of the group Sam and Dave rejigger his former group’s ’67 hit “Soul Man.” Unfortunately for the “Dole man,” Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who wrote the song, weren’t happy about associating their music with Dole’s conservative politics and threatened lawsuits if he continued using it without their permission.
George W. Bush (2004) – “Won’t Back Down”: Rock musicians tend to be a pretty liberal bunch, so it can be hard for Republican candidates to find a good fist-pumping anthem without getting sued. Such was the case for George W. Bush. Not only did Tom Petty issue a cease-and-desist letter to the Bush campaign for using the song, but he proceeded to play it live, at a party at Al Gore’s house on the night of his concession to Bush.
Newt Gingrich (2012) – “Eye of the Tiger”: Gingrich had been using this Survivor tune, which also accompanied a famous fight montage in Rocky III, all campaign season long — that is, until co-writer Frankie Sullivan sued to make him stop earlier this week. Newt can take some solace in the fact that at least one Survivor band member supports him. Guitarist Jim Peterik told the Chicago Sun-Times he thinks Gingrich is looking “better and better.” Maybe he and Gingrich can work on a new version a la “Dole Man.” “Eye of the Newt,” anyone?
(Photo courtesy of Flickr/Damon Edwards)