Sing a song of hypocrisy

March 28, 2008

Do the political candidates pick the songs that fit them? Nicole Colson offers some suggestions.

IT'S PRESIDENTIAL election season once again. That means that, in addition to the usual parade of say-nothing debates, attack ads and endless primaries, we're being treated to the lame misappropriation of popular music in the service of campaign "theme songs."

Just a few of the eye-rollers on parade this year at rallies are Abba's "Take a Chance on me" and John Mellencamp's "Our Country" (both used by John McCain); Celine Dion's "You and I" and the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" (Hillary Clinton); and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" (Barack Obama).

Some are, of course, very fine songs in their own right. But you have to wonder if the candidates have ever bothered to actually listen to them. Whose "country," for example, does John McCain think famously left-leaning rocker John Mellencamp is referring to in "Our Country"?

"That poverty could be just another ugly thing/And bigotry would be seen only as obscene/And the ones that run this land help the poor and common man/This is our country" run the lyrics--hardly in step with the campaign of a man who, in the course of recent months, has backed George W. Bush's veto of a bill outlawing torture of detainees and said that the U.S. might stay in Iraq for the next "100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years."

To his credit, Mellencamp pulled the plug on McCain's use of his music in February. As Mellencamp's spokesperson, Bob Merlis, commented to the Associated Press, "You know, here's a guy running around saying, 'I'm a true conservative.' Well, if you're such a true conservative, why are you playing songs that have a very populist pro-labor message written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterized him as left of center?"

In a similar incident, guitarist Tom Scholz of the band Boston told Mike Huckabee to cease and desist using "More Than a Feeling." Scholz wrote that "Boston has never endorsed a political candidate, and with all due respect, would not start by endorsing a candidate who is the polar opposite of most everything Boston stands for...I think I've been ripped off, dude!"

McCain is hardly the first Republican to appropriate the work of left-wing musicians in an attempt to add luster to his campaign. George Bush Sr., for example, was somehow able to get away with using "This Land Is Your Land"--a searing indictment of inequality in America penned by socialist Woody Guthrie--as his campaign song in 1988.

It's a good bet that Bush left out the verse that goes: "In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people/By the relief office I seen my people/As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking/Is this land made for you and me?" (Bush's use of the song may have provided inspiration for actor Tim Robbins who, in the 1992 movie Bob Roberts, played an arch-conservative political candidate who sings "This land is my land...this land is my land." In a nice twist, Robbins later sang the song, in his Bob Roberts persona, at a Madison Square Garden rally for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000.)

THE AWARD for the most cynical use of a song, however, has to go to Ronald Reagan, who, while running for re-election in 1984, latched onto Bruce Springsteen's anthem "Born in the USA," the tale of a Vietnam vet who comes home to find that America's promise has failed him.

According to rock critic Dave Marsh, after a Reagan staffer named Morgan Mason struck out in an attempt to recruit Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" as a Reagan theme, the campaign looked to other stars, including Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, with varying degrees of success.

Then conservative pundit George Will got involved. Will, who was working for the Reagan campaign, attended a Springsteen concert (decked out in his trademark bow tie) and duly published a column praising "A Yankee Doodle Springsteen" for how the "flag gets waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times" and for showing "not a smidgen of androgyny." (Who knew that glam rock was a threat to the American way of life?)

Days later, at a campaign stop in Hammonton, N.J., Reagan told the crowd that "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. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

What was Reagan's favorite Springsteen song? "Born in the USA," according to his campaign staff (which, as comedian Johnny Carson pointed out, "If you believe that, I've got a couple of tickets to the Mondale-Ferraro inaugural ball I'd like to sell you.")

As Springsteen said, "I didn't know whether to me embarrassed for me of the president." At a show days afterward, Springsteen told the audience, "The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must have been. I don't think it was the Nebraska album," referring to an album populated with hard-luck poor and working-class characters.

Democrats have committed their fair share of musical sins as well. The cringe-inducing choices candidates make when it comes to picking popular songs come from the way in which popular music is often consumed--where a catchy chorus or right-sounding title can sometime end up overshadowing the actual meaning of a song.

Hillary Clinton's early use of the Tom Petty song "American Girl"--about a small town girl, a failed relationship, and possibly a suicide--is a perfect example. What the song has to do with politics is unclear, and, sadly for Clinton, the song is now perhaps best-known for its use in the serial killer movie The Silence of the Lambs--but hey, any excuse to try to polish a candidate's patriotic credentials, right?

Many, of course, are simply guilty of extreme bad taste--for example, Michael Dukakis, who cemented a campaign filled with bad choices by using Neil Diamond's cheese-rific anthem "America." Incredibly enough, Hillary Clinton settled on Celine Dion's execrable "You and I" after inviting voters to choose her campaign theme. (Right-wingers, unfortunately, were only too happy to offer their own sexist suggestions: Who knew there were so many songs with the word "bitch" in the title?)

John F. Kennedy used Frank Sinatra's can-do anthem "High Hopes" in 1960. Sinatra even recorded a special version of the song for Kennedy, but was later snubbed by Kennedy because of his mob connections. Other members of the Rat Pack aided the campaign as well, but that didn't stop Kennedy from dis-inviting Black singer Sammy Davis Jr. and his white wife, actress May Britt, from the inaugural ball because the sight of an interracial couple might upset white Southerners.

And then there are the songs specially crafted for individual candidates. Bob Dole famously got Sam Moore of Sam and Dave to remake the classic "Soul Man" as "Dole Man" (for a man who had so little soul he resembled a walking corpse). And this year, Black Eyed Peas member has contributed "Yes We Can" to the Obama camp.

BUT EVEN as far back as 1840, Whig Party candidate William Henry Harrison and running mate John Tyler had "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" in the race against incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren. The song was number one with a bullet on the hit charts of 1840--and how could it not be, with lyrics like "For Tippecanoe and Tyler too/And with them we'll beat little Van, Van, Van,/Van is a used up man"?

One magazine at the time remarked that the song was, "in the political canvas of 1840 what the 'Marseillaise' was to the French Revolution. It sang Harrison into the presidency." More recently, John Flansburgh, of the alternative duo They Might be Giants (which recorded a version of the song in 2004), told Newsweek the song was "the 'Rock Around the Clock' of campaign songs...It's just a great song--it's really bitchy and mean-spirited in a way that's kind of exciting."

The song even notes the oppositions' claims that Harrison was too much of a drinker--without denying them. ("Let them talk about hard cider, cider, cider...It will only help to speed the ball for Tippecanoe and Tyler too"). Somehow, it's hard to imagine Dubya employing a similar tactic ("Let them talk about cocaine, cocaine, cocaine...")

Perhaps this election season, Socialist Worker could offer some suggestions for more appropriate theme music for some of the candidates--something that might bring a little truth in advertising? Clinton, for example, might do well with the old O'Jays tune "Backstabbers" ("Smiling faces sometimes tell lies (back stabbers)/They smile in your face/All the time they want to take your place/back stabbers, back stabbers").

Or, there's the Sex Pistols' "Liar," in honor of her discredited claims to have been instrumental to "bringing peace" to Northern Ireland and to have always been a critic of NAFTA.

Meanwhile, John McCain would be better off ditching Mellencamp and taking up R.E.M.'s "Welcome to the Occupation" ("Where we open up the floodgates/freedom reigns supreme/Fire on the hemisphere below") for his "endless occupation" stance on Iraq. Ray Charles' "Born to Lose" could be a contender as well.

If that's not good enough, perhaps he'd like to use the Sesame Street theme, the "Meow Mix" ad jingle and Eminem's "White America"--run together in an endless loop and played for hours at ear-splitting volume? After all, these are just a few of the songs that we know have been used to torture detainees in the "war on terror." But hey, that's not worth passing a law against or anything.

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