How Obama and Romney Are Presiding Over the Death of the Campaign Song

Categories: The Upsetter

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Last week in Charlotte, Bill Clinton stepped to a podium in front of his party's delegation and delivered a speech. Maybe you saw it? What I remember are words -- lots of words. Some of them wrapped around statistics, others glaring back at me like bumper stickers on chrome. Clinton's words flowed ceaselessly. Then -- after 48 minutes -- they ceased. And Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" started up.

It's been 20 years since Clinton first rolled out his signature tune. In that time, "Don't Stop" has proven an unlikely steady theme for the former president. In fact, as time and election cycles pile up, "Don't Stop" is looking like the last of a dubious election year tradition: the campaign song that sticks to the candidate.

A cursory glance at how pop music has been used by past campaigns shows its waning influence. Time was, candidates held fast to one campaign song, and one song only. The choice of said song, though sometimes fluky and often misguided, was often a key moment in the making of a would-be president.

So, in 1928, Al Smith, the New York Governor and presidential hopeful, ushered in the age of the Pop politician. Smith aligned himself with "The Sidewalks of New York," a Vaudeville standard. The model stuck. During the next election year, Franklin Roosevelt's campaign adopted the more contemporary "Happy Days are Here Again," which frequently announced his arrival at the stump. Later, John Kennedy used "High Hopes" in the same way, benefitting from a tailor-made re-write sung by Frank Sinatra. In 1972, George McGovern borrowed "Bridge Over Troubled Water" from Simon and Garfunkel. Later, Ronald Reagan pinched "Born in the U.S.A," but Bruce Springsteen took it back. In the inspired summer of 1992, the same year Clinton first used "Don't Stop," eccentric billionaire Ross Perot chose Patsy Cline's "Crazy" for his independent run at the White House.

In 2012, politicians' relationship to music is a lot messier than the one-candidate, one-theme model. In February, rather than double-down on a single song, President Obama's campaign uploaded a playlist to Spotify featuring tracks by No Doubt, the Impressions, and Noah and the Whale, among others. A month later, Mitt Romney unveiled his iPod playlist, at a time when most voters were more concerned with his tax records. Romney's tastes revealed an appreciation for that lineage connecting '50s rock 'n' roll and contemporary country, the same music essentially that my own dad has cozied up to in recent years.

Surely, the candidates are playing it safe these days, not putting all their pop culture eggs in one basket for fear of alienating the voter who's, say, more into Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac than Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. But I think the demise of the campaign song says less about how campaigns are run and more about the changing role of music within pop culture.

Rock 'n' roll started out being as much about its edges -- its fashions and lifestyle prescriptions -- as its lyrics. There was a brief period in the late '60s and early '70s when content appeared to be king within rock. It's no surprise that much of the new music campaigns adopt shares stylistic roots planted in that bygone period of rock troubadours (for example, Obama has long favored U2, Ben Harper, and Wilco).

But the Information Age's flood of media has changed the nature of how music attracts our attention. Today, music is a perpetual advertisement for itself. A song by an artist seems to exist to tell us there are more songs by the same artist. Lone songs are as circumspect in our culture as lone people. So the content of our favorite records doesn't really come alive until we hear them mingle with other records.

The result for music-at-large is curious. Songs don't "speak to us" as they once seemed to, so we don't ask them to speak for us either, the way the Beatles or the Minutemen or even grunge's vague malaise did for some listeners. When we turn to music today, we call it up as data. We use it to accessorize and beautify ourselves. Its message to others is as linear as a shade of eye-shadow; its meaning as literal as a haircut.


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