Candidates' Tunes Hit A Few Sour Notes

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008

If we can tell anything about the candidates from their campaign theme music, it may be this: They (or perhaps their aides) aren't paying much attention to the lyrics. If they were, they might change their tune.

Hillary Clinton, for example, whips up supporters at rallies with ear-blasting recordings of Tom Petty's "American Girl" and Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business," among others. The title of the first song suggests a kind of patriotic autobiography. The second is supposed to say something about Clinton's can-do style.

Except that "Takin' Care of Business" is actually about not taking care of business. The '70s-era rock number (which George W. Bush also used in a 2004 campaign video) is from the point of view of a slacker: "People see you having fun/Just a-lying in the sun/Tell them that you like it this way." The lyrics go on to add, "It's the work that we avoid/And we're all self-employed/We love to work at nothing all day."

"American Girl" is about an American girl, all right. But it's not about her patriotism. It's about the shattering of her romantic dreams: "And for one desperate moment there/He crept back in her memory/God, it's so painful/Something that's so close/And still so far out of reach."

Clinton held a much-publicized campaign song contest online last year, but the winner -- Celine Dion's "You and I" -- is now little used by the campaign. Instead, Clinton's rallies have sometimes featured Dolly Parton's peppy "9 to 5," which contains the line, "I swear sometimes that man is out to get me."

Now what could that refer to in Clinton's biography?

Some of Clinton's rivals aren't much more attentive about their selections. Barack Obama prefers feel-good, Motown-era, baby boomer-friendly pop ("Higher and Higher," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," etc.). But his musical messages can be mixed, too. Obama's campaign often plays Aretha Franklin's "Think," which superficially makes sense, especially with its rousing refrain ("Oh, freedom . . . yeah, freedom!"). But "Think" isn't really about freedom. It's a defiant warning to a straying lover: "You better think -- think! -- about what you're trying to do me."

Mitt Romney has strayed deeper into romantic territory than he might have wanted to go, too. Romney has used Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" as his entrance music to convey his can-do style -- in other words, less talk, more action. But Romney's supporters might just want to ignore the part of the song where Elvis tells his paramour to "close your mouth and . . . satisfy me, baby."

And what to make of John Edwards's use of "Pride (In the Name of Love)," the U2 song that references Jesus Christ ("One man betrayed with a kiss") and Martin Luther King Jr. ("Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky . . ."). Are Edwards's people making a presumptuous comparison?

As a general rule, campaign songs aren't what they used to be. For one thing, they used to be original, or at least semi-original (among the current field of candidates, supporters of Republican Ron Paul seem to be the most active in producing original songs about their man, including such rockers as "Critical to Get Political"). Not so very long ago, campaigns commissioned their own jingles, though sometimes this simply meant retrofitting new lyrics to familiar music.

The songs weren't just something bouncy and uplifting for entrances and exits, either. They often tweaked the candidate's opponent, or played up the campaign's themes. A verse in Abraham Lincoln's song in 1860, "For Lincoln and Liberty," went, "Our David's good sling is unerring/The Slavocrat's giant he slew/Then shout for the freedom preferring/For Lincoln and liberty, too."

Clinton and Obama's selections reflect the more recent trend of employing tunes that are already well-known -- and generally are as inoffensive and broadly acceptable as possible. Edgy they aren't.

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