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.
Several Republicans this year have played Lee Greenwood's stirring and patriotic "God Bless the U.S.A.," which has practically become the official theme song of the Republican Party; it was a big hit in the campaigns of both Ronald Reagan (1984) and George H.W. Bush (1988), too. This year, however, it may have new resonance for Republicans, with its "proud-to-be-an-American" refrain echoing the party's immigration-reform sentiment.
Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be countering with John Mellencamp's equally stirring and patriotic "This Is Our Country," a song made inescapable by commercials for Chevy trucks.
But even seemingly "safe" choices can cause trouble.
The most famously misread song may have been Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." During his 1984 reelection campaign, President Reagan praised Springsteen's "message of hope" during a stop in New Jersey. It wasn't clear which song, or songs, Reagan meant (and there's no record of Reagan's campaign actually playing the song), but many assumed he was referring to "Born," the title track of Springsteen's best-selling album at the time. The song, of course, is about the opposite of hope; it's the anguished cry of a Vietnam veteran, returning home to bleak prospects ("I'm ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go"). Springsteen later expressed irritation at being made an implicit part of Reagan's morning-in-America reelection rhetoric.
For sheer musical lameness, the prize may go to Sen. Robert Dole's campaign, which adapted the classic Sam & Dave tune, "Soul Man," during his 1996 presidential run. It became "Dole Man." Then it disappeared, after the song's writers took issue with the alteration.
Although campaigns don't need permission to use a pop song, artists have objected to the unauthorized use of their work on political grounds. George W. Bush may have set the record for upsetting the most singers and songwriters: His campaigns have had to pull at least four songs over two election cycles amid complaints. During the 2000 campaign, Petty, Mellencamp and Sting complained about Bush's playing of, respectively, "I Won't Back Down," "R.O.C.K. in the USA" and "Brand New Day" (which was used by Al Gore's campaign without objection). Before Bush yanked the songs, Mellencamp told Rolling Stone magazine, "I don't think that anybody that knows me would think I have the same position as [Bush]."
Then, in 2004, Bush's reelection campaign had to stop playing "Still the One," the 1970s hit by the group Orleans, after co-writer and singer John Hall objected. Hall, a Democrat from New York, won his own race for Congress in 2006 after singing a duet of "Still" with Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report."
Another dust-up arose during Rudy Giuliani's aborted Senate campaign in 2000. Giuliani criticized his opponent -- one Hillary Clinton -- after one of her aides played Billy Joel's "Captain Jack" at a rally. Giuliani got some media mileage by calling a news conference and reading the song's lyrics, which mention drug use and masturbation. But Clinton's people pleaded innocent. They said the selection was an accident -- the intended song was "New York State of Mind" but someone mistakenly left Joel's "Greatest Hits" album on too long.
Giuliani himself has shown up at public events, including at least once last year, accompanied by "Rudie Can't Fail," a song about shiftless young people by legendary British rockers the Clash. Its chorus refers to "drinking brew for breakfast."
Lately, Giuliani has retreated to safer musical territory -- a little Alan Jackson, a little Rascal Flatts . . . and even some opera.