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Stuck in A Groove
Pay No Mind to the Lyrics: Democrats Wax Nostalgic in Musical Choices

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

Immediately after Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president Wednesday, the producers of his party's convention cued "The Rising" by Bruce Springsteen.

The 2002 song features a rousing, exultant chorus with a rise-up-and-overcome rallying cry that tends to send a charge through anybody who hears it, which is presumably why it's become a go-to anthem among Democrats on the trail: John Edwards and Hillary Clinton played "The Rising" at campaign events before Barack Obama adopted it as his own.

But the song is as tragic as it is triumphal, a Sept. 11 rumination with somber stanzas focused on a New York City firefighter who disappears into the darkness and desperation of the World Trade Center. The hero emerges, rather heartbreakingly, in the afterlife, where he can look down on his widow "in the garden of a thousand sighs."

Apparently, campaign aides still haven't learned to listen closely to the songs they decide to put on the PA, as the use of "The Rising" follows a long tradition of candidates embracing music that goes off message.

Questionable song choices have been in heavy rotation all week in Denver. Before Clinton's speech Tuesday, for instance, her accomplishments were celebrated in a video that prominently featured Tom Petty's "American Girl." The rock-and-roll classic, which was also used during the Democratic runner-up's campaign, has nothing to do with patriotism but is, instead, about the girl's shattered dream.

"God, it's so painful," Petty sings. "Something that's so close/And still so far out of reach."

Oops.

One night later, when Biden emerged from the wings in prime time, the house band played John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses," a protest song about the state of the American dream. Viewers at home heard only the seemingly patriotic chorus; unsung (or just turned way, way down) was the part in which the "young man in a T-shirt" with "greasy hair, greasy smile" recalls having been told, "Boy, you're gonna be president."

And then says: "But just like everything else, those old crazy dreams/Just kinda came and went." Which would have been weird to hear just before listening to a guy with two failed presidential bids on his résumé.

There was also Michelle Obama's walk-off music Monday, when her speech was followed by Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," about . . . a newborn baby. One who is "less than one minute old." (Obama is, in fact, 44.)

Even if it were a paean to an adult, it would have been a curious choice, sending the message that one of the most significant things the Democrats have to say, via song, about an accomplished Princeton University and Harvard Law graduate is that she's "precious" and "pretty" and "lovely made from love," as Wonder sings about his daughter.

In the world of political stagecraft, where songs are used as stimulants and signifiers, lyrics often don't matter, particularly if they fall outside of the chorus. (Very notable exception: Barack Obama's surprising use of Brooks and Dunn's country-rocker "Only in America" following last night's speech. "One kid dreams of fame and fortune/One kid helps pay the rent/One could end up going to prison/One just might be president.")

Typically, songs are chosen for their sound (anthemic, up-tempo, catchy good, dirgelike bad); last night, for instance, the instrumental intro to U2's "City of Blinding Lights" played as Obama took the stage. They're chosen for their popularity, as well, although Hillary Clinton used "Blue Sky," a somewhat obscure 2005 song by the Colorado rock band Big Head Todd and the Monsters, on the trail and again Tuesday.

Often, songs are also picked based on titles, the old "Born in the U.S.A." trap that tripped up Ronald Reagan. (The Springsteen song, about a disenfranchised, destitute Vietnam War veteran, was also played last night at Invesco Field, while the crowd awaited Obama's speech.) Consider Ted Kennedy's appearance at the convention, where he was trotted out to the soft-rock stylings of "Still the One," an Orleans song about a woman who is "still the one I want to talk to in bed/Still the one that turns my head." (Not that those lyrics kept President Bush from using the song during his 2004 reelection campaign, until John Hall of Orleans -- now a Democratic congressman -- asked him to cut it out.)

That song, by the way, was released in 1976, which illustrates another problem with the Democrats' convention soundtrack: It's been stale and predictable, a curious thing for a party whose presidential candidate is campaigning with a message of change.

Not that one expects convention programmers and pols to be on the cutting edge of culture, but the 2008 playlist might as well have been written when Jimmy Carter was up for reelection.

Indeed, watch enough of the coverage this year, and you'll see people doing that goofy delegate dance to "Celebration" (1980), "Respect" (1965) and "We Are Family" (1979), and you'll see them linking arms during "Chain of Fools" (1967), with only a few more modern songs mixed in, as with the Alicia Keys track "No One."

When Howard Dean concluded his speech last night, there was even more vintage Aretha: "You better think/About what you're trying to do to me."

Bill Clinton went old-school, too, entering to Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," his campaign theme -- the one with the declaration that "yesterday's gone." Only, in this case, the song was played precisely to remind everybody of all those yesterdays, during the Clinton administration. Vote for change that will take you back to the future!

His speech was followed by U2's "Beautiful Day," an overplayed song about losing everything and finding joy in what you still have.

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