No. 3: A Very Musical Presidential Election, Presented By VHS Or Beta
I contributed a few blurbs to Spin‘s October feature “Strange Bedfellows,” which detailed the odd nexus where rock music and politics convene. One entry was about the first copyright-snubbing cut-up artist Dickie Goodman and his 1973 assemblage “Soul President Number One.” In it, the first “soul” president is elected, quotes Barry White and the Temptations, and appoints Superfly to head of the FBI. Here’s Dickie’s skewed take on the 1980 presidential campaign:
I mused then that—were Barack Obama to be elected as our first black president—it remained to be seen if he would quote old funk and soul hits. Not only has he done that—from his “Yes We Can” speech (which subliminally quotes the Allen Toussaint-penned tune for Lee Dorsey) on through to the slyest Sam Cooke reference come Election Night—he’s also been embraced by mainstream country and hip-hop and just about every musical subgenre on his way to the White House.
The 2008 presidential election was not only the most expensive and technologically adroit (where we can look forward to Obama’s YouTube posts effectively circumventing media outlets; call it Fireside Chat 2.0), it was also the most musical. While campaign songs stretch back to the infancy of our country, it was with the 1840 election and the Whig campaign’s tune “Tip and Ty” (later expanded to the full names of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”) that music became a true force at the polls. According to Sing Out! editor Irwin Silber, the song “firmly established the power of singing as a campaign device,” effectively putting its man William Henry Harrison (the hero of Tippecanoe) and John Tyler in office.
Obama not only echoed songs but in turn had his speeches turned into music. That “Yes We Can” speech, given on Jan. 8, was turned into a “We Are the World”-type slogfest by will.i.am (and Scarlett Johansson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a Pussycat Doll, and… the dude from Live?!) by February. Rather than make you cringe with that version, let’s stick with this one:
And when Obama brushed his shoulders off after a furious bout of mud-slinging with Hillary Clinton, the unflustered gesture was quickly synced to Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulders.” The ever-responding world of YouTube gave an even greater synergetic aspect to music and politics.
The most musically astute presidential campaign in our history? Without a doubt. Why else cheekily cherry-top Bill Clinton’s DNC speech with “Addicted to Love”? Slate’s Jody Rosen deemed that our first black president was also our first rock critic president, but how many musicians truly love rock critics? Famously misappropriated by Ronald Reagan in ’84, the Boss made sure his music supported his candidate:
The amount of verses shouting out Barack—from Nas to Juelz Santana to a recasting of the already u-biqui “A Milli” as “O Bama”—alone outweighed the GOP’s musical options. (Never mind the bluegrass and reggaeton incants of Obama’s name.) Sure, John Rich penned “Raisin’ McCain” for the Republican National Convention, and Daddy Yankee stumped for the party as well. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin’s meandering sing-song answers to Katie Couric’s questions were matched up with a clever piano line: voila, “Palin Song.”
But for the most part, the GOP faced entertainment-lawyer injunctions from all sides. In February, John Mellencamp asked that his Chevy-pimping “Our Country” and pill-popping “Pink Houses” be removed from Republican playlists. Come August, Jackson Browne sued the campaign for not clearing permission to use his 1977 hit “Runnin’ On Empty” in a TV spot denouncing Obama. Later on that same month, Van Hagar demanded that the self-described mavericks stop using “Right Now” right now as it was “used in a manner that perverts the original sentiment of the lyric (that) just tarnishes the song.” (Besides, they don’t even make Crystal Pepsi anymore.)
On into the final stretch of the campaign, the cease-and-desists continued, from the Foo Fighters asking that the campaign stop hijacking “My Hero” and Heart’s Nancy Wilson being dismayed to find Palin rocking “Barracuda” from the stage, saying: “I feel completely fucked over.” No word as to whether she also felt flat busted.
Self-admitted Stevie Wonder fiend Obama blasted “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” during campaign stops, yet capped his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention with Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America.” The irony was not lost on Kix Brooks, who has now seen his 2001 song deployed by both Obama and John McCain, as well as Bush in 2004.
The absolute musical nadir of the entire campaign (against some stiff and insipid competition) remains “Barack the Magic Negro.” “Sambo”d up by satirist Paul Shanklin, distributed by Republican National chair candidate Chip Saltsman, and put into rotation by Rush Limbaugh, the song rubs burnt cork all over its smug fat face as it pretends to be the Reverend Al Sharpton singing a variant of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” lamenting that… sorry, I can’t give this abject, clueless piece of shit any more attention than it’s already gotten.
The long queue of disgruntled musicians might lead one to believe that rock stars have always sided with the blue states and given them free rein over their back catalog. But that is not the case, as Joan Didion once noted in her essay about the 1992 DNC “Eyes on the Prize” (collected in Political Fictions): “Tipper and Al Gore dance sedately on the podium. The preferred sound was not ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ [ed. note: FDR’s 1932 campaign song] but Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie’s request before the New Hampshire primary that the Clinton campaign stop using her song ‘Don’t Stop’ notwithstanding.”
Ultimately McVie relented, and the band even reunited for the Clinton inaugural ball. But while “Don’t Stop” ultimately soundtrack the Democratic victory then, as befits our playlist age, there is no one single song to offer as summation (try 73 hours and counting). As LA Times pop critic Ann Powers (and yours truly) finally confessed: “I can’t even remember what Obama’s official campaign song was.” A Google search doesn’t help with this either. Perhaps that’s what Obama’s detractors meant when they claimed that we don’t know the man?