Music choices at campaign rallies tell a lot about presidential candidates. It is part of the american democratic process since almost 200 years.
The music is selected to deliver their political messages, reflect their values and target specific audiences. It can be used in broadcasted ad or in campaign meetings as the candidate enters or leaves the stage. The use of popular songs is an opportunity for the candidate to enter the voters’ lives as they can sing it in the shower, while cooking, in the car…
Let’s review some of the most remarkable songs in the US presidential campaign.
Some historical background
The first song related to a president was 1786’s song “God save the great Washington” which was sung by soldiers during the American Revolutionary war, three years before Washington would become president. Despite the Founding Fathers’ skepticism of the British monarchy, the song’s tune and lyrics are based on “God save the King”.
The election of 1840, between William Henry Harrison and Martin Van Buren, took Presidential campaigning to a whole new level with parades, floats, banners, concerts and inspired the best known political campaign song of all time. The catchy campaign song “Tippecanoe And Tyler Too” was written by Alexander Coffman Ross for Harrison. It is referring to the war experience of Harrison and the title became his campaign slogan.
1952 – Dwight Eisenhower – “I Like Ike” by Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin wrote this feel-good jingle for the wartime hero turned 1952 Presidential candidate. “I Like Ike” was produced by Walt Disney’s brother Roy at the Disney Studios. A version of the song (then called “They Like Ike”) first appeared in one of Berlin’s musicals, “Call Me Madam,” a full two years before the election. Eisenhower honored the songwriter with a medal for “his services in composing many popular songs”.
1960 – John F. Kennedy – “High Hopes” by Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra, then a Democrat, convinced the Broadway lyricist Sammy Cahn to do a rewrite on his 1959 hit. The new lyrics are expressing the emotional essence of Kennedy’s campaign, and the optimism of a new decade and a new political generation.
Here are some of the refreshed lyrics:
“Everyone is voting for Jack
Cause he’s got what all the rest lack
Everyone wants to back — Jack
Jack is on the right track.
Jack’s the nation’s favorite guy
Everyone wants to back — Jack
Jack is on the right track.”
Here is the version rewritten for Kennedy:
Bellow is the original version:
1964 – Lyndon Johnson – “Hello Lyndon” by Carol Channing
Like Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson used an adapted popular tune. “Hello, Lyndon” is based on the song “Hello, Dolly” from the eponymous Broadway musical written by Jerry Herman. Brand new at the time, the musical had swept that year’s Tony Awards. It was later adapted in a movie produced by Gene Kelly featuring Barbara Streisand and Louis Armstrong. Original “Dolly” cast-member Carol Channing performed Lyndon’s version at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
Here is Carol Channing performing “Hello, Lyndon” in 1964:
“Hello, Dolly” performed by Barbara Streisand an Louis Armstrong in the 1969 movie:
1968 – Richard Nixon – “Nixon’s the One” by Connie Francis
The Nixon/Humphrey race took place in the same year as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, civil rights protests, urban unrest and rioting, and during polarizing debate about the Vietnam War. The song which was written by Alvin Cooperman and composed by the Broadway musical “Peter Pan” Moose Charlap, is very upbeat and cheerful despite the dark political climate.
Here are some of the lyrics:
Americans can do
with the man who knows how to
Yes, Nixon’s the one to go with!”
1992 – Bill Clinton – “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac
Instead of a custom-made campaign song like it used to be done in the past, Bill Clinton picked an already hit song from 1977 that peaked at number three on the Billboard charts. This campaign song was clearly aimed at the Boomer audience as Clinton took a 1970’s popular song. He repurposed it as his own, going so far as to convince the long-disbanded Fleetwood Mac to reunite for a special performance at his 1993 inaugural ball.
The message of the song itself is consonant with his political message,the new tomorrow is better than today:
“Open your eyes and look at the day
You’ll see things in a different way
Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow
Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here
It’ll be, better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone”
2008 – John McCain – “Take A Chance On Me” by ABBA
John McCain selected ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me as his primary season theme song. His official campaign blog called McCain “a huge ABBA fan”, a fact the candidate reiterated when he professed his love for Dancing Queen and wondered aloud why it was considered uncool to like the Swedish pop group.
McCain’s choice is very surprising as the song sends a questionable political message:
“If you change your mind
I’m the first in line
Honey, I’m still free
Take a chance on me
If you need me, let me know
Gonna be around
If you’ve got no place to go
When you’re feeling down “
Eventually ABBA wasn’t willing to take a chance on John McCain, asking the politician to choose another theme for his campaign.
2008 – Barack Obama – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder
Obama has called Wonder his “musical hero”, and took one of Wonder’s most popular songs as his campaign theme. As a political standard, the opening line “Like a fool I went and stayed too long” and the song’s bridge “I’ve done a lot of foolish things/that I really didn’t mean” are sending an ambiguous message, although it’s a statement just about every politician could admit.
The 1970’s soul hit was used again in his 2012 campaign as The Obama family came out to the song again on Election Night for Obama’s victory speech.
2016 – Donald Trump – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones and “We Are the Champions” by Queen
Donald Trump famously ends every rally with this 1968’s Stones classic, despite the band’s repeated requests for him to stop using their music. Although the song doesn’t send a very hopeful message, we have to admit that the opening choir is quite epic.
On the other side, Trump picked the very fierce 1977’s Queen song to play at his rallies. This time, the lyrics are in sync with his political message. He admits that he made mistakes:
“And bad mistakes
I’ve made a few”
maybe referring to the numerous scandals he is involved in. Then, the chorus sends the powerful message:
“We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end”
Similarly, the group condemned the unauthorized use of their song.
During the last century, the US presidential campaigns themes evolved from custom-made songs for the candidates to hits dating several decades ago.
In the recent years, some candidates are using patriotic songs whereas others realized that the easiest way to the voters’ hearts is by re-purposing a timeless popular tune which they are already familiar with and reminds them of good times.
Thank you for your attention!