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Candidates' Tunes Hit A Few Sour Notes


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By Paul Farhi

Washington Post Staff Writer

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.

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  • 2 weeks later...
So what were your thoughts then?

My thoughts are, that if a politician such as Reagan is going to use something like Born In the U.S.A. as a campaign song they should at least put some research into it beforehand so they have a handle on the actual meaning of it. The other would be that politicians actually get permission from the performers themselves before using their songs in their respective campaigns. Such as this example:

Mellencamp Asks McCain To Stop Using Tunes

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