Thursday, 17 March 2016

Brian Ward on Campaign Songs in The Conversation

The following is an extract from Brian Ward's “Sounds Presidential: 2016’s Candidates Are Struggling with Campaign Songs,” The Conversation, March 17, 2016.

Amid the increasingly surreal scramble for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, one of the most bizarre promises of the primary season appears to have gone relatively unnoticed. During the dispiriting slog he endured before finally winning his home state’s primary, Ohio Governor John Kasich announced that if elected president, he would reunite the progressive rock band Pink Floyd.

Kasich’s tongue-in-cheek pledge, combined with his claims to be a big fan of Linkin Park and Fall Out Boy, calls our attention to a significant but overlooked dimension in current US politics. With mixed success, this year’s main contenders have all tried to align themselves with particular songs, artists and musical styles that they believe will increase their appeal.

Choosing the music for a presidential bid is a serious business. It dates back at least to the 1840 election when William Henry Harrison and his running mate John Tyler made it to the White House to the strains of Tip and Ty. Better known for its hook-line “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too", the song was written by Alexander Coffman Ross to celebrate Harrison’s role in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.

Glossing over the inconvenient fact that at Tippecanoe Harrison lost about a quarter of his 1,000 troops in a strategically unimportant encounter with a much smaller band of poorly armed Native Americans, Ross’s song set the tone for many future campaign songs, conjuring visions of decisive and effective leadership despite dubious evidence.

Yesterday's gone

When musical choices work well, they’re truly powerful. In 2008, Barack Obama favoured Stevie Wonder’s 1967 Motown hit Signed, Sealed, Delivered, tied Obama to memories of a “good” 1960s characterised by progressive politics and a commitment to social justice. That deep resonance helped rouse older liberals weary from decades of conservative ascendancy, and inspired a new generation by connecting them to a period when social change seemed possible – and had a soundtrack to match.

The best musical associations established on the campaign trail linger long after the election is over. Since winning the presidency for the first time in 1992, Bill Clinton has been closely associated with Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop. With its propulsive beat and forward-looking lyrics, the song captured the first baby-boomer president’s youthful appeal. It made a perfect contrast to George H. Bush’s 1988 dalliance with Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, whose zen message was too easily read as complacency. >>>read more

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