If the current presidential race has seemed … well … let’s say nervous, uncertain, indecisive, frustrating, irritating, shallow, disingenuous, unconvincing, baffling and ever so slightly tedious, perhaps the fault lies in the candidates. Or maybe it’s the fact that nobody’s singing about those candidates. Who hears voices raised in full-glottal abandon praising the virtues of these eager public servants (alphabetically), Obama and Romney?
The question is pertinent: What happened to the good, old-fashioned campaign song? The kind of song that united us, that cheered the candidate on to victory, songs like “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (“FDR had his New Deal/And Truman now will follow through …”). Or the catchy “We’re Madly for Adlai” (“A statesman with experience is he …”) Or that inimitable anthem in honor of the 1960 Republican candidate, “Click With Dick” (“The one that none can lick …”).
Actually, Dick did get licked that year, by the “High Hopes” candidate, John F. Kennedy. Sammy Cahn, who rewrote his original lyrics to the Jimmy Van Heusen tune, “High Hopes,” turned out to be prescient in stating that “Oops! There goes the opposition ker-/Oops! There goes the opposition ker-…” And so on. So Dick lost that year. But at least he had a song.
Samuel Tilden lost, too, way back in 1876. (Like Al Gore in 2000, Tilden won the popular vote, but an Electoral Commission voting along party lines gave the presidency to the Republican opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes.) Even so, Tilden had a song, and a good one: “Hold the Fort for Tilden,” which promoted the notion that Tilden, then governor of New York, was a bachelor, “No seductive woman tempter/Can draw him aside/His loved wife is our whole country/She’s his only bride.”
And over the years some fairly heavyweight songwriters have penned tunes and lyrics for their favorite candidates. Besides Cahn, there was Irving Berlin, who wrote at least two campaign songs, one for New York Gov. Al Smith in 1928, “Good times with Hoover (Better times with Al),” and, in 1952, Berlin said in no uncertain terms, “I Like Ike” (“I’ll shout it over a mike …”). Four years later, Alan Jay Lerner set new lyrics to partner Fritz Loewe’s “Get Me to the Church on Time”: “We’ll start campaigning in the morning/Ding, Dong, the bells are gonna chime/Pull out the stopper/Let’s have a whopper/For Adlai’s gonna win this time.” And who could forget – should he or she be old enough to remember – courtesy of Jerry Herman, “Hello, Lyndon” (“So be our guide, Lyndon/Lady Bird at your side, Lyndon/Promise you’ll stay with us in ’64”).
What are today’s great songwriters doing for their candidates? Have Paul Simon or the members of Twisted Sister contributed anything? We hear a lot about energizing the base, we watch debates, and we get poll numbers by the hour. If Romney’s up a point in Ohio, we hear about it on a dozen cable channels. What we really need are songs – preferably, songs we all know – songs that lift our spirits, songs that renew our hopes and make us want to link arms and march around the convention hall – or, as the case may be, the dining room table.
Instead, these days we get musical themes, pop songs, mostly, that are played in the background at campaign events, and usually we’re not encouraged to sing along, since we probably won’t remember the lyrics anyway. Perhaps the last decent example of this type was Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow),” which the Clinton campaign adopted as its theme in 1992. (In a nice touch, the song was reprised last month at the Democratic convention in Charlotte as a way of ushering Bill Clinton to the stage for what turned out to be a stirring speech.)
Sometimes appropriating pop songs backfires
This practice of appropriating pop songs has sometimes backfired. In 1984 the Reagan campaign wanted to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as a musical theme. The Boss, a fervent Democrat, said no. Presumably, Ronald Reagan or his staff hadn’t heard the lyrics. It’s not a patriotic song. It’s a dark number about a Vietnam vet: “Born down in a dead man’s town/The first kick I took was when I hit the ground/You end up like a dog that’s beat too much/Till you spend half your life just covering up.” Similarly, in 2000 the Bush campaign had to stop using “R.O.C.K in the USA” when the song’s composer, John Mellencamp, protested, telling Rolling Stone, “I don’t think anyone who knows me would think I have the same positions as Bush.”
In 2008, when John McCain lifted “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry, the song’s author, loudly announced his support for Obama. In 2010 David Byrne sued Florida Gov. Charlie Christ for using the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” on a Senate campaign without using permission. (Actually, there is nothing illegal about playing a song at campaign events if the campaign pays a royalty. The writer doesn’t have to give permission.) Perhaps the most ill-conceived of these was Sen. Robert Dole’s adaptation in 1996 of Sam & Dave’s classic “Soul Man” into “Dole Man,” concerning which the songwriters took considerable issue.
Romney’s main theme song in recent months has been “Born Free” by Kid Rock. After some of the candidate’s speeches, country songwriter Toby Keith has sung “Winter gettin’ colder/Summer gettin’ warmer/Tidal wave comin’ ‘cross the Mexican border,” an allusion either to climate change or immigration – or both. And though he’s no singer, Romney often warbles “America the Beautiful,” a rendition that David Letterman has repeatedly made fun of by playing the videotape backwards. As for Obama, a recording of Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” resounded throughout the hall in Charlotte after the president’s speech, and that was followed by Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land,” which is probably as close to an old-style campaign song as we’ve heard this year.
Denouncing opponent via a jingle
And it should be noted that not all songs related to a campaign present a positive image of the candidate. Sometimes the song comes from the other side of the aisle. In his book “Songs America Voted By,” Irwin Silber gives an example from 1884. The Democrats pulled no punches that year in denouncing their opponent, James Blaine, whom they referred to in a bouncy jingle as “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine/The monumental liar from the state of Maine.” Going back even earlier, to 1848, the candidate of the Whig Party, the largely forgotten Lewis Cass, slammed his opponent, Zachary Taylor, with a tough musical message: “He who’d vote for Zachy Taylor/Needs a keeper or a jailer.” Taylor won anyway.
More recently — just last month, in fact — the songwriter Randy Newman, famed for satiric odes such as “Rednecks” and “Short People,” unveiled a new song, “I’m Dreaming,” and made it available as a free download on www.nonesuch.com. The song alludes to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” but adopts a racist perspective. “I’m dreaming of a white president,” goes the chorus, sung by Newman with mock-gusto. “He won’t be the brightest, perhaps/But he’ll be the whitest/And I’ll vote for that.”
Presumably, Newman isn’t suggesting that Romney is a racist but rather that there are Americans who will vote for Romney simply on the basis of race. The actor and singer Martin Short, on the other hand, made Romney – unequivocally – the butt of a song he performed last spring on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Short and Paul Shaffer, the show’s music director, worked up a parody of Shaffer’s old disco hit “It’s Raining Men,” titled “It’s Raining Mitt.”
Among the choruses:
He likes firing people, doesn’t care about the very poor.
He’s wealthy and good-looking. Yes, that’s the guy I’m for.
“When campaigning in the Deep South, he pretends to like eating grits.
Rick Santorum’s gone post-mortem, ‘cuz it’s gonna start raining Mitt.
“It’s raining Mitt, Holy Heaven. Everyone needs a hit of Mitt.
Under Romney there’s a future in sight when all our trees are the right height.
A worthy effort, to be sure. (The number has received 430,000 hits on YouTube.) But it’s not a real campaign song. Silber, for one, laments their decline.
“Much of the originality, dedication, partisan zeal, sassiness and colorful vitriol have departed from presidential campaign songwriting,” he says in his book. The only hope for new vitality in the form, he says, would be in the emergence of a significant third-party movement that once again could arouse the “crusading fervor” of the past.
‘People are more passive nowadays’
Vern Sutton, a veteran Twin Cities singer who performed a program of campaign songs here some years ago, said “I think the campaign song died because people are more passive nowadays in relation to elections and politics. Singing is an active thing. But now we don’t have to do anything. It’s all in front of us, on television. Also, I think it’s a kind of loss of innocence. Most people don’t think their vote counts anymore. So who wants to sing?”
It’s a lost cause, in other words, the campaign song. Indeed, a recent call to the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago suggested that these days people in the inner sanctum of presidential politics don’t spend a lot of time thinking about campaign songs and probably wouldn’t do so even if they knew what a campaign song is. “A what?” asked a campaign spokesperson. “We don’t think there is such a thing.” Ditto at the Romney office.
But don’t some of us just want to sing? Isn’t there a chance that in the few remaining days of the race someone might come up with a dynamite song that will turn the tide? What about those “undecideds,” all 13 or 14 of them? Who can deny that hearing an inspiring tune just an hour before stepping into the voting booth might decide their vote?
Michael Anthony, former longtime Star Tribune music critic, writes about classical music for MinnPost. He is the author of “Osmo Vänskä: Orchestra Builder.”