Notes on Listening to Democracy



Popular Music on the Contemporary Campaign Trail


By Justin Patch


{Editor’s Note: This is the first in Zeteo‘s Fall 2014 series of pieces related to borders, one of the borders here being between pop culture and politics. Or do we now best understand our democracy and its political campaigns as a genre of pop culture, a form of entertainment?}

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Musical campaigning in the US dates back to the first post-colonial campaign when George Washington became associated with “Hail, Columbia” after it was played for him at a New Jersey campaign stop. Early campaign music consisted of patriotic songs that used familiar melodies with newly composed lyrics about the candidate, extolling love of country and heroic deeds. By Reconstruction, campaign songs were compiled into books called “songsters” and circulated ahead of campaigns.[1] As campaigns increasingly took to the airwaves, musical commercials in the style of advertising jingles were produced alongside re-tooled popular songs performed by celebrities (i.e. Frank Sinatra recording “High Hopes” for the John F. Kennedy campaign). In contemporary campaigns, existing popular songs are utilized, often without altering the words. There are still original compositions, like “Yes We Can” by and John Legend, based on a speech by Barack Obama, but the majority of campaign music makes use of preexisting music whole cloth, often selected for a combination of lyrical content, artist reputation, sentiment, and feeling. From Ronald Reagan’s tin-eared use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to Bill Clinton’s masterful deployment of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow),” campaign music runs the gamut from brilliant and game-changing to abysmal and embarrassing.

All this begs a host of questions: what does a song say about the campaign and the candidate? How does analyzing campaign music further our understanding of the contemporary electoral process? The recent past offers fascinating faux pas and openings for insight. The most effective songs reflect dynamism and sensitivity to the demographic and emotional necessities of campaign outreach. They inspire debate, influence future cultural politics, and alter campaign discourse. The least notable songs showcase tired campaign tactics and inflexibility in the face of change. Considering older campaign music can help us listen to the present. As we are capable of researching, deconstructing, and fact-checking policy and ideology, so we can examine the emotional associations we have with campaign music.

There are many examples of effective musical campaigning, some now enshrined in campaign lore, the three below among the most recent. The first is Bill Clinton’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow)” in 1992. It artfully encapsulated his campaign ethos, captured the imagination of a nation, and signaled the emergence of the Baby Boomers as an electoral force. More recent examples are Barack Obama’s somewhat controversial 2008 deployment of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and Mitt Romney’s adoption of Kid Rock’s “Born Free” in his 2012 presidential bid. All three of these songs demonstrate, in different ways, successful applications of campaign music but for different reasons. This piece will also look at Hillary Clinton’s many musical debacles, which lasted nearly the whole of her 2008 campaign, and John McCain’s multiple brushes with cease and desist orders from artists who were not impressed by his uses of their music. While the Bill Clinton, Obama, and Romney campaigns’ musical choices show astute campaign strategy and knowledge of popular taste, the Hillary Clinton and McCain examples reveal an uncomfortable and disjointed relationship to popular culture. Whether these song choices affected campaign outcomes can never be known definitively, but in the era of the 24-hour scrutiny, every choice seems significant. Campaign music matters, and if we are to understand electoral politics, we might devote as much thought to it as campaigns and candidates.


Don’t Stop

Bill Clinton’s example is notable for the fact that it was tremendously effective, at least in reviving the career of Fleetwood Mac, who reunited to play for the campaign. It also joined with Clinton’s other populist manners—such as playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone and in Blues Brothers attire in an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, or being unapologetically low brow and having an easy rapport with the public. In 1992 these features made Clinton the lovable underdog and a formidable campaigner. Clinton was the first Baby-Boomer president, part of a generation that grew up with rock-and-roll and embraced it as a lifestyle and mindset, not just as entertainment or a passing phase. They rejected aging, searched for eternal youth, and believed that they might live in their 40s and 50s as they had in their 20s. “Don’t Stop” exemplified this vitality.

clinton-saxClinton deployed “Don’t Stop” as a leitmotif, using it at rallies and as a reference point in speeches, framing the youthful optimism of the Clinton/Gore ticket (the first to unseat a Republican incumbent since FDR defeated Hoover in 1932). The genius of the choice lies in both the form and the message of the song. The optimism of the lyrics helped the young challenger define George H. W. Bush, who was 67 years old and had served eight years as Vice President and four as President, as a relic of the past. Bush, the song suggested, was out of touch with the Boomers who were now ready to make the national and international stage their own.

What makes this song ideal for the portrayal of youthful optimism is that textually “Don’t Stop” is not a typical pop-rock love song and, its lyrics are not risqué, erotic, or syrupy, or arranged into a typical love narrative. The sexuality of many feel-good pop songs renders them politically hazardous, as was seen with Hillary Clinton’s guffaw-inducing use of: Tom Petty’s “American Girl”; The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does (Is Magic)”; and Celine Dion’s “You and I.” By contrast, the lyrics of “Don’t Stop” avoid explicit sexuality or double entendre and were a perfect complement to Clinton’s message of hope.

The opening verse chorus easily set the tone:

If you wake up and don’t want to smile
If it takes just a little while
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

Later quatrains express optimism and a break with the past:

Why not think about times to come
And not about the things that you’ve done
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do

The lyrics choose the ambiguous “you,” not delineating anything more than a relationship of closeness and care, not necessarily romance.

The combination of music, lyrics, and associations was perfect for a campaign song—platonic love and generalized optimism packaged in an up-tempo, feel-good tune sung by both men and women, expanding the ideal listener. Just as Clinton’s personality appealed to a broad swath of Americans and his policies often straddled the interests of divergent groups, “Don’t Stop” communicated a positive message to a diverse swath of the national audience. According to journalist Clair Suddath, “‘Don’t Stop’ proved to be such a malleable theme song that Clinton still uses it regularly; he plays it at fundraisers and speeches; he name-checked it at the 2000 Democratic National Convention and this year in Denver [2008] he walked on stage to it.”

Formally, the idea of using a single motivic rock-and-roll song whole cloth, without altering the lyrics at all, was unique at the time and instantly caught the attention of media and citizens alike. Previous presidents had used popular music—Kennedy used “High Hopes,” a Sinatra song; FDR used “Happy Days are Here Again,” and LBJ and Eisenhower deployed modified Broadway tunes—but none had strayed into rock as effectively, or for as long. While Ronald Reagan began using Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” after the 1984 Republican National Convention, Clinton used “Don’t Stop” throughout his campaign.

Finally, there is the malleable auditory texture of “Don’t Stop.” The song, along with many of Fleetwood Mac’s hits, garners airplay on classic rock, adult contemporary, at-work, and oldies stations. Sonically the song is rather tame, smooth, and upbeat. It lacks any of the distorted guitar riffs and solos, bombastic drumming, and aggressive vocals that normally constitute the rock genre. But because of the band’s 1970s image of hedonism and free love, “Don’t Stop” retained a relationship with rock, youth, counterculture, and the free spirit of the generation. This characteristic allowed it to be all-ages friendly while still being modern and edgy (or at least hipper than George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot). In many ways it reflected Clinton’s image—hip, youthful, energetic, and daring, but with broad appeal across demographic lines. The image of the young rebel, exemplified by the man playing rock-and-roll on late-night TV and dancing to hits from the 1970s, can remain intact and gloss the contradictions inherent in the campaign. “Don’t Stop” allowed a young centrist politician to appeal to a large, and at times oppositional, public through youthfulness, optimism, partisanship, and easy listening.

This happy conglomeration of factors raises questions. Did Clinton ruin popular music and campaigning for everyone? Did he set the bar impossibly high? After Clinton did candidates feel pressure to engage with popular culture, to have campaign songs with popular appeal? While it may be the case that the Clinton campaign was a game-changer, more significantly the adoption of popular culture signaled the rise of the Baby Boomers in national politics. The Baby Boomers grew up with rock-and-roll as a lifestyle, as something that constructed their identity and aesthetics. According to critic Greil Marcus, rock-and-roll helped the post-war generation negotiate and express what it meant to be an American, a subject rather than an object.[2] Rock-and-roll stood as a symbol for autonomy, self-confidence, and strength. This coupling of popular music (rock-and-roll or otherwise) and political power is unlikely to change, as subsequent generations have been similarly impacted by media and popular culture, which accompanies the transitions from youth to adulthood. Whether it is good political metrics or not, engagement with popular culture, and with pop music in particular, has become a necessity.


Signed, Sealed, and Delivered

Barack Obama’s first campaign victory in Iowa, a caucus heard around the world, was punctuated by Stevie Wonder’s Motown hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” As Obama strode onto the stage engulfed in applause, Wonder’s groveling love song radiated from the PA. This act caused a bit of controversy. Pundits claimed it was reckless and hubristic to proclaim to be “signed, sealed, delivered” after a single victory in a low-density caucus state with only seven electoral votes. But Obama supporters loved it. They loved the swagger and exuberance of the song and they loved Stevie Wonder. (Suddath suggests that it seems the Democrats cannot have a party without Wonder. When he came on stage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention his applause rivaled Obama’s.[3])

What is interesting about this particular musical choice is that the form of the song and the image of the artist completely eclipsed the fact that the lyrics are deeply apologetic for past wrongs. In the song, the narrator is supplicating, swallowing his pride, and returning to a spurned lover hat in hand, not exactly something a politician wishes to foreground. The song contains couplets like:

Like a fool I went and stayed too long
Now I’m wondering if your love’s still strong
Then that time I went and said goodbye
Now I’m back and not ashamed to cry

I’ve done a lot of foolish things
That I really didn’t mean, didn’t I?

However, the lyrics are contradicted by the texture of the song, which is bouncy, light hearted, and joyful. It begins with Wonder’s buoyant falsetto scream and twangy guitar and features funky horn lines and female soul singers. The danceability of the track masks the groveling and self-deprecation in the text. The lines express sentiments that in all likelihood are familiar to all politicians, but that none of them will admit to. Like “Don’t Stop,” the easy combination of danceable pulse, pleasing melody and harmony, and short, catchy chorus makes this song successful. Unlike “Don’t Stop,” the text, save for the chorus, is filled with sentiments that campaigning politicians generally avoid making. According to Baltimore Sun reporter James Oliphant, “Obama finished his speech and then came the exit song. Note to all remaining campaigns: In an election dogged by allegations of candidates being beholden to special interests, this song is never a good idea… Barack, you’ve just admitted to doing a “lot of foolish things” that you really didn’t mean. You don’t think Clinton’s going to be all over that?”[4]

According to scholar Mark Anthony Neal, the Motown image, which Wonder’s music flawlessly embodied, was one of middle-class aspiration and simultaneous mainstream success and colorful existence, bringing Black culture to a national and international audience as public culture, as unapologetically American without a hyphen.[5] Many critics have labeled Motown as “crossover” music and seen a parallel between Motown’s and Obama’s successes.[6] However, perhaps rather than “crossover” the word should be “expansion,” as both the recording company and the candidate aimed to effectively appeal to larger and more diverse groups. Both Motown and the Obama campaign were engaged in conquering new ground while maintaining their base. For Motown, it was bringing Black music to mainstream radio stations and White audiences. For Obama it was garnering motivated Democratic voters while convincing young people, and working-class Black and Latino voters to register and get involved. Obama did capture the first-time vote, with 68.7% of first-time ballots being cast for him, as first-time voting numbers for Blacks and Latinos surged in 2008.[7]

Even more, Wonder himself occupies a special place within the pop-music pantheon. Much like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Aretha Franklin, Wonder is an artist who crosses generations, who has cachet with young audiences in search of musical sophistication, while enjoying the continued adoration of nostalgic Baby Boomers. Thanks to the Baby Boomers’ dominance in the media industry, these musicians attain transcendent artistic status and gain exposure across generations. Wonder also embodies the racial space that the 2008 Obama campaign attempted to inhabit. Wonder has been a symbol of progress, integration, harmony, and meritocracy, without whitewash, compromise, or subservience[8]. An unlikely pop star, Wonder’s immense talents propelled him to a place in the pantheon of American music and have helped him enjoy a tremendously long and ongoing career notwithstanding either his race or his blindness. This was Motown’s version of the American Dream—ascension into the ranks of the mainstream middle class through a combination of raw talent and elbow grease. This image of a shining, integrated meritocracy without borders and divisions is part and parcel of the Obama campaign’s vision, which was attractive to a public staring into the abyss of a recession.

Whether or not the Obama campaign was following Clinton’s successful model of associating his campaign with popular music, the use of Stevie Wonder and Motown was effective in creating enthusiasm and generating an optimism that lasted throughout the campaign. But unlike “Don’t Stop,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” raised problematic questions related to the market-driven economic realities of Motown, and the contradictions in the lyrics have also been noted. The history of Motown, including founder Berry Gordy’s well-known Fordist and exploitative business practices, has been used to question Obama’s use of Motown. The difference between flash and substance in Motown has been applied to Obama. Werner notes:

Selling the image is one thing; sustaining the vision is something else. At some point, keeping the gospel vision real requires dealing honestly and deeply with the blues—which in political terms would require making a whole lot of white people, not to mention some affluent black people, extremely uncomfortable. I don’t see a lot of evidence that Obama’s willing to demand that clarity. Which is to say, he’s a politician.

This also demonstrates a distinct change in media and campaigning. With the availability of information, issues in the lives of artists can be easily grafted onto the candidate. While Stevie Wonder’s strength and talent reflect well on the campaign, the contradictions in Motown’s history were a liability. This differs sharply from “Don’t Stop.” The divorce of Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie and keyboardist Christine McVie, the tumultuous relationship between vocalist Stevie Nicks and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, and the affair between drummer Mick Fleetwood’s wife and his best friend—none of this ever tainted Clinton’s relationship with the public, even though the connection to Clinton’s own marital issues seems obvious.


Romney and RockBorn Free

Our third example is Mitt Romney’s use of Kid Rock’s “Born Free,” as well as Romney’s appearances with Rock in Midwestern and Western states. Romney struggled to overcome several factors that alienated him from many conservative voters and caused his previous campaign to sputter. One group of voters he was having trouble reaching was middle-aged, working-class White men, who were skeptical of Romney because of his professional background as a venture capitalist. Although his family had ties to General Motors and to the rust-belt state of Michigan, Mitt himself had graduated from an Ivy League university and had been the manager of a hedge fund, Bain Capital. While campaigning in a hard-nosed Republican primary, Romney met rapper-turned-rocker-turned-country singer Robert Ritchie, a.k.a. Kid Rock, advocate of all things Detroit and a person whose career oddly mirrored Romney’s.

Rock grew up outside of Detroit in Romeo, Michigan, the son of a successful car-dealership owner. As a troubled teen Rock deejayed at parties and sold drugs at the carwash where he worked. He established his career in Detroit as a rock-rap act after a lackluster start as a rapper. After enjoying success by combining a white-trash rock image with a hip-hop delivery, he again switched gears to embody a retro Southern rocker, scoring his largest hit with “All Summer Long,” a mash-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s anthemic “Sweet Home Alabama,” Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” and lyrics about youthful nostalgia for summertime romance and recklessness. Subsequently, he changed again, embracing Americana and pop-country music.

It was during this stage that his song “Born Free” caught the ear of Romney’s campaign.[9] Romney procured Rock’s endorsement by assuring him that he, Romney, cared deeply about the revitalization of Detroit.[10] The Romney campaign then recruited Rock to share the stump with Romney and appear at his campaign stops. In addition, Rock’s “Born Free” became Romney’s campaign song.

While Romney had no problem communicating frankly with business people and investment-savvy conservatives and with selling his vision of small government, lower taxes, and free markets, he failed at selling a coherent and appealing cultural vision of the future to working-class voters. Kid Rock’s overblown masculinity and braggadocio, his everyday-guy persona, and his story—that of a suburban kid who had moved to the city, struggled with his demons, and emerged triumphant thanks to hard work, self-belief, and a winning personality—were the perfect counterweight to Romney’s image as a sophisticated Mormon blue-blood, born with a silver-spoon in his mouth. Rock appeared to be everything Romney was not and appealed to young, working-class white men, a group that neither Romney nor Obama had much traction with.

“Born Free” is a paean to the American freewheeling liberty, anti-authoritarianism, and radical individualism—the spirit attributed to the frontiersmen, gold rushers, Beats, and hippies, and the ideology of modern libertarians and small-government advocates. The song, while avoiding eroticism, extolls the life of the care-free, wandering man, drenched in masculinity. It is a cross between a country song and a power ballad with blatant pop appeal and rock-star egoism. The second verse and chorus belts out:

Free, like a river raging
Strong as the wind I’m facing.
Chasing dreams and racing father time.
Deep like the grandest canyon
Wild like an untamed stallion.
If you can’t see my heart you must be blind.

You can knock me down and watch me bleed
But you can’t keep no chains on me.

I was born free!

This song provided the grit and everyman touch that Romney lacked. It was pure rust-belt—a cross between rock and country—masculine, simple, and stripped-down, with a pinch of utopian nostalgia for country roads and wide-open spaces. It exemplified the Tea Party ethos of individualism and freedom and also served as a metaphor for the ideals of laissez-faire government, the open market, and self-reliance. It was everything Romney needed to seem to be in order to stoke the enthusiasm of voters who were keen to remove Obama, but unconvinced that Romney could do the job better than Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

Although “Born Free” was ultimately the campaign song for a failed campaign, it was successful in creating enthusiasm that the Romney campaign was sorely lacking. Moreover, Romney and Rock’s amicable relationship and on-stage greetings were a symbol for Romney’s embrace of rough-hewn conservative, middle-American culture.[11]


Hillary’s Musical Chairs

In all three of the above instances, the pairing of music and candidate was successful. “Don’t Stop” continues to be played at Clinton’s appearances, and Obama’s presidency has been filled with nods to popular music (including clips, which have gone viral, of him singing “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Let’s Stay Together”). Even though Romney was defeated, coverage of his appearances alongside Rock was remarkably positive and un-ironic in the Right-leaning press.[12] Even The New Yorker, which usually scoffs at artists like Rock, produced a flattering portrait of him shortly after the election.

every little thing sheet musicWhile these artful uses of popular music are telling, perhaps more can be learned by recent campaign music that has not worked. Hillary Clinton’s musical chairs and John McCain’s desperate grab at popular music that resulted in no less than nine cease and desist orders also serve as a warning against casually choosing campaign songs without dedicating serious time and energy into their selection.

In Hillary Clinton’s case, the indecision and ersatz populism that haunted her campaign was also apparent in her musical choices. In a move that was roundly criticized, the Clinton campaign put a voting page on her website so that supporters (or anyone who used the Internet) could choose between ten possible songs, or offer a suggestion of their own. After a short period the top five vote getters and top five write-ins were subjected to a run-off. The campaign was immediately lambasted for bald appropriation of pop culture, and pundits and bloggers threw in their own suggestions. These included “Maneater,” “Bitch,” “Baby Got Back,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Witchy Woman,” and “The Bitch is Back.” The end result was Celine Dion’s “You and I.”

Unfortunately for Clinton, the mid-tempo easy-listening tune had been used as a jingle for a Canadian airline and was performed by a Canadian artist whose staid and often syrupy music circulates in the adult contemporary market. In the post 9-11 world, where nationalism and patriotic rhetoric held sway, this song was a serious faux pas for the campaign. It was not nationalist enough, did not lend itself to collective singing, was lacking the “Born in the USA” stadium-rock feel, and exposed a lack of rapport between Clinton and young voters, a demographic that she handily lost to Obama.

It was not long before Clinton stopped using “You and I” and switched to U2’s “City of Blinding Light” and “Beautiful Day,” causing another ripple of criticism. The first line of attack was for initially asking for public input and conducting a popular vote, but then turning to campaign advice instead. This was a criticism that detractors could easily map onto the rest of her political life. The second criticism was for again using music by a foreign artist. Subsequently she briefly toyed with The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” which was dampened by its blatant suggestions of erotic love, its portrayal of the love object as unapproachable, and its creepy stalker-esque lines:

Though I’ve tried before to tell her
Of the feelings I have for her in my heart
Every time that I come near her
I just lose my nerve
As I’ve done from the start

Every little thing she does is magic
Everything she do just turns me on
Even though my life before was tragic
Now I know my love for her goes on

Clinton finally settled on Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s “American Girl” (a song that Tom Petty later objected to when Michelle Bachman used it in her run for the 2012 Republican nomination). The song is a fitting piece of Americana, and it helped Clinton try to re-sell herself as someone who understood the plight of the working class as a result of having grown up in the rust-belt state of Illinois. However, like “Every Little Thing,” “American Girl” contains double entendres, and if Clinton does not mount a triumphant campaign in 2016, its final verse will seem all the more prescient.

Well it was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441 like waves crashin’ on the beach
And for one desperate moment
There he crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful when something that’s so close
Is still so far out of reach

O yeah, all right
Take it easy, baby
Make it last all night

She was an American girl


Cease and Desist, McCain

John McCain is an example of a candidate who was fundamentally out of touch with popular culture and who much of the entertainment establishment did not support. Musically, his campaign was best known for having music taken away from it. Over the course of his campaign, seven artists either used legal means to stop the campaign from using their music or publicly condemned the use of their songs. Most expressed a desire not to be connected to the ideology and policies of the McCain-Palin campaign, and more than one pointed out the irony of this campaign using their songs. For example, Gretchen Peters’ “Independence Day,” made popular by Martina McBride and used to open Sarah Palin rallies, is a narrative from a child’s point of view about an abused woman who commits suicide. Rolling Stone quoted Peters:

The fact that the McCain/Palin campaign is using a song about an abused woman as a rallying cry for their Vice Presidential candidate, a woman who would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, is beyond irony. They are co-opting the song, completely overlooking the context and message, and using it to promote a candidate who would set women’s rights back decades.

In the cases of both Hillary Clinton and McCain, the cardinal sin was a common campaign blunder: speaking (or in this case selecting songs) before you possess full and complete information. Songs were chosen based on their choruses with little care given to the other lyrics, context, larger message, and the artist’s person and image, or were used without proper authorization. These acts demonstrated a lack of respect for popular culture—which has become so central in many American lives. To the electorate, McCain’s approach smacked of pandering, flip-flopping, and political opportunism. Even if the voters were wrong, to flounder in the pool of popular culture after wading in can be a campaign-ending move.


Hillary Bill and Elton JohnClosing Thoughts

What can be seen through these brief case studies is that campaign music matters. Music may not hold the same persuasive energy as the economy or national security, but in tight races, every appeal matters. Music stokes enthusiasm and provides campaigns with crucial opportunities to expand their support and reach audiences in a different way. It can plug identity gaps between politicians and their electorate by creating connections to cultural practices and ideologies. When music is used poorly or in a disorganized manner, when songs are picked that elicit negative press or a campaign waffles between songs, it makes the candidate seem dishonest, out of touch, and disingenuous. This often leads to ridicule and distrust.

Music shapes our identity and our social lives and plays on our dreams and desires. When music becomes part of a campaign, it resonates with our social and emotional selves. Just as a free press and the right to free association are buffers against the abuse of power and political misconduct, so musical understanding can offer protective coating against the manipulation of our better selves—to keep campaign music from clouding our judgment. And by understanding how campaign music affects us, we gain a window into the emotional, social, and ideological lives of campaigns, and this knowledge improves our ability to more clearly see, understand, and critique our democracy as it is practiced.

As the next Presidential campaign gets underway, it is worth reflecting both on the campaigns’ choices of music and on our reactions to these choices. We may be helped in this by questioning as well the recent past. Why did we applaud when Obama strode onstage to Stevie Wonder? Or when Ronald Reagan’s campaign blared Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”? And why did we cringe when Hillary Clinton played “You and I”? Why did so many artists cry foul when their music appeared in John McCain’s campaign? By taking music as seriously as campaigns do, we can better understand the democratic process and our participation in it.


BIO: Justin Patch teaches sound studies and global and popular music cultures in the music department at Vassar College. His research focuses on the auditory culture of contemporary politics and political campaigns in the US, critical issues in ethnographic research, and liberal arts education practice. Since 2009 his scholarship has appeared in The Journal of Sonic Studies, Ethnomusicology ReviewAmericana, Soundings, The European Legacy, and International Political Anthropology.



Theodor Adorno. The Culture Industry. London: Routledge, 1991.

Brian Cogan and Tony Kelso. Encyclopedia of Politics and Popular Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood. 2009.

Tammy Cozier. “Campaign Trail Mix: A Brief History of Presidential Theme songs.”, 2012.

Mark Dolan. “How Ronald Reagan Changed Bruce Springsteen’s Politics.” June 4, 2014.

Simon Frith. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996.

Joe Hanel. “Romney, Ryan rock Red Rocks”. The Durango Herald, October 23, 2012. Accessed via

John Ingold and Allison Sherry. “GOP nominees Pack Red Rocks Amphitheatre to Capacity.” The Denver Post, October 23, 2012. Accessed via

Lyneka Little. “Kid Rock Explains His Mitt Romney Endorsement on ‘Howard Stern’.” The Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2012. Accessed via

Greil Marcus. Mystery Train: Images of America In Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1975.

Greil Marcus. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth History. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1989.

Lorraine C. Minnite “First-Time Voters in the 2008 Election”. Research Memo. Project Vote. 2011.

Mark Anthony Neal. What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

James Oliphant “Obama ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’?” The Baltimore Sun. January 28, 2008. Accessed via

Justin Patch. “The Art of Noise: Hearing, Feeling and Experiencing the Sound of Democracy.” Soundings, 2009: 303–29.

Justin Patch. “Mitt’s Modern Minstrelsy.” North Shore Artthrob, 2012.

Justin Patch. 2013. “Crossing into the Country: Mitt Romney, Country Music and Political Boundaries.” Unpublished conference paper, 2013.

Kimberlianne Podlas. “I Do Not Endorse This Message! Does a Political Campaign’s Unauthorized Use of a Song Infringe on the Rights of the Musical Performer?” Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Legal Journal 24, 2013 p. 2-59. Accessed via

Robert North Roberts, John Scott Hammond, and Valerie A. Sulfaro. Presidential Campaigns, Slogans, Issues and Platforms: The Complete Encyclopedia Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2012.

Kelefa Sanneh. “Badass American: No One Has More Fun Than Kid Rock.” The New Yorker November 19, 2012.

Clare Suddath. “A Brief History of Campaign Songs.” Special Reports, 2010. Accessed via

Thomas Frank. “Cornel West: He posed as a Progressive and turned out to be a Counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency.”, 2014.

Craig Werner. “Heaven Help Us All”: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and the Meaning(s) of Motown in the Age of Obama. Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2010.

“Voices, Votes, Victory: Presidential Campaign Songs”. 2008. Library of Congress exhibit. Accessed via

Craig Werner, “‘Heaven Help Us All’: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and the Meaning(s) of Motown in the Age of Obama.” Michigan Quarterly Review XLIX, No. 4, Fall 2010. Accessible via

Raymond Williams. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.


Recommended Listening and Viewing

For excellent clips and background:

Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. NBC, 1992.

“I Like Ike”:

“High Hopes”:

“Kennedy Can”:

“Hello, Lyndon”:

“Don’t Stop”:

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered”:

“Yes We Can”:

“Born Free”:



[1] Library of Congress “Voices, Votes, Victory: Presidential Campaign Songs”; Cogan and Kelso, Encyclopedia of Politics and Popular Culture; Roberts et al., Presidential Campaigns, Slogans, Issues and Platforms.

[2] Greil Marcus, Mystery Train, Images of America in Rock and Roll Music; Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century.

[3] Clare Suddath, “A Brief History of Campaign Songs.”

[4] James Oliphant, “Obama ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’?”

[5] Mark Anthony Neal, What the Music Said.

[6] See Craig Werner, 2010 “‘Heaven Help Us All’.”

[7] Lorraine C. Minnite, “First-Time Voters.”

[8] See Thomas Frank’s interview with Cornel West for a more scathing critique than Werner’s.

[9] Justin Patch, “Mitt’s Modern Minstrelsy” and “Crossing into the Country.”

[10] Kelefa Sanneh, “Badass American”; Lyneka Little, “Kid Rock.”

[11] This particular technique was far from new to the campaign trail. Candidates have often travelled with celebrities—local heroes, former politicians, Hollywood stars. They are brought along to raise enthusiasm, swell crowds, induce a collective euphoria, and create the feeling of an inevitable victory through mass participation. This process is part of the construction, or in Romney’s case, the re-construction, of the candidate’s image by proxy. Through the authentic or constructed images of others, campaigns augment their candidate’s appeal and persona, stoking emotion, and creating the illusive feeling of total commitment. For more information, see Justin Patch, “The Art of Noise.”

[12] John Ingold and Allison Sherry, “GOP nominees Pack Red Rocks.”


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