Music is an integral part of marketing in the modern era, and presidential campaigns are nothing if not major marketing campaigns. Thus it’s absolutely required that every campaign have a catchy theme song which is familiar, singable and excites the popular imagination. Way back in the beginning of the Democratic party Andrew Jackson started it all with “Hunters of Kentucky”. FDR had “Happy Times are Here Again” and JFK had “High Hopes.” Some presidential hopefuls have tried to use original material with very limited success, so in recent years they’ve kept coming back to popular music for inspiration.
Although Democrats are better known for their stirring campaign songs, Republicans understand the effectiveness of music too and in recent campaigns they’ve tried to stir up the voters with the occasional rousing tune. The irony is that most pop musicians tend to be fairly left-leaning politically, and whenever Republicans try to use their songs in a campaign they cry out loudly in objection. The average popular songwriter seems to think that only songs appropriate for a Republican campaign are O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana and the “Darth Vader theme” from Star Wars. Not exactly music to inspire the audience to anything but terror and the expectation that the candidate’s head will spin around while his eyes glow red.
The history of artistic objection to Republican theme songs began with Bruce Springsteen’s request that Ronald Reagan stop using his song “Born in the USA” in the 1984 campaign. Subsequently George W. Bush angered Tom Petty by using the prophetically appropriate “I Won’t Back Down” for his 2000 campaign.
In the current campaign Mike Huckabee angered Tom Scholz of the band Boston by using his “More than a Feeling” while campaigning in New England, and frontrunner John McCain stirred up the ire of ultraliberal John Mellencamp by using his songs “Pink Houses” and “Our Country” at appearances. Some of these artists have threatened to sue – though the chance of success in such a suit would be small – and all have written letters of protest or issued public complaints, after which most of the candidates politely stopped using the songs, Reagan being the notable exception.
McCain has agreed to stop using Mellencamp’s working-class anthems in the future and he’ll probably end up falling back on some bombastic ultrapatriotic country song as Bush did with Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” a few years ago. McCain might well end up dragging Toby Keith around to campaign appearances to sing “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” or “American Soldier” to promote McCain’s hawkish stance on the Iraq War.
Country musicians (except for the Dixie Chicks) tend to lean right, but contemporary country music with a patriotic theme tends to be pretty angry, which might not be so good for a ‘feel good’ campaign. Even conservatives have to admit that softer, more commercial pop songs are more upbeat and more inspiring for the audience than songs about kicking Arab ass and getting payback for 9/11.
When Republican candidates have used songs from liberal songwriters for their campaigns, the main objection from the outraged masses seems to be that the populist themes of these songs are inherently incompatible with Republican policies and beliefs. The songwriters and their supporters feel that the music is being perverted or used cynically to deceive listeners and somehow make them think that an evil Republican candidate believes all the good things expressed in the song.
The flaw in this reasoning is that these songs are usually ones which express common American values and which address concerns which cross party lines, and which are of as much importance to Republicans as they are to Democrats. Republicans and Democrats actually agree on a lot of the same basic objectives. They just disagree on the best methods for reaching those objectives.
What the perpetually outraged left doesn’t get is that for the most part, Republicans like those same songs and believe in the themes they present just as much as the artists or listeners on the left do.
Consider Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses.” It’s basically about the failure of the American dream, at least for some segments of the population. That possibility bothers Republicans as much as or more than it bothers Democrats. Republicans believe enthusiastically in the American dream. They want nothing more than upward mobility and opportunitty and success for people of all classes. That’s what prosperity is built on and Republicans are all about prosperity for the nation and its people. Yet because they don’t agree with Mellencamp or the Democratic candidates that you can achieve that dream based on a fat check from the government or a makework job at an artificial wage, they apparently aren’t entitled to share the dream at all or even play a song about it for inspiration.
Look at Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” It’s about the failure of society to support its veterans after Vietnam. Do you actually think that Ronald Reagan didn’t believe in addressing that problem just as much as or more than Jimmy Carter or other Democrats have? Carter cut the military and let the veterans support system degenerate. Clinton tried to pretend that veterans didn’t exist and cut their funding even more. Reagan actually did a lot to expand and support the military and programs for veterans. Following his lead, the current President Bush has done more to increase funding for the Veterans Administration than any previous president. So which party is really more true to the spirit of the song, regardless of what Bruce Springsteen may have thought of the politics of the various presidents and candidates?
Being a Republican doesn’t make you happy that people are poor or that people are suffering and being a Democrat doesn’t give you some special insight into the needs of the working man. There are plenty of wealthy Democrats, especially among their political leadership, and there are plenty of hard working Republicans who know what it is to scrimp and save and suffer to get by.
These songs are essentially contemporary folksongs and they deal with common themes and universal American values. There’s something terribly arrogant about denying the right to share in our popular culture and common values to someone because they think that the answer to the nation’s problems lies in the private sector rather than with paternalistic government, or because they believe that problems should be addressed on an individual basis rather than by treating people as groups.
It’s a symptom of the tragic divisiveness which has gripped our nation in recent years, that we’ve forgotten that even though we believe in different methods and different institutions, most Americans share many of the same basic values regardless of political persuasion. The petty egoism of these artists is a symptom of the culture of irrational anger which has spread like a disease and driven too many to forget that we do hold a lot of goals in common.
Maybe if we all stopped and thought for a minute we’d realize that McCain wouldn’t be trying to express his beliefs with a John Mellencamp song if he didn’t share the songwriter’s concern for the people of America. That understanding could be the starting point for mending the rancorous rift which currently divides us. To quote Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all (Democrats).”