Political (Dis)chord? Jennifer Lena talks political branding through song

Who can forget Sarah Palin joining John McCain on the RNC stage to the thrumming guitar chords of Heart’s 1977 hit song “Barracuda?” Equally well remembered was the group’s request that she stop using the song on the campaign trail. When did the trend of using popular music for the sake of political branding start? Recently I asked sociologist Jennifer Lena, author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music to offer her thoughts on how music is used in in political campaigns. Read her Election 101 post here:



Political (Dis)chord?

Jennifer Lena


There’s a long history of political music, including both highs (“We Shall Overcome” issued from the Highlander School), and lows (from National Socialist Black Metal to the stridently ethnocentrist turbofolk popular in Serbia). Given the synergies between music and politics we should find it perplexing that American politicians are so atrociously bad at picking good music for their campaigns. I won’t be able to answer this puzzle in one blog post, but I can begin with a brief history of the campaign song, organized around a discussion of how candidates and tunes are matched. I have picked illustrative examples of each type from the 2012 Republican race to highlight the chasm that separates political and musical communities in the United States, at least in these national contests.

Presidential campaign staffers often commission a jingle, either novel compositions or simply new lyrics written to accompany an existing tune. The practice of commissioning songs has a long history in American politics, which includes the famous “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” (for candidate William Henry Harrison), a song that celebrated the triumph of Harrison’s Indiana militia against Native Americans. You might also remember the songs that Irving Berlin wrote to support candidate Dwight Eisenhower, including “They Like Ike,” then “I Still Like Ike,” and finally “Ike For Four More Years.”

Here’s a performance of “I Like Ike” by The Promenade Band:



Campaign songs are sometimes manufactured from existing songs, with only the lyrics changed to include campaign-specific content. The practice of adapting songs for campaigns stretches back to the birth of our nation, when “God Save the King” was transformed to substitute Washington’s name for the monarch’s. In more recent memory, JFK’s 1960 campaign was buoyed by Frank Sinatra’s performance of an altered “High Hopes:”


Everyone is voting for Jack

Cause he’s got what all the rest lack

Everyone wants to back, Jack

Jack is on the right track.

‘Cause he’s got high hopes

He’s got high hopes.


When song lyrics are adapted, or when songs are used as they were originally written and recorded, intellectual property law requires that candidates obtain permission to use the song. This is true even when the lyrics are altered from the original. For example, Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign received a “cease and desist” letter from the copyright holders for Sam & Moore’s 1967 hit song “Soul Man,” which they had altered to “Dole Man.” Rondor Music (one of the copyright owners) threatened to sue the campaign $100,000 each time the song was played because it was an “unauthorized derivative work.” The practice of licensing existing music for presidential campaign use may have started with FDR’s 1932 contest against Herbert Hoover, for which he licensed the use of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

What has the 2012 Republican primary race contributed to this storied history of campaign songs? Among the jingles written expressly for candidates, we find a few spectacularly odd tunes. Early in the race, when Herman Cain was still running, we all saw the ad featuring his Chief of Staff Mark Block, who endorsed his boss, while smoking and accompanied by an 80s-style pop-synth song (“I Am America” by Krista Branch).




A few months later, Santorum supporters First Love released “Game On,”:


Here is the chorus, transcribed by Slate:

Oh, there is Hope for our Nation again
Maybe the First time Since we Had Ronald Reagan
There will be Justice for the Unborn
Factories back on our Shores
Where the Constitution rules our land
Yes, I Believe… Rick Santorum is our Man!


The Ron Paul campaign devotes a whole page on their website to citizen-generated original songs and videos. Some of these are adapted from known works, like the following (novel lyrics sung over The Teddy Bear’s Picnic by Bratton and Kennedy):


2012 GOP candidates mostly rely on licensed works; for example, Mitt Romney is using Kid Rock’s single “Born Free” on the campaign trail; Rock has even appeared at several events to perform the song, including a well-timed February rally outside Detroit, Michigan.

Whether campaigns commission jingles or license existing songs, the relationships between musicians and presidential hopefuls seems to be limited to these intermittent, strategic negotiations over a single song. Why don’t campaigners and parties seem to have long-term strategies to create synergies between themselves and sympathetic artists? As I’ve shown in my work on music genres, communities that create and consume music resemble communities that create and participate in social movements. In fact, they are often the very same group, as I illustrate in my discussions of early Chinese rock, Chilean nueva cancion, and Nigerian afrobeat. Our American history is replete with moments when social movements reach within themselves to harness the musical talents of members who are also artists—as I mentioned above, the Civil Rights Movement’s soundtrack included songs written by staff and students at the Highlander School. There is really no sociological reason that politicians shouldn’t cultivate musicians (or the reverse) over long periods of time, only to “cash in” (if you’ll forgive the phrase) when it comes time to pick campaign songs.

I’ll leave this as a puzzle for us to discuss. If you’re tempted to attribute this disjuncture between musicians and politicians on the specific characteristics of one or another party and its politics, you should tune in to my next post, where I explore the power of that explanation.

One final note on an emerging means by which politicians might use music in their campaigns. This year, Barack Obama has released a Spotify playlist for his campaign. His list includes 28 songs chosen both by the President and staffers, including those by alt country band Wilco, Bruce Springsteen, and an instrumental tune, “Green Onions” by Booker T & The MGs. Using this free music service, Obama can select a potentially huge number of songs and group them under his name without needing to seek approval or permission from any of the copyright holders. A curated list of songs may provide politicians with an opportunity to craft a multi-dimensional identity for public consideration, and to reach out to multiple constituencies in a way that can be difficult when limited to only one or two campaign songs. The danger, of course, is that the more songs a candidate selects, the more interpretive complexity they invite, and a poorly selected song could quickly lead a campaign off-message.

Jennifer C. Lena is visiting assistant professor of sociology at Barnard College.

* Helpful suggestions on this and the other posts in this series provided by the following: Kieran Healy, Jonathan Neufeld, Shamus Khan, Dustin Tittle, Molly Foran Yurchak, Betsy Wissinger.