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.

This Week’s Book Giveaway

Banding Together:
How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music

by Jennifer C. Lena

Why do some music styles gain mass popularity while others thrive in small niches? Banding Together explores this question and reveals the attributes that together explain the growth of twentieth-century American popular music. Drawing on a vast array of examples from sixty musical styles—ranging from rap and bluegrass to death metal and South Texas polka, and including several created outside the United States—Jennifer Lena uncovers the shared grammar that allows us to understand the cultural language and evolution of popular music.

What are the common economic, organizational, ideological, and aesthetic traits among contemporary genres? Do genres follow patterns in their development? Lena discovers four dominant forms—Avant-garde, Scene-based, Industry-based, and Traditionalist—and two dominant trajectories that describe how American pop music genres develop. Outside the United States there exists a fifth form: the Government-purposed genre, which she examines in the music of China, Serbia, Nigeria, and Chile. Offering a rare analysis of how music communities operate, she looks at the shared obstacles and opportunities creative people face and reveals the ways in which people collaborate around ideas, artworks, individuals, and organizations that support their work.

“Jennifer Lena’s Banding Together unleashes a fierce and exacting take on the scattered and freewheeling territory of music, offering a soothing order to the wild scufflings of performers and fans alike, and inspiring a smarter, more forthright think on a crazy untrammeled scene. In other words, it has a beat and you can dance to it.”—Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket and accordionist with The Magnetic Fields

We invite you to read Chapter 1 here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9617.pdf

The random draw for this book with be Friday 2/3 at 3 pm EST. Be sure to “Like” us on Facebook if you haven’t already to be entered to win!

So, what kind of music do you like?

It’s the question teenagers have been asking each other for decades to size up each others’ style, philosophy, and  even politics. There’s no doubt about it, music communities matter. But how much credit should we give to musical geniuses like George Clinton, or James Brown? Which musical failures should we blame on greedy record labels, or jealous spouses? And how much did spectacular events change musical history? What about Dylan going electric in Newport, or Hendrix playing Woodstock? In Banding Together, Jennifer Lena argues no genius, no accident, and no event matters as much to American popular musics as the everyday activities of the communities that support them. But Jenn not only offers a sociological explanation for the growth of 20th century American popular music, she also made us a mix tape! She was kind enough to share with me a “Spotify playlist for Banding Together”, along with some thoughts on her choices, which range from “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” to “Me so Horny.” You can check out her playlist here:

The Banding Together Spotify playlist

Anyone that wants to hear the playlist needs to join Spotify (by creating a login ID and password), and downloading the free software. Then you can find the playlist for “Banding Together” by typing “spotify:user:lenajc” into the search box, or clicking on the link, above. Read on for some great music trivia after the jump:

I love that my friend Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) claims that my book “has a beat and you can dance to it,” but it just isn’t true. I begged Princeton University Press to make the world’s first musical book—I imagined something like those greeting cards—but it wasn’t to be. Thank goodness for Spotify. This free service will allow you access to an amazing repository of recorded music (including the stuff in your existing digital library). You can create playlists, share them with others, and even collaborate in their creation! It really is a terrific resource.

The playlist I created for the book (“Banding Together: The Spotify Playlist for the Book”) clocks in around 3 hours, and I’m still looking for more music to add. Each of the songs I chose is either specifically mentioned in my book, or stands as a representative of a musical style that I discuss in Banding Together. Here are a few of my favorites:


  • “Funky Butt” by Mississippi John Hurt. The Library of Congress did us a magnificent favor by funding the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress, which now contains over 3 million artifacts including recordings like this one. “Funky Butt” is King Buddy Bolden’s “signature tune” (and on page 79 I describe its link to other “funky” things), but I love Hurt’s version—a beautiful guitar tone, a strong and sweet vocal, and hilarious lyrics.
  • “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band. I included this song for two reasons: the first is that I discuss the politics around the crediting of this white band as “original Dixieland” in Chapter 3 (starting on page 98). The second is that Chicago Judge George A. Carpenter argued (while presiding over a copyright dispute) that “no living human being could listen to that result on the phonograph and discover anything musical on it” (see page 101). I wonder what you think about Carpenter’s taste?
  • “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by Mahalia Jackson. If you’ve never heard black gospel, this is a great place to start. The song was penned by the “inventor” of gospel, the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, and later became a million-record seller for Elvis Presley (see pages 104 onward, and his version is in the playlist, too!). Here, one of Dorsey’s “discoveries,” the great Mahalia Jackson, shows incredible vocal control and spiritual inspiration. Jackson toured the “gospel highway” for five long years, but her hard labor was rewarded with a feature in Time Magazine, and the honor of performing at JFK’s 1961 inauguration and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral.
  • “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by Bill Monroe. Monroe, the “father of bluegrass,” performs this country and bluegrass standard, the lyrics of which are etched on the wall of the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, TN. Originally a hymn, adapted into country song, and performed by scores of musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to Moby, it is a true American original.
  • “Night in the City” by Judy Collins and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Still and Nash. These two songs, plus singles by Janis Joplin (also with Big Brother and the Holding Company), The Doors, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Leonard Cohen (singing one of my all-time favorite songs, about his brief romance with Joplin), represent the wild and wonderful years of the “Laurel Canyon” group on Ridpath Lane. Stephen Stills plays guitar on the Collins song, and his bandmate Graham Nash wrote and named the second tune after Judy. You can read more about their bohemian grove in Chapter 3.
  • “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke. Quite simply, one of the very best pop tunes ever written, but one of those nearly lost to history. Cooke originally recorded the tune while working under the name “Dale Cook.” After the weak sales of his first single, “Lovable,” Specialty Records released him from the contract leaving the rest of the session, including this song, on the cutting room floor. Thankfully, his producer kept the tape and it later was a hit for the singer recording under his own name.
  • “Chocolate City” by Parliament. The wild ways of George Clinton’s twin groups Parliament and Funkadelic are carefully detailed in Chapter 3 of Banding Together. The lyrics of this song figure in the text. Which of today’s black entertainers do you think Clinton would hire for cabinet posts?
  • Me So Horny” by 2 Live Crew. This song topped the charts at the very height of moral panics around the dysfunction wrought by popular music (in 1989). The song samples dialogue from two movies—do you know which they are?
  • “On & On” by Jesse Saunders. Alleged to be the first House music single, this song attracted attention at the 1986 New Music Seminar in New York, and led a generation of DJs to be signed by British record labels—a brain drain that arguably led to the end of “original” House music in Chicago.
  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. This song represents the rapid rise and fall of Seattle’s Grunge music. This song’s chart success in 1991 propelled the rock group Nirvana to the top of the charts, although the band was said to quickly tire of its infamy. It is often cited as the greatest rock song ever recorded.
  • “Nothing to Lose” by Cui Jian. I was so glad to see this classic of Chinese rock included in the Spotify library. The title is a mistranslation of the song I refer to in the book as “I Have Nothing.” While we watched from afar, Jian’s music was the soundtrack to China’s Tiananmen Square revolution.
  • “La carta” by Violeta Parra. This is easily my favorite song to emerge from Chile’s nueva cancion movement of the 1970s. The title references a letter that brings Parra’s protagonist news of her brother’s imprisonment. She laments: “A letter comes to tell me/ There is no justice in my country/…/Luckily I have a guitar/ With which to lament my pain.” Heartbreaking.
  • “Water Get No Enemy” by Fela Kuti. Fela was and still is the king of African music (in as much as Elvis is American music’s king). I won’t spoil his amazing life story (see Chapter 4 in Banding Together!), but it is the only one in the book to include a defenestration.
  • “39.2” by Ceca. The wedding video of Serbian turbo-folk star Svetlana “Ceca” Veličković to paramilitary commander Željko Ražnatović Arkan was played outdoors for days, a technique designed to antagonize and terrorize the Croatian residents of Mostar during the terrible Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Her songs are a testament to the destructive power music can have when it falls into the wrong hands.


This Banding Together Spotify playlist demonstrates the varied influences, instruments, and personality of several musical idioms, while the book emphasizes the things they share in common. Within each genre, fans, club owners, journalists, merchandizers, musicians, and other community members must band together to make music, and the book is a study of how and when that happens. You will only hear traces of those communities in these songs: in the featured performers, borrowed lines, and references to people and places in the lyrics. I hope you’ll read Banding Together to learn more about how genres create communities in popular music, and I hope you’ll have fun with my musical book, even if you can’t dance to it (without Spotify).


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

New Perspectives on the Greatest Finnish Composer of All Time

The Bard Music Festival is featuring composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) this year.  Perhaps no twentieth-century composer has provoked a more varied reaction among the music-loving public than Jean Sibelius. Originally hailed as a new Beethoven by much of the Anglo-Saxon world, he was also widely disparaged by critics more receptive to newer trends in music.

The concerts, lectures, and panel discussions of the festival are complemented by a book of related articles, essays, and letters edited by a prominent music scholar.  Princeton University Press is pleased to announce:

Jean Sibelius and His World
Edited by Daniel M. Grimley


You can find more information about the Bard Music Festival and activities this weekend at:

UCLA Today features Bill Roy, author of Reds, Whites, and Blues

Over at UCLA Today they are featuring the work of one of their own — Bill Roy, author of Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States. If you click through, you will be able to listen to exclusive music from their archives and view some archival material.

Here a quick sampling from the interview that captures the early days and looks to the future:

UCLA Today: What was the first progressive cause in America to use what you’d consider to be folk music?

Roy: That was probably the American Revolution with “Yankee Doodle” and other songs spread by revolutionary soldiers. But the abolitionists were the first to use music that was embraced as authentic and moving because it came from common people. Abolitionists would bring slaves up from the South and have them sing spirituals at big meetings in the North. Many northerners had never met African Americans. Abolitionists were trying to vividly demonstrate the humanity of slaves, who had been compared to animals in the race-baiting imagery of the day.

These concerts featured such classics as “I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” But even though slaves had sung these songs in church, in the fields and in their homes, the abolitionists didn’t call them “folk music.” That recognition didn’t come until later.

UCLA Today: What is the prognosis today for folk music and social movements?

Roy: Folk music today is just a niche market that has a handful of followers — mostly singer- songwriters. The music contains a fairly mild critique of modern life and a certain amount of nostalgia about how life was before cities, big industry and big corporations, but it’s pretty tame. Music plays a different role now that’s much less powerful. I don’t see that there’s much potential to return to anything like the civil rights movement. One reason is we no longer grow up singing together. We grow up with Ipods.


The Bard Music Festival concert series starts tonight featuring composer Alban Berg (1885–1935). Each year the Bard Music Festival undertakes the exploration of a single composer’s life, work, and times. The concerts, lectures, and panel discussions of the festival are complemented by a book of related articles, essays, and letters edited by a prominent music scholar.  Princeton University Press is pleased to announce:

Alban Berg and His World
Edited by Christopher Hailey

Alban Berg and His World is a collection of essays and source material that repositions Berg as the pivotal figure of Viennese musical modernism. His allegiance to the austere rigor of Arnold Schoenberg’s musical revolution was balanced by a lifelong devotion to the warm sensuousness of Viennese musical tradition and a love of lyric utterance, the emotional intensity of opera, and the expressive nuance of late-Romantic tonal practice.

Read chapter one online: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9319.pdf

For more books in the Bard Music Festival Series, please visit:

You can find more information about the Bard Music Festival at: