Ask Hillary Clinton.
During her 17-month run for the Democratic nomination, she employed seven different campaign songs. And like her campaign itself, each one got off to a rousing start only to run into trouble in the second verse.
There was Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care Of Business," which seemed to match Hillary's can-do spirit. But oddly enough, the second verse reveals that the song is about not taking care of business:
"It's the work that we avoid
And we're all self-employed
We love to work at nothing all day"
There was Dolly Parton's "9 To 5." Peppy, with lyrics about a solid work ethic. But halfway in we get:
"Want to move ahead
But the boss won't seem to let me
I swear sometimes that man is out to get me"
Oops. And on it went, each song booby-trapped with some lyrical snafu.
I don't mean to pick on Hillary. I use her only to exemplify how campaign songs can be message minefields.
Not that we hear second verses much nowadays. Most songs are used only for entrance music. But these classics resonate beyond a bar or two. We the people have absorbed them, the words and melodies imprinted on our brains.
That's why candidates choose these songs. They're a quick way to establish emotional rapport with voters. And that's been the case for 200 years.
The earliest campaign song was 1780's "God Save George Washington." Back then, songs were often used to sugar-coat barbs against one's opponents. For example, 1824's "Little Know Ye Who's Coming" warned that a vote for rivals of John Quincy Adams would guarantee "plague and pestilence."
The first campaign song to succeed beyond an election, 1840's "Tippicanoe And Tyler Too," launched a stream of alliterative tunes that stretched into the 1920s, including "For Lincoln And Liberty," "Ready For Teddy Again" and "Get On A Raft With Taft" (a questionable invitation, since 27th President William Howard Taft weighed 330 pounds).
FDR's use of "Happy Days Are Here Again" in 1932 set the modern trend of politicians adopting familiar songs, which continued through JFK's "High Hopes" right up to the present.
But once candidates started rummaging through the rock and soul bins, that's when the trouble started.
There was Ronald Reagan's championing of Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA." The Gipper obviously didn't listen beyond the title to hear the story of a Vietnam vet with bleak prospects. Al Gore chose Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," a song about weakness for a "devil woman." Howard Dean picked Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation," a come-on whose call for "action" was decidedly not political. George W. Bush tried "I Won't Back Down," then backed down when Tom Petty threatened to sue. Only Bill Clinton, a musician himself, chose wisely, adopting Fleetwood Mac's positive "Don't Stop."
And our current candidates? John McCain is stumping to a song about a functional illiterate ("Johnny B. Goode"), while Barack Obama prefers one about a straying lover ("Think"). To his credit, Obama's recently switched to "Move On Up," an unassailable message.
When Hillary conceded last week, I thought, if only she had listened to the second verse of her final campaign song, Tom Petty's "American Girl."
"God, it's so painful
Something that's so close
And still so far out of reach"
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