Stop The Presses!

Singing Their Way To The White House: Campaign Songs

Stop The Presses!

Presidential candidates have long had a strange and wonky relationship with popular music. The first real hurrah of dedicated, candidate-specific campaign songs began in the 1952 election. The great songwriter Irving Berlin wrote, "I Like Ike" for Republican nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower. The song was popular and one of the last famous election slogans put to music. Some argue that this tune helped Ike beat Adlai Stevenson in the general election.

Eight years later, the first modern election was held. In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran against Richard M. Nixon. This was the first election with televised debates, and Kennedy's youth shone through. His campaign song was aptly titled "High Hopes," with music by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1959, and it was widely popular by the time Kennedy repurposed it.

Republican rival Richard Nixon used a song called "Click With Dick," by Oliva Hoffman, George Stork, and Clarence Fuhrman. Though this campaign jingle, much like Eisenhower's ditty, was one of his better attempts, Kennedy won anyway.

After Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson took over and ran for the presidency in 1964. "Hello, Lyndon" was the song associated with his campaign, and it was sung to the tune of the title song of the popular Broadway play Hello, Dolly. Jerry Herman reworked the words exclusively for Johnson. Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, had an original song called "Go With Goldwater" by Tom McDonnell and Otis Clements.

By 1972, campaign songs were on the decline and largely unoriginal. George McGovern used Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as his campaign ditty. And in 1976, Gerald Ford used Robert K. Gardner's country-esque tune "I'm Feeling Good About America."

But Jimmy Carter's campaign song revisited original work. He rocked with the personalized "Ode to the Georgia Farmer," by K.E. and Julia Marsh.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan used "California, Here I Come" during his election, but he got into some trouble for using another famous tune. Bruce Springsteen's megahit "Born In The U.S.A." was released when the 1984 presidential campaign was in full stride. Columnist George Will had connections to President Ronald Reagan's re-election organization and thought Springsteen might endorse Reagan. Springsteen's management was contacted, and Reagan's staffers were politely rebuffed.

On a campaign stop in New Jersey, Reagan included some words in his speech about Springsteen's lyrics touching the hopes and dreams of many Americans. It was a sizeable blunder to consider "Born in the U.S.A." an upbeat, positive song. The lyrics "Born down in a dead man's town/ The first kick I took was when I hit the ground/ You end up like a dog that's been beat too much/ Till you spend half your life just covering up" proved otherwise. Just days later, presidential challenger Walter Mondale claimed he was endorsed by Springsteen. Springsteen's manager denied it, and the Mondale campaign issued a correction.

Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis used Neil Diamond's ode to immigrants, "America," as the theme song for his 1988 campaign. Famed film composer John Williams wrote "Fanfare For Michael Dukakis" at the behest of Dukakis's father-in-law, conductor Harry Ellis Dickson, while George H.W. Bush commandeered Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."

In 1992, Bill Clinton's use of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" skillfully combined nostalgia and forward-thinking lyrics, serving both his baby boomer target audience and his message. Four years later, however, nothing memorable happened, campaign song-wise, except for Bob Dole's use of "Soul Man," which quickly became "Dole Man." It disappeared after the original song's writers expressed ire at the alteration.

Fast-forward to 2000. George W. Bush persuaded Billy Ray Cyrus to write a musically painful yet lyrically appropriate campaign theme, "We the People." It was touted as an "anthem for the working people of America." Sample lyrics: "The farmers rise up every morning at five/ The truckers drive their 18-wheelers all night/ The factory workers, they build it with pride." Cyrus thought it was a good motivational tool to get voters to the polling places.

Al Gore responded by using a few songs, such as Bachman Turner Overdrive's 1974 hit "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," Orleans' "Still the One," and Fatboy Slim's dance hit "Praise You."

In 2004, John Kerry's campaign took months to settle on a theme, touring the country with a jukebox full of mediocre campaign tunes. Blaring three Springsteen songs during his early campaign stops, beginning with "No Surrender," turned out to be a blunder. The chorus is quite fitting for an underdog candidate: "We made a promise we swore we'd always remember/ No defeat, baby, no surrender." But the song also alludes to skipping school, and Kerry's campaign focused on changing our educational system. Some candidates simply don't read lyrics before choosing songs.

This time around, however, the campaign songs are relatively last-minute selections from artists who aren't all that committed to the candidates using their art. John McCain seems to have chosen his tunes unwisely. His campaign began playing John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" and "Our Country" at rallies. The singer took offense and ordered him not to play his populist, pro-labor tracks. Just last month singer-songwriter Jackson Browne announced he was suing John McCain and the GOP for using his classic "Running on Empty" during a TV commercial without permission. Most recently, Van Halen got wind of the McCain camp using "Right Now" in Ohio. According to the band's publicist, the members didn't know McCain was going to use their song as his theme, and they were never asked for permission. Back in 2004, our current president also used the same song without the band's consent.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held an online contest to determine her campaign theme song. "You and I," by Celine Dion clinched the title. Here's an excerpt from the chorus: "You and I/ Were meant to fly/ Higher than the clouds/ We'll sail across the sky...'Cause you and I were meant to fly." Well, Hillary may not have flown all the way to the Oval Office, but she made her mark on history.

Which brings us to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. He seems to prefer feel-good, Motown-era, boomer-friendly pop, like Aretha Franklin's "Think." But "Think" isn't really about freedom. It's a bold warning to a cheating lover: "You better think-think-think about what you're trying to do me."

British soul artist Joss Stone is reportedly recording a song for him, too. The singer was asked to lend her voice to a theme for Obama's election campaign closer to next month, since she might appeal to voters of all races. Only time will tell whether he made the right musical choice-but at least it's an innovative one.

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