A Closer Look at The Role and Influence of Campaign Music in Recent Elections

Collin McLaughlin

Presidential campaigns are about as American as apple pie or baseball and citizens have been greatly invested in them since the nation’s inception and first real presidential campaign between Jefferson and Adams in 1796. As the years went by, slowly, more people were given the right to vote until finally American democracy was not a misnomer. With more people eligible to vote, candidates were forced to adapt and create a way to garner support through something as simple as name or brand recognition. Examples of slogans are found in abundance; William Henry Harrison and John Tyler ran on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” in 1840, while Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon ran on the simple slogan “I Like Ike” in 1952.

This was achieved through slogans until when the radio became a household item campaigns began to rely on music.  More recently campaigns have invoked a song that encompasses the feeling of the campaign as a rally cry of sorts for supporters. This practice has led to a mixing of art and politics that has had a lasting impact on presidential history. Three recent campaigns are fine examples of the relationship between music and politics. While different in many ways, the Bush campaign of 2000, Obama campaign of 2008, and Trump campaign of 2016 each ended in victory. Each of these campaigns used music as a means of reaching out to voters in different, but equally successful ways.

When George Bush threw his name in the ring for the 2000 election, many conservatives saw him as a safety valve to the Clinton presidency. He planned to reform the education system (something Clinton and Gore failed to do in their eight years), cut taxes for the middle class, increase defense spending, and strengthen social security (4president.org). The status of the middle class was especially important for Bush and was something he focused on a lot during this campaign. This emphasis was demonstrated to the nation with the choice of the song, “We the People” by Billy Ray Cyrus as the official song of his campaign. The song itself is a rather patriotic one with overtures to “middle managers”, police officers, and other classically middle class professions citing them as the heart of the country because they are the ones paying the taxes. This song was selected after the first choice “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty was ruled out due to a cease and desist letter from Mr. Petty’s legal team (carlanthonyonline.com). “We the People” was a choice that spoke to a lot of people in middle America and that is exactly what George Bush needed to defeat Al Gore.

After eight years of President Bush, the country seemed to be ready to head in a new direction. That change in direction was confirmed in 2009 when Barack Obama took office as the nation’s first African American president. While some people saw Obama’s election as something years in the making, others saw it as a huge shakeup in Washington. He planned to repeal the Bush tax cuts, devote $50 billion to jumpstart the failing economy that had crashed in the year prior, make healthcare affordable to all families through both private and public channels, reduce energy consumption, bring the war in Iraq to “a reasonable end”, and create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the country (elections.nytimes.com). This truly was a change in theme from the previous eight years. With so much focus placed on the white middle class during Bush’s tenure, the culturally diverse urban population wanted to see change that affected them in the next president. Because of these feelings, the choice in campaign music for the Obama campaign of 2008 is especially important. The official campaign song selected by the Obama team was “Better Way” by Ben Harper. This song was an interesting choice as it was much more upbeat than traditional campaign music. It was perfect for mobilizing diverse populations and getting more people to vote than in any other election in United States history. Its message is one of change and desire for people to come together in society, which was an important message of the Obama campaign. With its upbeat rhythm and happy-go-lucky feel, it’s no wonder the song was used in a campaign that symbolized so much change for the nation. The Obama campaign also adopted another tune, “Yes We Can” although it was never officially recognized as a campaign song. “Yes We Can” was a song and video produced by Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, which used clips of Obama’s famous “Yes We Can” speech and, with the help of various celebrities, became one of the most viewed youtube videos leading up to the Democratic National Convention in 2008 (telegraph.co.uk). Both songs invoke a sense of change and hope for the future, feelings the Obama campaign played on in his 2008 victory against John McCain.

With the end of the 2016 campaign having passed by, it is worth noting that Donald Trump did not have an official campaign song. Trump ran on a flexible platform based on increased military spending, securing our borders, top-down economics, and his status as a political outsider. While running his campaign, he found it difficult to find a song that would keep him out of trouble in the media. It seemed as though every week an artist had to release a statement about the Trump campaign not being allowed to use music for rallies and such. Eventually, however, Trump and his team decided on the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” against the best wishes of The Rolling Stones (breitbart.com). Despite The Stones’ telling the Trump campaign that they could not use the song, the campaign continued to do so up until the election that surprisingly saw Trump emerge victorious against a heavily favored Clinton campaign. And with a new president elect, perhaps a divided nation can take solace that “if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need” (genius.com).

Works Cited:

“Blue State Blues: You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Breitbart. N.p., 04 Nov. 2016. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

“Donald Trump | 2016 Presidential Candidate.” Inside Gov. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016. <http://presidential-candidates.insidegov.com/l/70/Donald-Trump&gt;.

“Election 2008: Party Platforms.” The New York Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016. <http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/president/issues/party-platforms/index.html&gt;.

“George W. Bush for President 2000 Campaign Brochure.” 4president.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016. <http://www.4president.org/brochures/georgewbush2000brochure.htm&gt;.

McCormick, Neil. “Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ Video.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

“The Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Genius.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016. <http://genius.com/The-rolling-stones-you-cant-always-get-what-you-want-lyrics&gt;.

“The Twinges and Twang of George W. Bush’s 2000 & 2004 Campaign Music.” Carl Anthony Online. N.p., 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2016. <http://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/10/15/the-twinges-and-twang-of-george-w-bushs-2000-2004-campaign-music/&gt;.

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