Winning Hearts & Ears

Music in Political Campaigns

Month: October, 2012

Campaign music: A history (part one)

No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting…Political consulting is often thought of as an offshoot of the advertising industry, but closer to the truth is that the advertising industry began as a form of political consulting. As the political scientist Stanley Kelley once explained, when modern advertising began, the big clients were just as interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one.

”The Lie Factory: How Politics Became A Business”                                                                            Jill Lepore, The New Yorker (2012)

The various uses of music in advertising…have played not just an important role, but a singular one, in shaping consumption patterns in the United States. More than that: music in advertising has helped make us into the consumers we are, for music’s relationship to the body and its ability to address listeners emotionally have made it a powerful tool for advertisers at least since the rise of broadcasting in the 1920s.

The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture                                    Timothy D. Taylor, University of Chicago Press (2012)


Behold the Bermuda Triangle of American culture: First, there’s the common wisdom that advertising “corrupts” American politics. Second, musicians who sell their music to advertisers–or who pitch themselves to a designated audience in an obvious way–are labeled as “sell-outs” or worse. And third, musicians who bring an obvious political agenda to their work “sully” its entertainment value and its potential artistic merit.

In other words, when any two points within this politics/advertising/music triangle are linked, it creates no end of social anxiety and critical hand-wringing. The assumption, usually unspoken, is that these three things belong far apart and should remain isolated from one another. And when a particular instance of political music, advertising music, or political advertising is praised, it’s usually framed as an aberration, an exception to the rule.

All of this overlooks the fact that music, advertising, and politics have been closely intertwined through much of American history–as effectively demonstrated by the article and the book quoted above. You could even say they are symbiotic; broad changes in one have often worked in tandem with broad changes in the other two. In this blog post and its upcoming sequel, I’ll chart the parallel paths of music/politics/advertising through several paradigm shifts, looking at a number of representative examples.

Ballads and Broadsides: Politics As Storytelling

As yon effulgent orb of light with beaming glory sinks to rest
Veiled in a gloomy cloud of night his splendors vanish from the West
So Jefferson to shade retires but Madison like morn appears
Fresh confidence and hope inspires and light again the nation cheers
Huzzah for Madison, huzzah for Union and America.                                                                                —Anonymous, 1808 campaign song

Casting off the remnants of monarchy was a slow process in early political music. Campaign songs were not only prone to tortured constructions of the Queen’s English, but also had a tendency to treat presidential candidate like Kings. In one of the nation’s first campaign song–”Follow Washington,” a rousing sing-along borrowed from the Revolutionary War–there’s a telling disconnect between pledges of freedom and pledges of obedience even when they occur in the same stanza: “When he commands we shall obey / Through rain and snow, by night and day / Determined to be free, my lads / Determined to be free.”

Some of the earliest negative campaigning also took a distinctly Old World approach. Rather than disparaging a competitor’s political views or his character, a song like “Little Know Ye Who’s Coming” promised that Hell itself would be unleashed should the wrong candidate be chosen. In the 1824 John Quincy Adams campaign song, Andrew Jackson is portrayed as a one-man Horseman of the Apocalypse bringing with him plagues, pestilence, famine, slavery, and Ol’ Scratch (aka Old Hickory?) himself. (AUDIO

Apocalypse was averted–Adams’ three competitors split the vote and, with no one receiving a majority, the House of Representatives elected him president–even though Jackson won the popular and Electoral College votes. In an 1828 rematch, however, Jackson prevailed. Going up against the Harvard grad, successful diplomat, and son of the second president, Jackson was the first presidential candidate to be born in a log cabin and raised in poverty, an image that wouldn’t have suited past presidential candidates. But the timing was perfect for Jackson.

For one thing, the election saw the the largest jump in eligible voter turnout in US history–a record that still stands today. The 1828 election was the first where the overwhelming majority of states assigned Electoral College members by popular vote, even though voting was restricted to white land-holding men. Also, advertising was entering a transitional period–aiming products not only at the wealthy but also at the nascent mass market. Household products began to be marketed on a national level, just as party politics began to be organized more systematically on a national level with conventions replacing caucuses. As much as democracy itself, it was the birth of the mass market that catalyzed populist sentiment in the young country.

Far from the flowery language and heavy-handed sentiments of early political discourse, Jackson ran a race that tapped into the emerging mass-market orientation of ad makers, appealing directly to “the common man.” In the process he redefined American politics, political campaigning, and political song. On the other hand, just like presidents before him, John Quincy Adams viewed campaigning on one’s own behalf as undignified and thus as a political liability.

Jackson held no such misgivings, though he was careful to declare himself “not a politician” as he went about politicking–a hypocritical line many US politicians still feel the need to walk. Jackson’s campaign was also the first to throw itself, without reserve, into fundraising and merchandising (anything made of hickory was branded as a promotional item for Old Hickory). The candidate’s image was reproduced in newspaper ads and on posters; writers and speechmakers were hired to promote Jackson’s candidacy across the country.

Detractors were reportedly put off by the “howl of raging democracy” kicked up by his campaign. And, indeed, it was a loud campaign filled with parades, rallies, and songs. It was also a nasty campaign on both sides, marked by accusations of adultery, murder, and pimping. In this environment, candidates weren’t going to win with high-minded praise from other elites. Instead, they needed stories woven around them that were compelling to a mass audience–positioning them as “one of us,” extraordinary but not necessarily exceptional.

In Jackson’s campaign, ballads were the primary means of telling these stories and building an overarching narrative. With their strophic structure, simple-yet-catchy melodies, rhythmic drive, and use of common dialect, the storytelling power of the ballad is well known. Dating back to medieval minstrels and stretching across the world, ballads and their equivalents have long been used to preserve historical and mythical tales, and also to build up (or tear down) the reputation of leaders and/or their rivals.

In the 19th century, ballads were largely disseminated on broadsides–cheaply-produced, one-sheet notices that were the primary medium for advertising at the time–and their newspaper-format companion, the broadsheet. In the political realm, ballads were the precursor to television campaign ads of the 20th century. One century apart, they both deployed modern advertising techniques to political image-building–combining text with imagery and music, sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts.

Leading up to the 1828 election, campaign manager and mutton-chop sporting Martin Van Buren printed up thousands of broadsides for “The Hunters of Kentucky.” The song was a ballad written several years previous by Samuel Woodworth. Set to the tune of “The Unfortunate Miss Bailey”–a buoyant ditty about betrayal, suicide, alcoholism, and forgiving ghosts–the ballad told the heroic tale of Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans. It was famous as the final battle of the War of 1812, a battle that saved New Orleans from British occupation.

Even though the war-ending Treaty of Ghent had been ratified by the British when the fighting took place, the battle quickly entered the realm of American folklore. This was due in part to US forces being greatly outnumbered in New Orleans (giving the battle a rousing underdog angle) and also due to the image of the rag-tag polyglot fighting force–a force that included volunteer state militiamen and rural hunters carrying their own rifles.

“The Hunters of Kentucky” is basically Dirty South gangsta rap circa the 1820s: “whatever the game we join in chase, despising toil and danger.” And then there’s the constant references to gunplay: “with rifles ready cocked” we’re told it would do us good to see “Kentuckians drop ‘em.” Notably, the ballad’s lyrics highlight the danger posed to New Orleans’ in terms of its material-commercial culture, a culture stereotypically gendered as female. As a city famed for “wealth and beauty,” famed for “girls of every hue…from snowy white to sooty,” New Orleans was placed in mortal danger by the invaders who sought to “have their girls and cotton bags in spite of Old Kentucky.” Obviously, they didn’t count on a fighting force where “every man was half a horse and half an alligator.”

Speaking of product placement–”girls and cotton bags,” soldiers looking for “booty”–the ballad was unveiled as a campaign song by Noah Ludlow in his finest rural drag. A New York born-and-bred actor and theater manager who worked the Southern circuit, Ludlow appeared in front of the whopping Nola audience dressed in a buckskin hunting shirt and, according to popular legend, a coonskin cap–a fashion accessory that stood in stark contrast to the powdered wigs and knee britches worn by presidents up through James Monroe.

This populist image set a new template for campaigning–a template made up of equal parts music, advertising, and politics. It’s hardly coincidental that, as the 19th century progressed, the same media–broadsides and broadsheets–were at the heart of early mass advertising, the advent of popular music as a national phenomenon, and the onset of rabble-rousing political campaigns (printed speeches, songs, political editorials, propaganda, and so on).

Tip and Tyler: Constructing Reality Through Music

During 1840 a flood of musical compositions–waltzes and marches as well as campaign songs–inundated the land. “Some of the songs I shall never forget,” moaned a Democratic editor after it was all over. “They rang in my ears wherever I went, morning, noon and night…Men, women and children did nothing but sing. It worried, annoyed, dumbfounded, crushed the Democrats, but there was no use trying to escape. It was a ceaseless torrent of music…If a Democrat tried to speak, argue, or answer anything that was said or done, he was only saluted with a fresh deluge of music.” [William Henry] Harrison, remarked [diarist] Philip Hone, was “sung into the Presidency.”

–Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush
Paul F. Boller, Jr., Oxford Press (2004)

If the 1828 Jackson campaign made music a factor in presidential contests, it was William Henry Harrison and the Whig Party who perfected its use in the 1840 election. In an irony that must have been satisfying to Jackson’s rivals, the populist strategies developed by Martin Van Buren in Andrew Jackson’s first campaign–a strategy that translated to two terms for Jackson and one for Van Buren–were used against Van Buren when he ran for re-election. In many ways, the Harrison presidential run played out like a burlesque parody of Jackson’s campaign.

Harrison had served as a general in the War of 1812, but his role as commander in the Northwest theater wasn’t marked by any acts of notable heroism or upset victories. Also, like Jackson, Harrison was a major player in “Indian removal.” And so, his campaign seized on his victory against the Shawnee at the battle of Tippecanoe in the Indiana Territory (1811) as a major selling point. The battle was obscure and decades old–and not terribly noble or decisive–but no matter, Harrison was now the hero of Tippecanoe. He even took on “Tippecanoe” as a nickname as well as “Old Buckeye,” an obvious nod to Jackson.

The danger in this strategy was that Harrison had to rewrite his own past. He was raised on a Virginia plantation as the scion of a prominent political family, coming from a far less modest background than Van Buren himself. Music helped to remake these realities. According to his campaign songs, Harrison was “The Hero of Tippecanoe” and “The Farmer’s President” (indeed, he did live on a farm in Ohio) who promised “Two Dollars A Day and Roast Beef” to laborers. Campaign rallies drew thousands or tens-of-thousands, helping to popularize the songs.

As in Jackson’s campaign, character assassination was also a central pillar of Harrison’s strategy. Drawing on anxiety over the first economic depression in the country’s history, the Whigs painted Van Buren as an effete dandy–Sweet Sandy Whiskers they called him, and King Martin the First–mocking him for taking daily baths, extravagant dinner parties (with finger bowls so he could wash “his pretty tapering, soft, white, lily fingers”), and use of public funds to transform the White House into an “Asiatic mansion.” The latter charge was patently false, but a pamphlet titled The Regal Splendor of the President’s Palace convinced many readers otherwise.

All of these impressions were brought together in the most famous, and most influential, campaign song in American history: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The song was inspired by a rival politician’s slander as recorded in the Baltimore Republican: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of hard cider and a pension of $2,000 a year and, my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin.” This statement linking Harrison with laziness, poverty, and drunkenness was uttered not by Van Buren or anyone associated with his campaign, but by a supporter of Henry Clay, the Whig who challenged Harrison for the party’s nomination. Despite protestations from Van Buren’s camp, it was widely assumed that the quote came directly from either Van Buren or one of his Democratic colleagues–an assertion turned into fact with “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Below, They Might Be Giants perform their abridged rendition of the song.

The song’s lyrics were written by Alexander Ross, a jeweler from Ohio who composed the song for a local political meeting and introduced it at a Whig rally in New York while on a business trip. Musically the song  was adapted from “Little Pigs”–a lullaby combining lighthearted verses, a sing-songy melody, and Old MacDonald-style animal noises–that found its way into the new blackface minstrel shows of the era.

The lightly mocking tone of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was a good match for the music–by maintaining a whimsical tone, one might argue the song took the edge off the bald-faced fraudulence of the lyrics. Adding to this whimsical quality, Harrison’s supporters were encouraged to alter the song and add their own lyrics. Scores of stanzas were composed–describing every twist and turn of the presidential content in singable verse–further reinforcing the populist ideals of the campaign.

In its original version, the song begins: “Van Buren sits in his marble hall / And liveried slaves come forth at his call / The banquet is spread, the silver gleams / The dark wine flows in purple streams.” The refrain then pits Harrison–the victim of vicious hard-cider-and-log-cabin-based slander–as a man of the people, unlike the “little used up man” Van Buren. These lines are reinforced by a nursery-rhyme-like melody that bores deep into the listener’s cerebral cortex.

Let them talk about hard ci-der
Ci-der, ci-der and log cabins too
‘Twill only help to speed the ball
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too
And with them we’ll beat little Van,
Van, Van is a used up man,
And with them we’ll beat little Van.

The only log cabin Harrison ever lived in was a sprawling number built after he married a wealthy farmer’s daughter. Nonetheless, the song caught on in a big way. Replica cabins adorned with coonskin caps become a regular feature on the campaign trail. Barrels of hard cider were also a regular feature–in contrast to Van Buren’s pompous wine-drinking ways–despite the fact that Harrison once closed his own profitable whiskey distillery because he was disturbed by its effects on his customers (he called whiskey production “a sin” and urged others to refrain from producing spirits). Nonetheless, alcohol played such a central role in his campaign that the term booze was popularized as a result–E.C. Booz was a Philadelphia distillery that sold hard cider and other liquors in bottles shaped like log cabins as a Harrison campaign tie-in.

Through Harrison’s campaign, promotional kitsch was taken to new levels with products ranging from shaving cream to replica tomahawks to giant “victory balls”–up to ten feet in diameter and covered in campaign slogans, they were rolled from one campaign rally to the next (the now-familiar phrase “keep the ball rolling” was invented to describe Harrison’s giant balls). More to the point, by running what became known as the Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign, Harrison avoided having to address more substantive issues such as slavery and debate over a national bank.

He then went on to forever avoid these issues by dying of pneumonia one month into office (the “Tyler Too” must have seemed prescient). Harrison’s rugged image was undermined when he was taken out of commission by his own inauguration speech. Clocking in at two hours, the longest and most prolix in presidential history, the 68-year-old Harrison failed to wear a coat on the snowy late winter day and caught a cold from which he never recovered.

Harrison’s legacy, then, was his campaign, and the ways it tied together music, advertising, and politics to an unprecedented degree. Musically, the most notable development of the 1830s was the creation of blackface minstrelsy. Performing in blackface, the primary means by which white men took on the role of black men, besides the burnt cork makeup, was through song. At the same time, thanks to new printing techniques and methods of dissemination, advertising was becoming more omnipresent and, at times, more aggressive in stretching the truth. Politicians seized on both of these developments. Taken together, a shift was underway in American culture, with imagined identities and newly-constructed realities inserted into everyday life. Music, politics, and advertising were three of the main conduits for this new reality–the nascent American Dream–combining equal parts self-reinvention and upward mobility.


Playing It Safe

Critics and supporters alike described the president’s debate performance last week as “listless and passive,” “defensive,” and “arguably the lowest point in his campaign for a second term” (all quotes from the New York Socialist Times no less). Immediately after the debate, Obama’s campaign team went into damage control mode. The mediaocracy has deemed Mitt Romney “back in play” and the polls are tightening. [update 10/9: Romney has moved ahead in at least one poll.]

Well, I listened to Barack Obama’s Spotify playlist and I saw it coming. The mix is a somewhat bizarre and jumbled grab bag aimed at different sets of listeners and, one assumes, different political constituencies. More alarming, however, is the fact that the one recurring lyrical theme is a pervasive sense of resignation buoyed only by blind hope. The theme of resignation is reinforced musically across the stylistic spectrum: mild soul and retro-soul, smooth R&B, tepid indie rock, simpering country-pop (no exaggeration), a couple “play it safe” hip hop selections, a few random FM rock selections, a few Starbucks world music selections, a Ricky Martin song that’s not “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” and a version of “Sweet Home Chicago” that’s Viagra-commercial ready. In other words, it’s pretty lame.

I’ll be the first to admit this appraisal is a bit harsh. Politicians aren’t generally known for making daring musical choices. Plus the mix has some highlights (“Green Onions” anyone), the last half improves measurably on the first half, and the more left-field choices are fun, ranging from ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” to Willow’s “Whip My Hair.” There’s plenty of good artists and good songs. However, when taken together, they achieve a sort of negative synergy that makes the mix an ideal musical counterpart to Obama’s dismal performance in the first debate. It’s startling how the songs, taken as a whole sonically and lyrically, put across a “passive listless”  impression where hope is mostly of the blind variety. Just to take one example, in the lyrics to Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love.” the narrator describes how “time after time” she thinks “Lord I just don’t care” or “Oh Lord, what’s the use?” Her only hope is a “savior” in the form of a loving and generous romantic partner or, translated to Obama’s campaign, the hope for a loving and generous electorate.

Even the Al Green selection adheres to this narrative. While the romantic entreatments of “Let’s Stay Together” makes for a great love song, it also makes for a terrible campaign slogan (“whatever you want to do is all right with me” indeed). What’s more, context is everything. On Obama’s playlist the Al Green classic is sandwiched by the two most gag-reflex-testing songs on the playlist: Sugarland’s “Stand Up” and Darius Rucker’s “This.” The latter is a song that literally pays tribute to mediocrity and failure—set against a country-lite backdrop that itself screams mediocrity—reassuring a romantic partner with the lines, “Thank God for all I missed / ’cause it led me here to this.” But how reassuring is it to know you’re only with your partner because  he was rejected by his high school crush and wasn’t accepted to the college of his choice?

Even worse, Sugarland’s “Stand Up” made me want to stand up and throw my personal listening device against the wall. This visceral reaction was provoked even before I tuned into the lyrics about “all the lonely people crying” whose “hope has turned to dust” that just need to “stand up and use [their] voice.” The song is so smarmy, slick, and self-satisfied that it defies description. Thanks, Sugarland, for making me want to punch the nearest stranger in the face.

Let’s go back to the beginning and see where things went wrong. Obama’s playlist opens with Raphael Saadiq’s “Keep Marchin’.” Musically, the song is a mashup of the Temptations and the Impressions with a guitar melody that strongly echoes “My Girl.” Lyrically, it evokes the latter’s “Keep On Pushing,” a song that also appears on Obama’s mix. It’s a fine enough song, but heard in the context of the upcoming election it’s remarkably laid back musically, and reactive lyrically, especially as a lead-off track.

In the intro, the sunny, Motown-style arrangement seems to anticipate an upbeat love song. But instead, Saadiq opens with the lines: “When there’s nothing you can do / when there’s nothing you can say / ‘cause everything just ain’t gonna go your way / when you’re feelin’ kinda strange and you wanna lay it down,” followed later by imagery of a rich girl crying and a clown with no make-up (your guess is as good as mine). The context for the songs Saadiq pays homages to here is the Civil Rights movement, but in his song it’s uncertain what the context is supposed to be. In an interview, the co-founder explains that the song “reminds me I’ve been marching up this ladder a long, time time,” by which he apparently means his career ladder.

In the scenario laid out in the song, the only solution is to keep marching on because, well, what the heck else are you going to do. Again, this is the first song on Obama’s mix–its lyrics advocate soldiering on to an uncertain destination, while its music suggests passive acceptance of the bad situation described in the lyrics. This all makes perfect sense in light of four years of “obstructionist, party-first politics” by the Republicans, and four years of concessions and compromises by the president (or maybe Obama was a centrist Republican all along) but it’s an ambivalent message at best for voters.

Lest one think that Obama (or whoever assembled the mix) picked “Keep Marchin’” for its swingin’ retro-soul vibe, the next two songs hammer away at the same theme: lone individuals resisting fate and hoping to catch a lucky break (or to march heedlessly into the void, take your pick). The Springsteen-esque second track by Noah and the Whale tells the story of a boy saying goodbye to his hopeless one-horse town. Apparently it’s one heck of a depressing place, a place where “circles of street lights are the only signal that there’s people out there in the black.” But just like on the opening track, musically, we’re in pleasantly uplifting major-key territory. The chorus can only offer a cautious reassurance, “tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change,” complete with mildly exultant female backup singers.

Next up we have an even more Springsteen-esque track by Mr. Springsteen himself: “We Take Care of Our Own.” Despite his status as The Boss, he begins the song with a lament of powerlessness: “I’ve been knockin’ on the door that holds the throne / I’ve been lookin’ for the map that leads me home.” The emperor has no clothes, or at least no good friends, as he continues: “I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone / the road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone.” This theme of abandonment and dashed hopes continues: “We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home / there ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’.” Hope and change? More like despair and stagnation. Lyrically, WTCOOO is nothing less than a scathing indictment of American apathy and selfishness, topped off by a thin veneer of uplift. (even the uplift is ambivalent—is it really that noble to take care of your own?) The song is like “Born in the U.S.A.” part two: big booming drums, heroic fanfare melodic hook, despairing verses describing a kind of No Exit societal nightmare, and a rallying-cry chorus with vaguely patriotic overtones. And just like “Born in the U.S.A.,” it’s been widely misinterpreted and awkwardly shoehorned into a political campaign.

By three songs in I’m starting to think: Is the president trying to tell us something here? The fourth song, “Keep Me In Mind” by the Zac Brown Band, revolves around the idea that “the world is real tough” and so, not to be too forward about it, but “if there’s no one else to love / keep me in mind.” Next, Aretha Franklin covers “The Weight” by the Band. It’s a classic song and classic performance, but it’s also a song about “the impossibility of sainthood” (according to songwriter Robbie Robertson himself) and thus continues to feed the Resignation Narrative. The two songs capture Obama’s tightrope act of the last four years–expected to move heaven and earth by much of the electorate, instead he’s been forced to lower expectations among his staunchest supporters and to find consensus with openly hostile foes whose only mission is to bring him down. In other words, he’s had to dumb it down for both sides.

In the war of the Spotify playlists, Obama manages to dumb it down more than his opponent Mitt Romney (I’m grading on a curve because, really, who expected Romney to have good taste in music). Despite some strong selections, the two songs each by Darius Rucker and Sugarland clinch the victory for the sitting president. Romney’s playlist may be pandering and hypocritical, but it hangs together better and possesses (arguably) less cringe-worth moments. Likewise, Romney’s performance at the debate may have been pandering and hypocritical, but he still managed to come away perceived as the victor. As a modest recommendation, I would advise President Obama to come up with a new mix of songs to inspire him before the next debate.