NPR logo Do You Hear What I Hear?

Do You Hear What I Hear?

When Barack Obama took the stage in Des Moines to deliver his impassioned Iowa caucus victory speech, U2's song "City of Blinding Lights" preceded him. On the same night, John Edwards' address to his supporters was also paired with a U2 song, "Pride (In The Name of Love)". Since when has U2 become the band to sum up American sentiment? Or is it just that they are one of the biggest bands in the world and summing up the zeitgeist is part of their job? I guess with Led Zeppelin's "Lemon Song" not exactly getting the right message across and Rush a little tricky to dance to, U2 is the only monolithic band to embody that perfect blend of informed-yet-cool. And with Bono himself probably the most electable man in any number of countries, it's not a bad choice to align yourself with someone so universally loved. But it is noteworthy that U2's ubiquity has transformed their songs into ones that are both non-partisan and non-threatening, which at least in the aforementioned contexts skirts a little close to non-music.

There is nothing like politics and politicians employing songs as a force for musical atrophy. Even though politicians might inspire some great tunes (imagine 1980's hardcore without Reagan or recent Springsteen, Steve Earle, or Arcade Fire albums minus Bush II et al as inspiration), they are less successful at marrying music with their own image or agenda. It's a tricky process indeed. We're not talking about a benign Celebrity Playlist on iTunes, wherein people can admire the esoteric tastes of Nicholas Cage, or confirm their instinct that they and Michael Cera were meant for each other based on a mutual fondness for the Microphones. And it is more serious than the song one chooses as a cellphone ring, that 15-second personal ad broadcast a few times a day. Instead, a candidate's theme song is a little bit more like a tattoo; some people won't care or even notice it at all, others will think it really sums up who they are and what they stand for, and the final category of people will be slightly offended by their lack of taste.

And anthems do matter. Sure, they matter a lot less than the messages or the men or woman themselves. But in a time where pop and political culture, highbrow and lowbrow, public and private are conflated to the point of being indistinguishable, a candidate's venture into the realm of personal expression via music is bound to get noticed.

The title of Frank Rich's Op-Ed piece in yesterday's New York Times referred to Bill Clinton's theme song from his 1992 campaign, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" (though the Rich piece was about Obama and Huckabee, perhaps a dig at the current Clinton presidential candidate, who might not embody quite as much hope for tomorrow). Whatever the case may be, the song in question is one of the least interesting tracks off of the Rumors album; it's a blithe song full of more disillusionment than hope. It should be noted that on the record, "Don't Stop" is immediately followed by "Go Your Own Way", which doesn't exactly speak of unity or unification, and paints "tomorrow" as a much bleaker day.

And there have been much bigger gaffes than candidate's merely picking feel good tunes, those sonic versions of BenGay. Some of you might recall when Ronald Reagan thought Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" was nothing more than a jingoistic anthem exalting American values and pride. Or in 1996, when Bob Dole changed the lyrics of Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" to, you guessed it, "Dole Man". This clever (?) idea was executed with neither permission nor clearance from the copyright owners, who sent the campaign a letter urging them to stop the use of the song, which they did. But the more egregious act in the case of "Dole Man" was Dole's assumption that a song like "Soul Man" has or never had a any cultural significance beyond its being a staple on the oldies stations.

Yet what do we expect from Presidential candidates? I mean, above everything else, do they have to have good taste in music? No, it's certainly not a requirement. In fact, maybe the less the candidates get nearer to our own tastes, the better. How strange, for instance, if Spoon's "The Way We Get By" was the soundtrack to Hillary Clinton's stump speech. And the further the candidates' beliefs get from our own, the less we want to know that they might actually share our cultural tastes. Like if "The Greatest" by Cat Power accompanied Mitt Romney wherever he went.

This is true also with a candidate's supporters. We'd like to think that our favorite bands, especially those who ostensibly share our political outlooks, have ideologically similar fans. Yet I'm sure followers of Franz Ferdinand or Modest Mouse vote on both sides of the aisle, which is why music is better at uniting people than politicians.

So, since music does transcend politics, I propose that we help these candidates find songs that actually do embody the messages they espouse. Any suggestions?

But where I draw the line with music and politicians is seeing Mike Huckabee playing bass. If that guy ever joins the White Stripes on stage I will either give up this blogging gig, or vote for him. That, after all, is the power of music.

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