Campaign Songs Then and Now

Liane Hansen talks to John Carroll, assistant professor of communication at Boston University, about the history of campaign songs in presidential races as well as their modern day incarnations.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR NEWS. I'm Liane Hansen.

It's Sunday but it's no day of rest for weary candidates. Six Democratic contenders for their party's presidential nomination will attend Senator Tom Harkin's Annual Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa this afternoon.

On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani tries to win over those NASCAR dads at the New Hampshire International Speedway and John McCain campaigns in South Carolina.

The candidates aren't the only ones who are working hard today. In fact, some of their more creative supporters are working 24 hours a day on the Internet. These net-savvy politicos have created campaign songs that have a new media feel about them.

John Carroll has been listening. Carroll teaches mass communication at Boston University and he says presidential campaign songs go pretty far back.

Professor JOHN CARROLL (Mass Communication, Boston University; Commentator, WGBA, Boston): They go almost all the way back. You can trace them back to Andrew Jackson's military marches that he used as campaign songs in the 19th century. I think what we saw in the middle of the 20th century, though, was a sort of an expansion of campaign songs because of the advent of TV. So, you had - in the '50s, you had "I Like Ike," which was a bouncy little number. And then in 1960, you had Frank Sinatra actually recording a campaign song for John F. Kennedy.

HANSEN: Well, we should hear those. First, let's hear "I Like Ike."

(Soundbite of "I Like Ike")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You like Ike. I like Ike. Everybody likes Ike for president. Hang up the banner and beat the drums. We'll take Ike to Washington. We don't want John…

HANSEN: Oh, pretty snappy tune there.

Prof. CARROLL: Yeah, very snappy tune. You see, I had - over half the country singing that one for Dwight Eisenhower. And the power of television was to attached visuals to it, so you sort of expand it on what they got on radio and made it that much more memorable, I think.

HANSEN: Now, "I Like Ike" was something that was original. But Frank Sinatra when he sang "High Hopes" for JFK, the song had actually come from a movie. And here you've got a movie star singing it.

(Soundbite of "High Hopes")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer/Actor): (Singing) Cause he's got high hopes, he's got high hopes. 1960's the year for his high hopes.

HANSEN: Yeah, it's a really, you know, snappy version of the song that he did. But that had a lot of power. I mean the power of a celebrity, right? First of all, singing the song?

Prof. CARROLL: Absolutely. And it had the power of a familiar melody and I'm sure it garnered a lot of votes in Las Vegas for JFK.

HANSEN: Huh. All right, what have you heard in the new crop of campaign songs and is there anything different about them, you think?

Prof. CARROLL: Well, as you mentioned, the main difference is that they're not created by the campaigns. These are music videos, basically, that are created by independent supporters or none supporters, in some cases, and post it to YouTube. And, in a way, they're just as much promotional vehicles for the performers as they are promotional vehicles for the candidates. You take Obama Girl who's the most popular and was the originator of these. She's a model and actress who's built a franchise around the music video that she posted on YouTube.

(Soundbite of song, "I Got a Crush on Obama")

Ms. LEAH KAUFMANN (Singer): (Singing) I got a crush on Obama. I cannot wait 'til 2008. Baby, you're the best candidate. I like it when you get hard on Hillary in debate. Why don't you pick up your phone? 'Cause I got a crush on Obama.

HANSEN: Oh, a little steamy video there created not by the campaign, didn't have the campaign's sanction but you know it earned - what is it 3.6 million hits on YouTube? And really got Obama's name out there. So what's not to like?

Prof. CARROLL: Well for starters, Barack Obama's girls aren't happy about Obama Girl. There have been reports that Obama has complained that his daughters are upset by the video. They're looking at it and saying, hey wait a minute. I thought you and mom were together. Beyond that, you can imagine how it plays with some of the more, if Barack Obama has any conservative or traditional supporters, how it plays with them.

I think that it's one of those things where, maybe, if the campaign have had more control, they might have played it a little bit differently. The same thing is happening in Hillary Clinton's camp, you can imagine how she feels about Obama Girl's rival a woman who calls herself Hott 4 Hill.

(Soundbite of video "Hott4Hill")

Ms. TARYN SOUTHERN (Singer/Actress): (Singing) I have a crush on a girl name Hill but she's not with me she's with this guy named Bill. But there's one thing I know I just can't be still until I see Hill up on Capitol Hill.

Prof. CARROLL: Not to get technical but Hillary Clinton is already on Capitol Hill, it's the White House she wants to move into at this point. And also, later in the music, Hillary Girl says she knows Senator Clinton is not gay but she's hoping for bi. And I think that that's not really the bumper sticker that the Hillary Clinton camp wants right now.

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. Well - but it's - maybe just a show of women power for Hillary.

Prof. CARROLL: It could be. That's a nice way to spin it.

HANSEN: Are there musical offerings on the Republican side that are getting your attention?

Prof. CARROLL: There are and they're quite different in nature actually. You look at some of them, for instance, YouTube video called "Sexy Referee Dances for Romney" which is actually it's own punch line. I have nothing to add to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CARROLL: There's also - there is also a "Brownback Girl" for Sam Brownback, the Kansas senator, who is a church lady knockoff who sings at the praises of Senator Brownback's sort of hard right political views.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BUCKY WALTERS: (Singing) Candidates woo me some just use me; they think they're okay. But if they aren't completely pro-life I just walk away. They can ponder, they can grovel, they haven't seen the light. That's right. 'Cause the senator from the State of Kansas is Mister Religious Right. 'Cause we are living in a sinful world and I am a Brownback girl. You know that we are living…

HANSEN: Ah. Okay.

Prof. CARROLL: A lot of people have that reaction.

HANSEN: The music is familiar.

Prof. CARROLL: Yeah, and it sounds like a spoof and looks like a spoof. But, at least, according to one reporter I read, this is not a spoof. This is a bedrock conservative underneath that church lady wig, who is very serious about the message of this song. So, obviously something different is going on in Kansas than is going on here.

HANSEN: But you said - wait, it's not a parody? It's…

Prof. CARROLL: It's not a parody, at least, according to the one or two newspaper reports I saw about it.

HANSEN: Well, you know, this is really entertaining. But as far as how important are these online campaign songs and video, do they have the potential to win votes for a particular candidates?

Prof. CARROLL: It's really hard to tell. I mean I think they can sort of add to the stew that - of the candidate's image. And that can be good or bad, depending on how these things play. But I think what they do reflect across the board is the sort of Internet affect that we're seeing this time around that we haven't seen before, and this is the x factor of the presidential campaign. Now what's happening on the Internet is largely out of the control of the candidates. And I think that this is something that is not necessarily welcome to the candidates. There are always things out of their control but this is something that's out of their control and has wide distribution.

HANSEN: John Carroll teaches Mass Communication at Boston University and his a commentator for WGBA in Boston, that's where we reached him. Thanks a lot for your time.

Prof. CARROLL: Thank you, Liane.

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