Trump's Campaign Theme Song Headache? Blame Michael Jackson, Sort Of : It's All Politics Candidates keep getting in trouble for picking theme songs without getting approval from the artist. You can trace this back to changes in both campaigning and the way companies sell products.
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Trump's Campaign Theme Song Headache? Blame Michael Jackson, Sort Of

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Trump's Campaign Theme Song Headache? Blame Michael Jackson, Sort Of

Trump's Campaign Theme Song Headache? Blame Michael Jackson, Sort Of

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's a common tale of modern politics. A candidate for president picks the theme song that seems perfect for their campaign. And then - oops - turns out the band or the musician totally disagrees. NPR's Tamara Keith decided to look into the history of this sort of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Donald J. Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' IN THE FREE WORLD")

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Donald Trump entered the presidential race descending an escalator - a wave to the right, a thumbs-up to the left - all to the tune of Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' IN THE FREE WORLD")

NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Keep on rocking in the free world.

KEITH: But there was a problem. Trump's camp cleared it with the copyright holder. Neil Young, however, wasn't consulted, and based on the statement from his record label, he wasn't happy about it. This sort of thing happens all the time, but this is more than a story about a few politicians picking the wrong song. It's a story about the evolution of political campaigns and commercial advertising. So if Trump is looking for someone to blame, he might want to start with Michael Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIE JEAN")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Billie Jean is not my lover. She's just a girl...

KEITH: But first, you have to go all the way back to the 1830s and '40s. There you find the rise of what you might call the campaign jingle, brought on in part by a large expansion of the right to vote. Many of those new voters were uneducated or illiterate. And so University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire political scientist Eric Kasper says the campaign song was born out of necessity.

ERIC KASPER: How do you get your message across? Well, obviously, if you print something up...

KEITH: ...Like a brochure or a position paper...

KASPER: ...That might not resonate with a large percentage of these new voters. But songs certainly would be one way of reaching people and getting that message out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO")

OSCAR BRAND: (Singing) Oh, who has heard the great commotion, motion, motion, all the country through.

KEITH: This song is called "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." It is about William Henry Harrison, known as Tippecanoe, and his running mate, John Tyler.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO")

BRAND: (Singing) For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too - for Tippecanoe and Tyler, too. And with them will be Little Van.

KASPER: Amongt some people, they claim that it sang Harrison into the presidency.

KEITH: And that campaign in 1840 cemented music is a staple of American presidential campaigns. Abraham Lincoln's campaign used an old Irish drinking song with new lyrics, renamed "Lincoln And Liberty."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LINCOLN AND LIBERTY")

CHRIS VALLILLO: (Singing) Hurrah for the choice of the nation - our chieftain, so brave and so true. And go for the great reformation, for Lincoln and liberty, too.

KEITH: The song became hugely popular, in part because everyone already knew the melody. Fast-forward a hundred years, and the campaign songs sound very much like the commercial advertising jingles of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIKE IKE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Ike for president. Ike for president. Ike for president. Ike for president. You like Ike. I like Ike.

KEITH: This is Dwight Eisenhower's campaign song. Kasper says he plays the "I Like Ike" song for his college classes.

KASPER: And they're all like, well, yeah, that's a catchy tune, but it's very cheesy. It's very hokey. No one would use this today.

KEITH: Why? Because advertising jingles are dead, and Michael Jackson helped kill them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEPSI AD)

JACKSON: (Singing) Your whole new generation. You're loving what you do.

KEITH: It's January 1984, and the king of pop fills a Pepsi commercial. The melody is "Billie Jean," but the lyrics are all Pepsi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEPSI AD)

JACKSON: (Singing) I guzzle down and taste the thrill of the day and feel the Pepsi way.

KEITH: This was the beginning of the end of the traditional jingle, the beginning of the rise of popular music in advertising. Seth Godin is a marketing expert and blogger.

SETH GODIN: It happened because TV ads were getting shorter, competition for attention was going up and pop music was at a peak.

KEITH: That Michael Jackson ad was a huge success for Pepsi. Before long, companies ditched the rewritten lyrics and just started using popular songs in ads, and so did political campaigns. That year, Lee Greenwood released "God Bless The USA," and it quickly became a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE USA")

LEE GREENWOOD: (Singing) And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free.

KEITH: Ronald Reagan's campaign then used the song in a video, and it became a theme for his campaign. A couple of other candidates had used pop songs before, but after Reagan, they were here to stay. Godin says there's a simple reason campaigns and companies made the switch to popular music.

GODIN: Because it's way cheaper to steal some of that good feeling from a pop song that already has earned the attention and love of the people that you're trying to connect with.

KEITH: Just make sure you've also got the love of the people who made the song because otherwise, you're going to get their attention. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE USA")

GREENWOOD: (Singing) God bless the USA.

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