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On Record: Campaign Songs

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In Presidential politics, there’s a tradition of candidates misappropriating pop music that dates back at least to Ronald Reagan mistaking Bruce Springsteen’s bitter ”Born in the U.S.A.” for a patriotic anthem. Come 2000, you can barely turn on C-SPAN without hearing rock & roll blaring in the background of campaign events. But the use of popular songs is still fraught with danger, given the darker messages hidden within the most innocuous tunes.

Republicans

”Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Bob Seger
Used to warm the crowd up for George W. Bush’s entrance.
INTENDED MESSAGE: Oldies rule … values-wise as well as radio-wise.
SUBTEXT: The line ”I sit and listen to ’em by myself” indicative of an ongoing strain of isolationism in the party. ”Won’t go to hear ’em play a tango” suggests GOP’s new ethnic inclusiveness has its limits.

”ABC” by the Jackson 5
Played to intro Dubya’s schoolteacher wife, Laura.
INTENDED MESSAGE: Republicans care about literacy programs.
SUBTEXT: Even if the GOP voucher program goes through, remaining public-school students will be taught at least these three letters.

Democrats

”I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman
A marching band played the sardonic ode on the convention’s first night.
INTENDED MESSAGE: Just think of the chorus ”Victory Blvd.: We love it!”
SUBTEXT: The lyric ”Look at that bum over there, man, he’s down on his knees” eerily prefigured the moment when elderly homeless activist Ted Hayes was felled by a rubber bullet outside the convention hall.

Chariots of Fire Theme from the 1981 film
The Oscar-winning instrumental introduced VP hopeful Joe Lieberman.
INTENDED MESSAGE: America, remember how you loved the last time you saw a Jew and a Christian running together?
SUBTEXT: We thought about ”Hava Nagila,” but at least this one won’t make anybody feel guilty about not knowing the words.

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