A "Beautiful Day" for Voting: Candidates Aim to Connect through Music
Leading up to the 2020 election, we are honored to feature Julie Mason, Host of The Press Pool on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel, as a guest writer and share her perspective on the relationship between music in politics.
Quick: You hear U2’s circa 2000 anthem, “Beautiful Day.” Where does it take you?
Maybe you’re back at a spectacular wedding or a special graduation ceremony, the playoff season for your favorite team, the sunny porch of a vacation house in a gorgeous season, or even one of U2’s more memorable concerts. For me, that song is Democrat John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
In heavy rotation for Kerry’s rallies, convention and big campaign events, “Beautiful Day” was the uplifting sonic crescendo that followed most of his speeches, sometimes augmented by confetti cannons, but always played at top-volume for peak crowd experience.
Presidential campaigns’ staff-run playlists are a key feature in the packaging and theater of politics. Generally chosen for meaning and the visceral reactions songs inspire, the lists are increasingly also curated for messaging and subtext. Barack Obama’s campaigns also made use of U2 — but his signature tune was Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”
Not very subtle, but that’s the point. Presidential campaigns are where nuance and subtlety go to die. Kerry was promising his election would be a “Beautiful Day” for the country, which at the time was mired in wars and political acrimony. Obama — a historic candidate who was for many voters a cultural and political phenom — promised, “I’m yours.”
Branding through popular music is easier for Democrats. The majority of pop and hip hop artists trend liberal and don’t protest their music turning up in a campaign. Some, like Jon Bon Jovi or Bruce Springsteen, take their involvement a step further and travel with candidates or put in campaign appearances. Others turn up to perform at conventions, like Katy Perry did for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Some campaigns incorporate music more organically than others. Clinton’s 2016 campaign Spotify list is posted on the Internet. Reflecting the consultant and focus group-driven ethos of her campaign, Clinton’s list features innocuous toe-tappers like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and girl-power anthems including Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and Perry’s “Roar.”
But edgy music generally has no place in a presidential race. I once heard Kerry’s campaign bust out a Clash song during a campaign stop in Cleveland, but it never happened again. It didn’t seem important enough to follow up on at the time, but I never forgot it — which underscores in a tiny way the indelible role music can play in campaign branding.
Music from varying eras can ping key constituencies. Boomers reliably turn out to vote, and their Big Chill soundtrack turns up often on campaign playlists. Obama’s heavy use of Motown did double-duty by calling out to his fellow boomers and also Black voters, for whom classic artists like Marvin Gaye and the OJays signal positive change.
Campaign theme songs and playlists don’t make much difference in the overall result of a presidential election, but they are as much of the broader packaging as a candidate’s pre-campaign weight loss, haircut, logo and website merchandising.
Candidates for president featured theme songs going back to the 1800s. Who can forget the James Madison anthem, “Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah”? I’m joking. But popular music started showing up not long after — FDR’s song in the 1932 campaign was “Happy Days are Here Again,” and Harry Truman recycled the already-classic, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” in 1948.
Four years before Kerry’s use of “Beautiful Day” promised a turn from the policies of President George W. Bush, the latter tried campaigning to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” At the time, the lightly-regarded Texas governor was an underdog, and use of the song was meant to telegraph — well, it’s pretty obvious. In any case, Petty’s publisher ordered Bush to stop using the song.
Cease and desist letters from artists’ lawyers happen every four years. Heart famously objected to Republican Sarah Palin using their energetic 70s classic, “Barracuda” at her events. Palin claimed her nickname back in Alaska was “Sarah barracuda,” but Ann and Nancy Wilson were not biting.
Palin and her team liked “Barracuda” in part because it was a cheeky way to convey the then-governor was also a scrappy fighter. The song in its brief campaign moment blended perfectly with the pit-bull-in-lipstick hockey mom image Palin was trying to sell voters.
Many GOP candidates play country music at campaign stops — a popular genre with their voters. Bush, a boomer who personally liked country music and 70s artists like Van Morrison, favored Billy Ray Cyrus and Brooks & Dunn for campaign stops. Mitt Romney, whose personal musical tastes can only be guessed, played Kid Rock tunes for his supporters.
In the 2020 Democratic primary, some bolder choices emerged. Beto O’Rourke, an emo-punker in his younger days, played the Clash’s “Working for the Clampdown” at his campaign appearances. Andrew Yang’s memorable walk-out song was Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack,” while Tim Ryan chose “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X.
Bernie Sanders, massively popular with younger voters, went with the oldie, “Power to the People” by John Lennon, a song very much aligned with Sanders’ long established brand. Cory Booker, who campaigned on themes of love and unity, walked out to “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. For Kamala Harris, now Joe Biden’s running mate, the signature song was Mary J. Blige’s “Work That.”
Biden’s campaign this year has been largely submerged by the pandemic, but he still managed to deploy music for messaging at his virtual Democratic National Convention. Springsteen’s blue collar theme, “The Rising” was played repeatedly every night — a callback to Biden’s carefully cultivated image as a middle class American.
Which brings us to President Trump. Ever the iconoclast in politics, Trump breaks the mold with music by disregarding selections aimed at sending a deliberate, upbeat message. Instead, songs played at Trump stops reflect his personal taste — The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Neil Young, Adele and tunes from Broadway hits and opera.
Trump’s musical selections nevertheless do convey a message by turning the traditional campaign song curation on its head. Not having a focus-grouped message is Trump’s message, which aligns perfectly with his outsider stance. Any meaning behind his frequent use of the Village People I leave to others.