Which Presidential Candidate Plays The Hits?

There have been a number of articles written about the music that presidential candidates — or their staffs – have chosen for their campaign appearances, including a lengthy piece by the Wall Street Journal’s John Jurgensen in December and a more recent McClatchy News Service piece. As has now been extensively detailed, it’s hard to come up with a well-liked song with an appropriate message and no little lyrical bombshells when you scrutinize the whole lyric, not just the rousing part that sounds good at a campaign rally.
So how well do campaign staffers, paid to have their finger on the pulse of America, do with its musical tastes? So-so, judging from a look at the songs associated with the various candidates over the past few months. Those songs show a mix of songs that reliably perform well in radio stations’ music research and those that any radio station program director could have told them not to use. And most candidates have both proven hits and obscurities in their repertoire. (Only Mike Huckabee goes two for two–and those are songs that he himself covers when his band Capitol Offense plays events.)
Candidates can propel songs back on to the national agenda, of course. Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” was hardly obscure in 1992, but Bill Clinton’s election night use gave it a new currency – and, ultimately, perhaps, greater burn. “Move On Up” by Curtis Mayfield and “Give The People What They Want” by the O’Jays, two R&B classics associated with Barak Obama, have become marginal over the years even for Urban AC and R&B Oldies stations. But it’s not hard to imagine either of them regaining prominence.
Here’s a rundown of songs cited in the WSJ and McClatchy articles and how they generally perform with radio listeners. (All characterizations are based on my broader sense of how songs have performed over the years.)

  • Elvis Presley vs. JXL, “A Little Less Conversation” (Romney) – Never an American hit on the magnitude of its European success. Probably a little more familiar now because of its exposure on the TV series “Vegas.” But it’s hard to get past its lyrical intent — “stop talking baby and let’s make out” — which was already a little discomfiting when the song first came out in the late ’60s. And if we had known all along that the DJ/remixer “Junkie XL” was a political junkie, there would have been no need to bowdlerize his name for America.
  • Journey, “Don’t Stop Believing” (Clinton, Romney) – An enduring hit even before “The Sopranos”‘ finale propelled it back into pop culture.
  • Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” (Romney) – Decent, but no “Takin’ Care of Business.” Then again, “We love to work at nothing all day” might not be the right message.
  • KT Tunstall, “Suddenly I See” (Clinton) – Just making the transition from callout to music testing now, so it will be interesting to get a read on its durability, and whether it was helped or hurt by being in all those commercials.
  • Wilson Pickett, “Mustang Sally” (Huckabee) – Perhaps because of “The Commitments,” this one has actually solidified its place in the Oldies and even Classic Hits canon in recent years, even as other ’60s nuggets have receded.
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Free Bird” (Huckabee) – Very enduring, not quite as big as “Sweet Home Alabama” but not as burned, either (or as burdened by inscrutable intent as Skynyrd’s George Wallace-era reference to “in Birmingham/they love the governor”). In the WSJ article, XM Potus ’08 PD Joe Mathieu does raise the question of the appropriateness of the “I love you, but I can’t stay with you” lyric.
  • Van Halen, “Best of Both Worlds” (Giuliani) – Never extensively played beyond Heritage Rock stations. Never gained enough traction to make it into research in most cases.
  • Celine Dion, “You And I” (Clinton) – The odd initial choice, since retired, of this song by the Clinton campaign has already been pretty well dissected. Only a No. 16 AC hit on its release in 2004 and, as such, not researched much since. But Dion herself has become sufficiently polarizing that she can no longer be used as a typical AC artist in music research.
  • U2, “City Of Blinding Lights” (Obama) – Like Dion, never a big enough song to make it to library testing (No. 40 at AC).
  • Curtis Mayfield, “Move On Up” and O’Jays, “Give The People What They Want” (Obama) – Both are obscure now even at Urban AC or R&B Oldies radio. (The Mayfield song does, interestingly, continue to show up on Oldies radio in the U.K., where it was a much bigger hit.) And while somebody is probably starting to type the e-mail now about how Obama’s appeal stems from not pandering to the polls — or music research – consider his use of…
  • Natasha Bedingfield, “Unwritten” (Obama) – The ultimate safe choice now for TV commercials, school assemblies, and AC radio.
  • Alabama, “Dancin’, Shaggin’ on the Boulevard” (Romney) – As a deliberate throwback to ’60s beach music, it’s not a bad choice for South Carolina, where Romney used it in December, but obscure for anywhere else.
  • Brooks & Dunn, “Only In America” (Romney and, recently, Obama, who segued from Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered [I’m Yours]”) – It became a bigger Country hit after Sept. 11, 2001. Does well enough now to place among the 300 most played Country titles, but well below “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” or “My Maria.”
  • Rascal Flatts, “Life Is A Highway” (Romney and Giuliani) – Never enough sustained Country airplay, then or now, to have been tested much, but it remains a Radio Disney staple, thanks to “Cars,” and the Tom Cochrane original has nudged back to being playable for some Hot AC and Rock stations since “Cars” as well.
  • Abba, “Take A Chance On Me” (McCain) – “You can go anywhere and it’s like, ‘Oh, Abba, I can’t stand them,’ but they happen to have sold more records than anybody else,” McCain told reporters. But the only Abba song that American respondents routinely admit to liking is “Dancing Queen”–and not always that one.
  • Los Lobos, “Mess We’re In” (Richardson) – Never made it to the radio at the time, or since.
  • John Mellencamp, “Our Country” (Edwards) – More known to most people for its use in Chevy truck spots than in its brief time on Country and Triple-A radio, Mellencamp’s foray into Country didn’t duplicate Bon Jovi’s success there.
  • Tom Petty, “American Girl” (Clinton) – Pre-breakthrough Petty. Appears on Classic Rock radio now as a depth cut, if at all.
  • Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down” (McCain, until Petty objected) – Has come to be a decent record for Classic Rock stations over the years.

There is, of course, a more enduring Petty song than the one either candidate has chose – one that still researches well at not just Classic Rock but Hot AC as well. But don’t expect to hear the strains of “now I’m free! /’Free Falling!'” blaring from the podium any time soon.

9 replies
  1. Bamjaya
    Bamjaya says:

    “Move On Up” has a lot of hidden profile in the teen-and-up female demo because of its use in “Bend it Like Beckham,” which plays incessantly on cable; also, the track is heard as the main music bed of Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky.” “Unwritten” has got to be the most overexposed song of the last two years.

  2. Greg Crawford
    Greg Crawford says:

    Who in the Hell cares. What’s at stake is more important than turning the Presidency in to a Big Parade of Pop Tunes Hits. Enough with the fascination with Pop-Culture.
    Now that’s been said, it to bad that all the canadates seem to be avoiding the most important problem which is the economy and Globalization. Namely the lowering the Standard of living on the Middle Class. Unfortunately we have the best candidates that money can buy representing the interest of the Elites.
    Oh, to havening

  3. Al Greer
    Al Greer says:

    You forgot another Curtis Mayfield classic, “We’re A Winner” or how about “Keep On Pushin'”. Another one that comes to mind is “People Get Ready” also by Mr. Mayfield. So lets’ “Put Our Hands Together” (O’Jays)because “A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke).

  4. John Butler
    John Butler says:

    Don’t know about theme songs, but Huckabee was here at our famous Curb Studios laying down some bass guitar yesterday on “Mustang Sally” and some other bluesy stuff. Here’s a link of him getting down yesterday during his visit. Nice guy and plays a mean bass guitar. How could you not like that?

  5. Ken Karp
    Ken Karp says:

    Maybe this already has been talked to death… but I’ve often wondered how a Chrissie Hynde (My City Was Gone) or a David Byrne (Wild Life) or a Chuck Berry (Johnnie B Good), for example, felt when a Rush Limbaugh or a John McCain co-opted their music.
    Wondering if there are examples of artists openly protesting the use of their songs and what might’ve come of it.
    And for what it’s worth, I always thought, with a little editing, that the Isley’s Fight The Power would’ve been a good underdog’s choice.

  6. neggy
    neggy says:

    Chrissy objected LOUDLY to Rush using her song, to the point Rush had to stop using it for a while until he was able to secure rights to it.

  7. Steam McQueen
    Steam McQueen says:

    I’m sure it was suggested a million times over, but let’s repeat it just once more:
    Hillary’s song simply HAS to be ‘The Bitch is Back’

  8. Mike Hobart
    Mike Hobart says:

    Here in Australia we’re always being told how American-style our elections are becoming. That may be true to some extent, but I don’t recall hearing any music played at Australian political rallies. In fact the only comments about music I’ve seen from our politicians range from ignorance to indifference. I can’t imagine the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader picking some uplifting pop song to raise their profile in an Australian election.


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