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Published: Sunday, 8/8/2004

Candidates run to the beat of a rock soundtrack

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

John Kerry and John Edwards rock.

That's the message evident from the candidates' campaign trail stop last Sunday in Bowling Green. Pre- and post-speech lulls were filled with the hard-driving, high-decibel sounds of U2, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen.

And as if to establish that they, too, had the necessary carats to meet rock and roll's gold standard, the Johns K. and E. closed the rally with, among other classics, Chuck Berry's 1958 hit "Johnny B. Goode." Not to worry that the Johnny of the song "never learned to read and write so well."

"Campaigns strive to promote an image of youthfulness. They want to show that their candidate understands change and can express a basic vitality," said BGSU assistant professor David Jackson, author of the book Entertainment and Politics (Peter Lang Publishing, 2002).

Amid all the excitement, organizers assume that their partisan audiences are too pumped up to think much about the musical fine points, or even the words beyond the chorus. Careful listening on Sunday, for example, might have sent energy levels south.

Consider Mellencamp's "Pink Houses," the rousing chorus of which belts out, "Ain't that America/Home of the free."

Presumably, no one paid attention to the troublesome second verse: "Cause they told me when I was younger,/'Boy you're gonna be president.'/But just like everything else, those old crazy dreams/Just kinda came and went."

Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." also set flags a-waving, but the story of the song's troubled Vietnam-veteran protagonist was meant to inspire far more complex emotions.

And what was the crowd supposed to make of The Beatles' brooding "Revolution."

But while it's easy to criticize Sunday's musical choices, it is not so easy to come up with alternatives. Campaigns are limited to using music that offends no one while appealing to the tastes of the broadest swath of their constituency.

"The simple fact is that rock music is just today's medium. Campaigns would use a marching band if that was what people wanted to hear. But that kind of stuff seems corny now. It's no longer an effective means of communication," said Jackson.

I remember those marching bands. Before my time, professional choruses were de rigueur.

In fact, music has been an essential part of presidential campaigns ever since the remarkable 1840 contest between William Henry Harrison and Martin Van Buren. Back then, campaign songs were meant to be listened to.

Though short on ideas, the former war hero and upper-crust Ohio scion Harrison was reinvented through his campaign songs. Lyrics invoked humble images of homespun cloth, log cabins, and hard cider. Crowds cheered out "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" and sang verses like the following (to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne"): "No ruffled shirt, no silken hose,/No airs does TIP display;/But like the 'pith of worth' he goes/In homespun hoddin-grey."

With the public's imagination centered in the Harrison camp, Van Buren didn't have a chance. Future candidates paid attention.

In the century to follow, lyricists created thousands of new songs built on "Yankee Doodle," "Old Dan Tucker," and other universally known melodies.

Songs could destroy candidacies as well as brace them. The lyrics below crushed Horace Greeley's 1872 presidential bid as surely as Ronald Reagan's easy "There you go again" brush-off of Jimmy Carter painted the 1980 Electoral College red.

To the resolute melody of the Civil War song "John Brown's Body," Ulysses S. Grant's supporters sang, "We'll hang the 'Lib'ral' Greeley on a sour apple tree,/Because he bailed Jeff Davis and he set the traitor free."

Campaigns often attracted major composers. Stephen Foster wrote for George McClellan; Irving Berlin for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger traveled the country to support Henry Wallace, the 1948 Progressive Party candidate.

Yet, with a few notable exceptions, the campaign song has been in steady decline since World War I, a victim of changing tastes and mass media. With the rise of radio and television, the focus of public events turned inexorably towards the larger audiences waiting at the end of the antenna.

Occasionally, appropriated songs had lasting impacts. Still today, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1932 theme song "Happy Days are Here Again" remains associated with the Democratic Party. The 1960 election was indelibly framed by John F. Kennedy's "High Hopes" and the Republicans' "Here Comes Nixon" (to the melody of "Goodnight Ladies").

There have also been some infamous musical stumbling blocks, such as Adlai Stevenson's "We're Madly for Adlai" and Reagan's embarrassment after being rebuked by Springsteen for trying to appropriate "Born in the U.S.A."

Bill Clinton had some success with Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," but it was the candidate's saxophone playing that captured the voters' imagination.

What about the Bush-Cheney campaign?

Count on Bush to continue to rely heavily on the emblematic "Hail to the Chief," the musical equivalent to Air Force I. After that, look to country music.

For his recent "Heart and Soul of America" tour, Bush used "Heartland," a song by fellow Texan George Strait.

No question about the values in this song. Proclaims the chorus: "Sing a song about the Heartland/The only place I feel at home/Sing about the way a good man/Works until the daylight's gone."

The song linked well to the tour's overall theme, said Aaron McLear, communications director of the Bush-Cheney Ohio Campaign.

When feasible, the campaign also tries to fit music to geographic location, even to the theme of the speech, he added.

Expect to hear Lee Greenwood's 1985 hit "God Bless the U.S.A" at the September convention. Move away from country music, however, and the Bush campaign might find the pickings slim.

"Republicans are in a bind because the entertainment industry is overwhelmingly Democratic. And they can't always effectively use the people that support them, like Loretta Lynn or Pat Boone, because they send the wrong message by playing into the conservative stereotype," said Jackson.

You can probably also rule out Tom Petty and Mellencamp. Both refused to let Bush use their songs in 2000.

Contact Steven Cornelius at:scornelius@theblade.com or 419-724-6152.



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