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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Campaign Jukebox 2008

Change: It’s the cornerstone of this presidential campaign, a word that’s become a mantra, and one that makes perfect sense since this is the first open seat for the presidency — without an incumbent president or vice-president in the mix — in 50 years.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is the need for music at political rallies. Campaign music doesn’t happen in a vacuum; the songs you hear at candidate appearances say as much about the candidates as the platforms of policy and philosophy they run on. And sometimes more.

Here, then, a quick rundown of some of the platters of the spinners — the greatest hits, and relative obscurities, on the soundtracks of the big players in 2008:

Generally, the Democrats seem to have been more culturally daring and demographically sensitive, pegging musical choices to voters in a younger, ethnically wider target audience.

Hillary Clinton: The New York senator seems to jump all over music history, a canny bid, no doubt, to widen the idea of her appeal. We’ve heard the Staple Singers’ bumptious 1972 classic “I’ll Take You There,” and the campaign moved from Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” (1993) to Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now,” a lyrically strong choice (circa 1991). Others on the Clinton sound machine include tracks by KT Tunstall and Sheryl Crow.

Barack Obama: Not to be outdone, the senator from Illinois has been equally multi-dimensional. Recent Obama appearances have been punctuated by tracks from Aretha Franklin and Earth, Wind & Fire. Stevie Wonder's “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” often closes his rallies. Then Obama flipped the script, playing U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” to mark his victory in the Iowa caucuses. A practical pick -- how best to put across the musical idea of a multiracial, multigenerational campaign? -- and an inspired one. “Team Obama isn’t afraid to make a bold pick when it also appears to be the right one,” said critic Glenn Gamboa of Newsday.

Like their campaign statements and platforms, candidates make their soundtracks evolve to suit the shifts within the campaign itself.

Consider John McCain: Based on his soundtrack, the Arizona senator is very aware of a need to burnish his bona fides with the bedrock of the Republican Party. No Feist or Cat Power on this playlist. Until recently, McCain rallies included Chuck Berry’s 1958 chestnut “Johnny B. Goode.” The song’s reportedly been taken down, maybe for reasons of, uh, not exactly opening the tent to a younger generation of voters. Ya think?

Now, Mc Cain has made the great leap forward a generation, exchanging the Chuck Berry song for the 1978 ABBA chestnut, “Take a Chance on Me,” a little-too-obvious appeal for votes in the primary season.

Clinton opened her campaign in June with Celine Dion’s “You and I,” a choice made after more than 200,000 people voted in an online contest. The blogosphere raised its voice, some bloggers objecting to the pick. “Because of Hillary Clinton's outsourcing there's an annoying, no-talent pop singer somewhere in America who's out of a job,” blogger Les Jones said. The song’s since been replaced with “Blue Sky,” by Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

It's all about identity, and trying to establish one. Carrie Brownstein, guitarist for Sleater-Kinney and an NPR columnist, wrote that a campaign song is “like a tattoo; some people won't care or even notice it at all, others will think it really sums up who they are and what they stand for …”



But with so many candidates this season spouting an array of positions, it's hard to sort identities out in one or two quick songs. Laura E., posting on the NPR site in January, may have the right idea. “Maybe I could decide who to vote for … if the candidates would post their ITunes playlists.”

Sometimes interesting campaign music comes from the people the candidates are trying to reach. When that happens, the way a campaign’s message is bounced back to the candidate who sent it imparts its own powerful message. One of the better grassroots efforts is “Ron Paul Is a Virus,” a low-key acoustic homage to Ron Paul produced by the Manhattan-based vlogolution.

But for its sheer emotional power and quiet intensity, the best musical reflection of a candidate’s impact on the people he hopes to reach is the stunning “Yes We Can” video posted on YouTube; produced by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas; and starring everyone from Common and Scarlet Johanssen to John Legend and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

It’s a video valentine to the Obama campaign, but it’s more. It’s a song built on the uplift built into the three words basic to Obama’s political philosophy. As such, its message is as indispensable to the country as it is to the candidate. Watch it. You'll have a lot of company; it's already been viewed 1.84 million times. Go ahead, click below. Dare to be moved.


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Image credit: Counting Crows © 2007 Danny Clinch > Universal Music Group> reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License. Chuck Berry: Roland Godefroy, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License. Ron Paul video excerpt: vlogolution.

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