Music may seem insignificant in relation to the numerous elements of an election, but campaign songs can play a major role in the way that a candidate is perceived and have represented the constantly shifting relationship between music and politics.
Not every voter is going to be educated on political issues or have strong political affiliation, so personality becomes a huge part of campaign strategy. Candidates therefore often use music in an attempt to relate to voters and gain support. Since the advent of social media, especially, presidential campaigns have placed new emphasis on constructing a personality that voters can get behind.
In recent elections, for example, candidates like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton have used music to appeal to voters for a variety of reasons. In 2008, Clinton used songs almost exclusively written by or about women. In elections it’s often important for candidates to set themselves apart from others and Clinton’s ace in the hole was her gender. By picking the songs like “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton, she was able to publicly embrace her gender while highlighting her attitude, creating a positive association for voters. Kerry, on the other hand, may not have made the best decision when using the song “No Surrender” by Bruce Springsteen in 2004. Though their politics were in line, the message was just a little off. In the words of one journalist, “maybe it provides something the candidates can’t provide in their own speech or in their own presentation, and that was one song that was exciting, which John Kerry was not.” While the song could have worked out for Kerry, his public personality and the song itself didn’t match, which – while obviously not the reason for his loss – meant a misalignment of image that didn’t work out in his favor.
While the use of music to define a candidate can work wonders for people like Clinton or Barack Obama in 2008, the impact of a campaign song can change when compared to the opposition. Using examples of opposing candidates throughout the last 200 years, the impact of music is clear.
In 1828, Andrew Jackson ran against John Quincy Adams. These are their campaign songs, respectively:
Andrew Jackson: “Hunters of Kentucky”
John Quincy Adams: “Little Know Ye Who’s Coming”
Listening to the two songs, the differences are clear. Adams chose to take the offensive: “famine’s coming if John Quincy not be coming.” This attempt to scare voters into voting for him sounds silly today, but could have been an effective campaign strategy. “A vote for me is a vote against the bad guy” is a common approach to campaigning, but less effective when the “bad guy’s” message is so different. Jackson’s song valorizes an event in which he functions as an American hero. It’s based on a real battle that would have been well-known and doesn’t even acknowledge Adams.
A more contemporary example is from 1992. Opponents Bill Clinton and Ross Perot picked campaign songs that were certainly indicative of their personalities and only highlighted by the other’s choice:
Bill Clinton: “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac
Ross Perot: “Crazy” by Patsy Cline
The two candidates present two entirely different characters. While Clinton emphasizes his youth and cool-factor, Perot emphasizes something entirely different. Clinton’s choice could be considered the perfect campaign song in that it was effective, upbeat, had a general message that backed his campaign, and was popular. Perot’s choice of “Crazy” by Patsy Cline not only made him seem crazy, it emphasizes just how cool Clinton was for his choice in song and displays as a relatable candidate.
Though different from campaign songs, the use of music in elections extended to television commercials, the first of which were utilized in 1952. The introduction of a new medium was significant and, while obviously different from campaign songs, was still impacted by the use of music. One extreme example was in 1968. The differences between Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace’s advertisements are clear and can be viewed here.
Who would you vote for? Like Adams, Nixon decided to scare voters into supporting him. Humphrey and Wallace have typical and effective campaign ads, but when set against one that is truly terrifying, the competition can barely stand. In a tumultuous period for the US, it’s no surprise that Nixon won by creating fear that he claimed he could combat.