As much as we might like to think it's all about policy and practicality, any politician knows that a big part of getting elected is making people feel like you're the right candidate. (Or, at the very least, feel like the other person is wrong.) And how do you do that? Passionate speeches, emotional advertisements...and music!
Eric Felten is managing editor of The Weekly Standard, where he recently wrote a piece tracing the evolving role of music in US presidential campaigns -- from the earliest campaign songs to the overwrought (and generic) underscoring that we recognize from campaign ads today. Brooke talks to Felten about how and why campaign music has changed over time and listen to some of their favorite examples.
Special thanks to the WNYC Archives department for their help.
“Everyday I Have The Blues” By Count Basie
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Sure, presidential campaigns are supposed to be about competing visions, ideas and policies. But really, they’re all about the feels. [?] Candidates would like to win your mind but they’re much more interested in your viscera, and that requires stagecraft, moving soliloquies, forcefully delivered, artful lighting, evocative music.
Eric Felten is managing editor of The Weekly Standard, where he recently explored the history of music in presidential campaigns. Eric, welcome to On the Media.
ERIC FELTEN: Brooke, how are you doing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good. So you trace the use of campaign music back to the earliest elections, from the campaign of William Henry Harrison against Martin Van Buren, the song “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”
ERIC FELTEN: As a general, William Henry Harrison had won a great victory at the battle of Tippecanoe, so he was known as Tippecanoe, and his running mate was Tyler, so Tippecanoe and Tyler is Harrison and Tyler.
["TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO"]:
Oh who has heard the great commotion, motion motion
All the country through?
It is the ball a-rolling on
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too
And with him we'll beat Little Van, Van
Van is a used up man
And with him we'll beat Little Van
ERIC FELTEN: It shows that, that Donald Trump wasn't the first to campaign –
- by belittling his opponent. Long before there was little Marco, there was little Van. It’s the precedent. It’s the president of the United States and he’s being referred to as “Little Van, Van Van is a used up man.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this campaign song tradition continues to the 19th century into the 20th. FDR had cozy songs like, “My Friend Franklin.”
[“MY FRIEND FRANKLIN”]:
My friend Franklin steered us through some stormy skies
Mighty few can measure to his size...
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then there was the unfortunate song, “Click with Dick” for Richard Nixon’s 1960 campaign.
[“CLICK WITH DICK”]:
Come on and click with Dick
The one that none can lick
He’s the man to lead the U.S.A.
[SONG UP & UNDER]
ERIC FELTEN: Can you imagine, he actually lost that campaign?
How, I just – how, I don’t know. With “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” you had had this tradition of, of everybody singing along, and it becomes less of a sing-along as you get into the 20th century. So you have a transition to using pop tunes that are well known and popular. FDR had “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ERIC FELTEN: Harry Truman, “I'm Just Wild About Harry,” where you have music performed by famous people. So, for example, in the John F. Kennedy campaign in 1960, Frank Sinatra had had a big hit with “High Hopes” about a year before that and he did a version specifically for John F. Kennedy, where he kind of switched the lyrics around.
[FRANK SINATRA SINGING JFK VERSION/“HIGH HOPES”]
Everyone is voting for Jack
Cause he's got what all the rest lack
Everyone wants to back - Jack
Jack is on the right track.
‘Cause he’s got high hopes
He’s got high hopes…
ERIC FELTEN: Hillary Clinton this year is using “Fight Song” as one of her campaign rally tunes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Trump is using. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? [LAUGHING]
ERIC FELTEN: Yes, and he’s used “Sympathy for the Devil,” as well. I, I know he likes the Rolling Stones but, really, are these the best choices one can come up with?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think the personalized campaign songs faded?
ERIC FELTEN: Well, what happened is you had an artistic transformational use of music in politics that came out of the 1968 Nixon campaign, to stop thinking about music as something for rallies and to start thinking about music in a cinematic way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example.
ERIC FELTEN: Nixon hired a guy named Eugene Jones, who was a documentary filmmaker, to make a series of advertisements for television. And the first one was about the Democratic Convention of ‘68 which, of course, was rioting in Chicago and had been a big disaster for the Democratic Party. And while he was showing the still images from inside the convention hall, we hear a pep band playing a rah-rah version of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” all good Americana rally music.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
And then we start seeing images of the rioting in the streets and police beating people. And when the images turn to the violent images, then the music shifted as well, much as it might in a horror picture. And the music became fractured and stuttered and, and a weird electronic overlay comes over the happy rah-rah cheering pep band music.
It was meant to be disorienting and disturbing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also describe another Nixon ad called, “The First Civil Right.”
ERIC FELTEN: Yeah, this one is fabulous. The ad was all about how Nixon was gonna be the law and order president, and there were all these images of violence in the streets, of rioting. And the music that was used was this surreal, creepy science fiction music.
And what’s particularly interesting about it is the music wasn’t written for the ad. Instead, they got a disc from a production music house, companies that record music to be used in television, low-budget movies, commercials. And the Nixon people found this disk that was sort of off-the-shelf music.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That you might use in The Twilight Zone.
ERIC FELTEN: Exactly. It really changed political advertising to having this sort of cinematic quality of using music, not as a rah-rah tool but as a way to signal emotional states. Ever since, a whole industry has grown up around providing music in political ads that sounds frightening and ominous and it signals that the opponent is a bad guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the musical cues of, say, the ‘60s, the scary organ chord that you might have heard in a soap opera, would make you laugh today. So how did the tone change from the ‘80s to now?
ERIC FELTEN: Well, in the ‘80s a lot of, you know, slasher flick ominous, low rumbling synthesizer.
[CLIP/SOUND EFFECTS UP & UNDER]:
ANNOUNCER: It’s been four years and Ronald Reagan still hasn’t met even once with the leader of the Soviet Union.
ERIC FELTEN: That hard, heavy negative that sounds like the opponent is Freddy Krueger, that got used up, to some extent. And so, what’s happened in the last decade has been a really interesting shift to what people in the business refer to as a “soft negative,” which is instead of making your opponent sound like he's scary and evil, you make your opponent sound like he's goofy, silly, stupid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We went to a website called FirstCom, which is one of these off-the-shelf music publishing companies. There were songs called negative vibes, which sounds like this.
[NEGATIVE VIBE SOUNDS]
And we also saw tracks like loony bin, which sounds like this.
[LOONY BIN SOUNDS/UP & UNDER]
And that’s kind of similar to Hillary Clinton’s ad featuring Republicans mocking and criticizing Trump.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP & UNDER]:
MAN: He is a con artist.
MAN: A phony.
MAN: Donald Trump is the know-nothing candidate.
MAN: Donald - is a bully.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You get the point. But you wrote that more than the linear tracks that deliver a single emotion, you're particularly fascinated by what are called transitions?
ERIC FELTEN: You've got a 30-second spot and you've got to do a lot in 30 seconds and not only say that your opponent is a bad guy but that your guy offers the solution; he's there to save the day. In the business, they’ll talk about, well, that's an NP, it’s a negative to positive. Or if you have two transitions, you might start with a positive transition to either evil- sounding music or stupid-sounding music for your opponent in the middle, and then you transition again at the end to something positive, representing how your guy is gonna save the day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have an example of that. We got it off of FirstCom. And it's called, “Compared to What's His Name.” We’ll play it for you. Talk us through it.
[MUSIC PLAYS UP & UNDER]
ERIC FELTEN: There we have the soaring anthem, something – oh no, what happened?
I’m walking down a dark street alone, and then creeping back in-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s hope!
ERIC FELTEN: - something hopeful.
My name’s Joe and I approve of this ad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, I know you're not a political operative, but what kind of ad would you like to hear? And don't say, one full of really fact-filled policies or something like that. But I mean, what would appeal to you viscerally more than what you're hearing now?
ERIC FELTEN: I - you know, I'd like to hear an ad that featured Count Basie, so I could just hear Count Basie and ignore the rest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Any particular song?
ERIC FELTEN: In this political season, I would think of Joe Williams with Count Basie singin’ “Every Day I've Got the Blues.”
[“EVERY DAY I’VE GOT THE BLUES”/UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Eric, thank you very much.
ERIC FELTEN: Brooke, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Felten is managing editor for The Weekly Standard.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari and Noah Kernis. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.