Campaign anthems and rally cries: music and politics

With the 2020 United States presidential election—and the subsequent run-off elections—now behind us, I’m thinking about candidates’ tactics heading into past elections and also about the use of campaign songs. Artists like Neil Young, the Village People and Aerosmith expressed displeasure over Republican candidate Donald Trump’s unauthorized use of their music. Ottawa folk singer Tony Turner was suspended from his job with Environment Canada over his “Harperman” protest song. How have music and politics become so inextricably linked?

This is actually a two-part question.

The first part examines the origins of the campaign song, an upbeat popular song or an original composition, that hopes to spread a positive message about a campaign or candidate. The second part explores the natural response; that is, an examination of attempts to denounce questionable practices and policies, and to protest candidates’ questionable campaign tactics.

Use of a campaign song is primarily know in the United States presidential election, where major party candidates typically use one or more songs to identify with their campaign. The choice of song is based on how well it articulates a positive message about the campaign or candidate: themes may make a good-natured reference to one of the candidate’s admirable traits or qualities, and they typically centre on patriotism or optimism (e.g., “Happy Days Are Here Again”, the 1932 campaign song of Franklin D. Roosevelt, or “High Hopes”, JFK’s campaign song in 1960). Incidentally, Pete Buttigieg, formerly mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also used “High Hopes” during his 2020 presidential campaign.

Historically, campaign songs were partisan ditties, used in American politics, including presidential contests. They played an integral role in holding the interest of the crowds, building enthusiasm and garnering support (e.g., Woody Guthrie’s quintessential “This Land Is Your Land”, used by former U.S. president George H. W. Bush in 1988) and performed most recently at the inauguration of Joe Biden.

Campaign songs are also used to underline existing and perhaps also systemic issues, as is the case with “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, the indelible Simon and Garfunkel classic, used by Republican senator George McGovern as part of his 1972 grass-roots presidential campaign. A second example is “The M.T.A. Song”, written for Progressive Party candidate Walter O’Brien’s 1949 mayoral campaign and popularized by the Kingston Trio a decade later.

The Progressive Party opposed the public buyout of Boston’s streetcar system, and one of O’Brien’s major campaign planks to denounce new exit fares, which the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) had established without first replacing the existing fare collection equipment. O’Brien sought to lower the price of riding the subway and to remove the complicated fare structure—a structure so complicated, in fact, that it required a nine-page explanatory booklet! However, O’Brien was unable to afford radio advertisements and therefore enlisted local folk singers to write and sing songs, including “The M.T.A. Song”, from a touring truck equipped with a loudspeaker.

In some cases, campaign songs were also a means of satirizing opponents, taking the form of a veiled attack on an opposing candidate or an overt condemnation of a particular ideology. And it’s this tasty morsel that protesters have glommed onto, using songs to cry foul.

Such is the case Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, songs meant to lampoon the John Birch Society (JBS). An educational society supporting anti-communism and limited government, the John Birch Society opposed wealth redistribution and economic interventionism, collectivism, totalitarianism and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Society founder Robert Welch affirmed that Dwight Eisenhower could “really be simply a smart politician, entirely without principles and hungry for glory, who is only the tool of the Communists”. The controversial paragraph was removed before publication.

Not only were the Society’s founder’s words highly contentious: so, too, were those of songwriters satirizing JBS principles.

The lyrics of Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” conflate the Society’s views with those of Hitler, a notion that did not sit well with CBS’s Standards and Practices department. In fact, when Dylan attempted to perform the song on the show, the network forbade it, a decision Sullivan denounced in published interviews. Like Dylan’s recording, the Chad Mitchell Trio’s “John Birch Society” also poked fun at the society’s tendency to see communist conspiracies in many situations.

This is not unlike more recent songwriters’ attempts to shine the spotlight on politicians’ faux pas and foibles. Environment Canada scientist and Ottawa folk singer Tony Turner’s song “Harperman” touches on the trial of Canadian senator Mike Duffy and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s spat with Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. A public servant for nearly 20 years, Turner was put on administrative leave over concerns that his song breached Environment Canada’s values and ethics code, a move that has prompted responses from Harper supporters and detractors across the country.

Whatever your opinion of people’s responses to “Harperman”, the song’s purpose remains clear: to excoriate the missteps of the Harper government. These may have faded in Canadians’ collective memory, eclipsed by the brooding Donald Trump, sour that the lost his bid for re-election in 2020. Trump, who played the 1989 Neil Young song “Rockin’ in the Free World” before formally announcing he would run as a Republican candidate for president in 2016, also played the Rolling Stones’ recording of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at campaign appearances.

In June 2020, the Rolling Stones announced they were working with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) to persuade the Trump campaign that its ongoing use of the song was in violation of the group’s rights. For his part, Neil Young, on August 4, 2020, filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against the Trump campaign, citing that its use of “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk” constituted copyright infringement.

Similarly, Victor Willis, founding member of the Village People, demanded that Trump stop using the band’s songs “Y.M.C.A.” and “Macho Man”. The group’s reaction became the subject of a Saturday Night Live parody. On the October 24, 2020, episode, band member Kenan Thompson, as a police officer, and the rest of the costumed, five-man troupe debuted new lyrics for the song, along with a new title, “Cease and Desist”:

’Cause of all of your lies
We’re playing hardball
And we got a surprise
He’s a lawyer
Who you might recognize
He’s gonna send you a cease and desist
Get ready for a cease and desist.

Unfazed, Trump, who refused to attend Biden’s inauguration, blared “Y.M.C.A” over loudspeakers as he boarded Air Force One, en route to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Springs, Florida, on January 20, 2021.

Although he may want to continue “Rockin’ in the Free World”, playing the long-contentious and misappropriated staple of his campaign rallies, Donald Trump might be well advised to heed the advice of the Rolling Stones instead. And, if his Mar-a-Lago neighbours’ objections are vociferous enough and he must leave it, too, in disgrace, he can perhaps stay at the Y.M.C.A.

Consider this Spotify playlist if you’d like to listen to the songs mentioned in this post.

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