Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: The DJ in Chief; or, Running for Office, One Pop Song at a Time

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Watching a screener of PBS’ very good American Experience documentary, Clinton, which airs next week, I was reminded of watching Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic Convention. When Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” swelled up at the end of the speech, I remember thinking, That’s it. He’s going to win the election. Now, I’m not a good political prognosticator, and I probably didn’t have a good reason to believe that at the time. (Until Ross Perot temporarily pulled out, after the convention, Clinton was third place in a three-way race.) And I certainly don’t believe today that Clinton’s choice of theme song was the reason he defeated George H.W. Bush.

And yet for all that, I do honestly believe that the song mattered, in that way that a lot of campaign stagecraft matters. A campaign song isn’t going to sway anybody’s vote, not directly. But there’s a dynamic when everything is clicking in a campaign, when intangibles like a good theme song sync with a campaign’s imagery (in this case, optimism, generational change, the future vs. the past) and feed energy back into it. And when it doesn’t work, there’s nothing more sad. I still remember 1996, when Bob Dole’s campaign was using a rewrite of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” with the lyric, “I’m a Dole man”—but people kept hearing the unfortunate mondegreen, “I’m an old man.”

Music doesn’t win elections, but it’s part of that positive feedback loop that’s created when a campaign’s message and its messaging are working well together. By the same token, Barack Obama’s election was no way guaranteed four years ago when Will.i.am put out the “Yes We Can” video before Super Tuesday, but it did, somehow, intangibly, feel more possible.

[Disclosure, by the way, since I haven’t done this in a while: I voted for Obama in the 2008 primary and general election and expect I probably will this time too. My “Don’t Stop” enthusiasm aside, I was never too enthusiastic about Clinton; I did vote for him in ’92, but protest-voted for Perot in 1996.]

In my print TIME column this week (subscription required), I use the Obama campaign’s release of a Spotify playlist last week as a jumping-off point to look at pop music in campaigns this time around. (Sadly, it went to press before Rick Santorum secured his crucial Megadeth endorsement.) The idea of a playlist as a campaign tool is an interesting, if fledgling one. At this point, obviously, it’s more about generating novelty and a certain amount of excitement among a very limited group of your already committed followers—only so many swing voters around the country are even using Spotify right now. But potentially, it’s a more truly political document than a single song can be; like a politician’s list of positions, at best it can offer an overarching narrative whose sum is greater than its parts. Or it can suffer that politician’s pitfall: trying to hard to offer something for everyone that it has no core.

As for Obama’s playlist, I go into that in more depth in the article. But it illustrates how much harder it is to calibrate a re-election message, when the economy is recovering but tentatively, than to run the first time on unambiguous hope. There’s a lot of “Yes, we can, but—” there; messages of “keep marching” and “roll with the changes” balanced by reminders that times are still tough. There are also some flat-out puzzling picks that I didn’t have room to analyze in the column. Why exactly, for instance, use James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” except to throw a generic nod to Boomers? (The lyrics don’t help me: “I thought I was in love a couple of times before with the girl next door”? He totally loves us more than Canada!)

That said, I’m as susceptible to something-for-anyone as the next guy; I was psyched enough to hear Rafael Saadiq, for instance, to overlook the decision to include not one but two Darius Rucker songs. And the playlist was clearly very carefully combed over for lyrics; I couldn’t find too much to offend anyone, save for the generic inoffensiveness.

But I can nitpick a playlist as well as anyone. For instance: considering how much country is on the playlist, and the list’s lyrical emphasis on the theme of patriotic diversity and American multiculturalism (No Doubt’s “Different People”) how could the Obama team have possibly not used Brad Paisley’s “American Saturday Night”? It practically begs to be on the list:

You know everywhere has somethin’ they’re known for
although usually it washes up on our shores
little Italy, Chinatown, sittin’ there side by side
live from New York (it’s Saturday Night!)

Of course, what do I know? The sole reason I’d ever want to run for office would be the chance to get played onto the stage with LCD Soundsystem’s “North American Scum”:

You can see why I don’t work in politics. But there must be more untapped sources of campaign Americana somewhere in your iTunes library. You tell me: what’s on your alternative-campiagn Spotify list?