Romney/Ryan 2012 and the Nostalgia of Republican Campaign Music

The intersection of music and politics is of particular interest to me, and I always enjoyed giving the lecture on music in political campaigns when I taught pop music. Since we are in the midst of a heated Presidential campaign and it’s convention season, I decided to do a couple of posts on the music each candidate is using, how they’re trying to use it, and the unintentional controversies they’ve run into along the way. Since the Republican National Convention just wrapped up last week, I’ll focus on the music for the Romney/Ryan ticket today and will have another post about the Democrats following their convention in Charlotte.

ASCAP has a nice little document explaining how to use campaign music properly, which can be read here. In that document they briefly describe the purpose and some history of Presidential campaign music:

Music possesses a unique power to inspire, motivate and energize a campaign. And music has been used in campaigns since the founding of our country. George Washington effectively used “God Save Great Washing- ton” (a parody of “God Save the King”), Franklin Roosevelt used “Happy Days Are Here Again” (written by ASCAP members Milton Ager and Jack Yellen), Dwight Eisenhower used “They Like Ike” (written by ASCAP founding member Irving Berlin) and President Barack Obama used “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” (written by ASCAP member Stevie Wonder) just to name a few of the Presidential campaign success stories.

The blog Music Makes Sense also looked at the purposes of campaign music, specifically in television ads. The author concludes that music in contemporary campaign ads functions to stir emotion, craft a storyline, and create nostalgic feelings in the listener. Sometimes that works, and sometimes a scandal subverts those purposes.

Republicans generally have had a little more trouble avoiding these musical scandals in their campaigns. Some of these scandals result from political disagreements between the musician and candidate, which generally leads to bad press not worth a song’s continued use even if the campaign has secured the proper rights. One of the most famous of these was when Bruce Springsteen complained about Reagan’s use of “Born in the USA” in 1984 and pointed out the President’s misunderstanding of the song’s meaning. More recently, Tom Petty told George W. Bush to stop using “I Won’t Back Down” and then went on to play the song at Al Gore’s concession party. Other times these scandals come from a failure to secure the necessary legal rights. In 2008, the Ohio Republican Party was sued for using Jackson Browne’s hit “Running On Empty” in an ad for John McCain. Two years later, during Florida governor Charlie Crist’s primary campaign to run as the Republican Senate candidate, he used the excellent Talking Heads’ song “Road to Nowhere” without permission. Following legal proceedings by David Byrne, Crist had to film this somewhat embarrassing apology video:

Don’t they kind of look alike?

There have already been a few scandals this year, including the Silversun Pickups sending a cease and desist letter to the Romney campaign after using their song “Panic Switch” without permission. Earlier this year, K’Naan asked Romney to stop using his song “Wavin’ Flag” at campaign events. Although the campaign had secured the rights they needed, its continued use wasn’t worth a public dispute with the musician. When Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan was added to the ticket in July, a whole new set of musical-political dissonances arose. Ryan is a Tea Party favorite and part of his appeal as a running-mate is his youth and reputation as a passionate anti-Obama insurgent, and he has used music to reinforce this storyline. He played up his youthful musical tastes during the Republican National Convention when he said, “There are the songs on [Romney’s] iPod, which I’ve heard on the campaign bus and on many hotel elevators. He actually urged me to play some of these songs at campaign rallies. I said, I hope it’s not a deal-breaker Mitt, but my playlist starts with AC/DC, and ends with Zeppelin.” He used Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to reflect his strong anti-Obama attitude at campaign events, and has since been denounced by the band’s lead singer Dee Snider (ironically, 27 years ago that song was on the PMRC’s Filthy 15 list. Here’s how Dee Snider responded to that in a Senate hearing). When Ryan claimed to be a fan of Rage Against the Machine, Rage’s versatile and virtuosic guitarist, Tom Morello, responded with an op-ed in Rolling Stone, saying:

I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of “Fuck the Police”? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!

Don’t mistake me, I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta “rage” in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of for campaign contributions.

So why risk using songs that could stir up controversy? The truth is, if Republicans want to play something other than Sousa marches and country songs, that is a strong risk they often have to take because most popular musicians fall on the other side of the political spectrum. I can’t tell you why that is, but one could speculate it is related to the gulf between the ethnic diversity in the entertainment industry and the stark whiteness of the Republican party. Perhaps it is related to the Republican party’s less favorable views towards the arts (Romney has pledged to cut all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and NPR). Whatever the reasons, a Republican candidate has an uphill battle when choosing music by a pop, rock, or rap (yeah right) musician who hasn’t been dead for a couple of decades.

Of course, while there has been the occasional musical embarrassment in this campaign, most songs have been unproblematic. Looking at the songs put forth by the candidate (or most likely a campaign staffer) provides some insight on how the campaign is trying to sell itself to voters. The songs I’ll be looking at come from Mitt Romney’s Spotify playlist, which he unveiled to the public during the primary campaign in March when he (or most likely a campaign staffer) sent out the following tweet.

If you follow the link, this is Mitt Romney’s “On the Road” playlist that comes up:

There are a few interesting inclusions here worth looking at. Why choose “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys? It’s one of their most clearly drug-influenced songs from liberal Brian Wilson’s peak creative period. Something that more prominently features conservative member Mike Love would have made more sense I think (although I can guess why he didn’t choose “God Only Knows.” For more on the Beach Boys’ politics check out this article). The Kingston Trio’s “M.T.A.” makes sense in this playlist because of Romney’s Massachusetts connection and its past as a campaign song. For a great in-depth history of the song, I recommend this 2010 article from the Boston Globe. In summary, the song was written in 1949 for Boston Mayoral candidate Walter A. O’Brien, a labor organizer and member of the Progressive Party. While it seems that would directly conflict with Romney’s stances, the song was actually protesting the fair hikes following the public buyout of the Boston Elevated Railway Company. O’Brien saw the purchase as an inappropriate bailout that enriched stockholders with taxpayer money. So while O’Brien, who was blacklisted as a communist in 1955, and Romney are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they theoretically would have both sided with privatization on that issue. When The Kingston Trio covered the song in 1959, they changed it to be about a fictional mayoral candidate to avoid any perceptions that they were celebrating a socialist politician. While many musicians in the late 1950s urban folk movement were very political and associated with leftist movements, the Kingston Trio actively avoided the politicization of their music. For these reasons, it was acceptable in 2004 for then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to sing it with the Kingston Trio while celebrating the debut of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s new “CharlieCard.”

Mitt Romney singing “M.T.A.” with the Kingston Trio in 2004

Instead of continuing to go through songs one-by-one, I think it’s more useful to look at the larger trends in the playlist. Out of nineteen songs only two are by black performers, which perhaps gives some insight into what voters Romney is trying to appeal to with this playlist. I divided the songs into three major categories. Nine of the songs fell into “Oldies,” or pop/rock songs from the 1970s and before (I included Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” here). The “Country/Western” category had eight songs (counting “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” as it was originally an old hillbilly record and Kid Rock’s “Born Free” since he has now moved more into the area of country than rock). Finally, there are only two songs that would qualify as “Contemporary Rock/Pop” and they are both by The Killers, who Romney claims to be fond of of (their lead singer is Mormon). Each of these categories could be seen as appealing to a different group: oldies for baby-boomers and older voters, country/western for rural voters, and The Killers for the whippersnappers.

I also decided to look at the division between new songs and old songs. I used the year of 1994 as the dividing line between new and old, with the justification that this year’s youngest voters would have been born that year. Here’s how that came out:

By looking at the music presented here, I can conclude that nostalgia and yearning for the past is a major part of this campaign. Some of the songs on his playlist are even about nostalgia for the past, such as Frankie Valli’s “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” and Nat King Cole’s “Stardust.” Of the seven songs written after 1994, five of them are country songs (the other two are The Killers) and many contemporary country songs stress nostalgic concepts in their lyrics with a focus on enjoying a simple life that includes hard work, going to church, sticking close to your roots, growing old, and watching the cycle repeat with the next generation. It relates to an underlying conservative and nostalgic idea that we should resist change in this country, because if life was good for our parents and grandparents, then by getting our country back to what it was like for them, it will be good for us too.

This article by Will Wilkinson on the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives and how it relates to country music is a great read. He argues:

Country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.

Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that “what you see is what you get,” a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in “the little things” that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.

A lot of country music these days is culture war, but it’s more bomb shelter than bomb.

Country music has been central to many Republican campaigns over the last two decades, going back to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” being used regularly during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. There have even been a number of country songs written for Republican candidates recently, such as John Rich’s godawful “Raisin’ McCain”  and Lane Turner’s groan-inducing “I Built It” that was debuted at this year’s Republican convention. Country has worked really well for Republican campaigns by stirring patriotic emotions, telling a story (few genres consistently create narratives through song as well as country), and creating nostalgia, which is central to Mitt Romney’s candidacy this year.

The Republican ticket is very much about nostalgia, for an America before Obama and even before George W. Bush (because we don’t talk about him). It’s about nostalgia for a more culturally homogenous America before Roe v. Wade and talk about marriage equality. It’s a nostalgia for when America was without question the most powerful country in the world, economically and militarily. But be careful, because while nostalgia is quite comforting it can be dangerous too. Nostalgia creates an idealized past blind to the realities of its time. While the present is rife with problems of its own, remember to be wary of any man in an expensive suit who tries to sell you the past. There’s a good chance you’re being swindled.

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