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The way candidates choose their campaign songs has changed

What one study found about the presidential candidates’ music choices, and the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

The types of songs presidential campaigns use have changed over time, from jingles to patriotic music to pop songs, but the purpose is always the same: to help sell the candidate.

“Political speeches from the get-go can be inherently divisive,” said Lottie Johnson, who studied campaign song selection. “If you take music and incorporate it into your campaign, people are maybe taking in a message subconsciously and they’re not even fully aware of it yet, and they might be more willing to listen.”

Johnson, Deseret News’ own entertainment reporter, looked at major party presidential nominee campaign songs from 1972 to 2016 for research published last month in Communications Studies, an academic journal about communication processes. She studied the topic for her master’s thesis in mass communications at BYU’s School of Communications.

“Music has always been an important part of my life,” Johnson said. She joked that the topic was a way to compromise with her father, a retired political science professor, “for not going the politics route in my life.”

Johnson found Republican candidates are more likely to use patriotic songs, like George W. Bush using Billy Ray Cyrus’ “We the People” in 2000, and Democrats are more likely to use songs that “offer a critique of the nation or offer solutions for how to change or move forward,” like Barack Obama using Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” in 2012.

Music has long played a role in American politics, from William Henry Harrison’s 1840 campaign song “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 jingle “I Like Ike.” In the 1932 campaign, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the 3-year-old “Happy Days Are Here Again,” an early, though isolated, example of a candidate using a popular song.

Beginning in 1972, researchers mark the beginning of a transitional “bridge to pop” era. That year, Richard Nixon used an original song called “Nixon Now,” but his Democratic opponent George McGovern used Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Johnson noted the song may well have been an appeal to younger voters, since the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 had been ratified the year before.

By 1984, both major party nominees were using popular music. Walter Mondale used “Gonna Fly Now,” aka, the theme song from “Rocky,” while Ronald Reagan went with the misunderstood “Born in the U.S.A.,” which had just been released on Bruce Springsteen’s album of the same name that summer.

“Born in the U.S.A.” is an example of an incongruent song, where the soaring, buoyant mood of the music doesn’t align with the message of the lyrics, which tell the story of a Vietnam veteran struggling after returning home from war. Johnson found incongruity has decreased over time, and that more recents candidates often picked ambiguous songs focused on general ideas or on citizens.

Using pop songs about optimism or empowerment is a different approach than using songs specifically about a candidate, like “Nixon Now” or Jimmy Carter’s 1976 song “Why Not the Best?” which sounds incredibly dated to modern ears and included the lyrics “We need Jimmy Carter / We can’t afford to settle for less / America! / Once and for all, why not the best?” Songs about candidates have gone out of vogue, although in 2008, John McCain used a song written by Big & Rich’s John Rich called “Raising McCain.”

Beginning in 2000, candidates started using multiple songs, so Johnson picked the song that had the strongest association with the candidate that was frequently used. The decade also saw candidates of both parties gravitate toward patriotic songs, like Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America,” which was used by Bush in 2004 and Obama in 2008.

“Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at the Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now,” Kix Brooks told Rolling Stone of his song being used by candidates from both parties. “Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.”

Today, artists are likely to call out politicians they don’t agree with for using their music. That happened to former President Donald Trump with artists including The Rolling Stones, Adele, Aerosmith, Neil Young and R.E.M. Despite the protests, artists don’t always have control how their music is used if their song is licensed through a performing rights organization.

In 2016, Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were both associated with songs more alienating than usual. Trump played The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at his rallies, a song about being resigned, and Clinton was known for Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” a song about empowerment, yes, but with a title that takes its name from one team competing against another.

“You kind of have these intense songs that are very clearly making this kind of extreme message about the candidates,” Johnson said. “That stood out to me, especially after from 2000 to 2012, you had these pretty generic, ambiguous songs about American ideals, the American dream and things like that.”

Whether or not that trend continues remains to be seen, but in 2020, two candidates chose the same song to take the stage at their presidential campaign kickoff rallies: Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes.” That both candidates who used the song were relatively young — 39-year-old Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and 40-year-old Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. — suggests we could be hearing optimistic top 40 pop rock and other feel-good radio hits at rallies for elections to come.

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