Proxy Music

Electing the Pop Star in Chief

In 1822, Noah Ludlow dressed himself in a buckskin hunting shirt and leggings, donned moccasins and an old slouch hat, put a rifle on his shoulder, and changed American politics forever with a song called ''The Hunters of Kentucky.'' As his audience let out Indian war whoops, Ludlow retold the story of Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans:

But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn't scared of trifles
For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles
So he marched us down to "Cypress Swamp"
The ground was low and mucky
There stood "John Bull," in martial pomp
But here was old Kentucky!

Never mind that the battle was fought after a treaty resolving the War of 1812 had already been signed (news traveled slowly overseas), or that it was cannons, not backwoods marksmanship, that finished off a misdeployed British force. When the legend becomes fact you print the legend, and "The Hunters of Kentucky" blared everywhere as Jackson took office in 1828. (You can hear it, sounding like the Beverly Hillbillies theme, on Oscar Brand's excellent Presidential Campaign Songs.) Twelve years later, in 1840, the Whig Party overcame the forces of Jacksonian democracy by aping its methods: "Tip and Ty," set to the minstrel song "Little Pigs," made "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" a national slogan, and former general William Henry Harrison swept into office.

Patti, Ralph, and pals at the Garden: People might have power after all.
photo: Michael Kamber
Patti, Ralph, and pals at the Garden: People might have power after all.

The two-party system as we still know it, umbrella parties co-opting each other's strategies in a sometimes gripping, sometimes bogus barrage of democratic rhetoric, was born to an essentially rock-and-roll backbeat. With their intoxicated parades, raucous theme songs, and manic get-out-the-vote crusades, presidential campaigns were the birthplace of national popular culture: The party that made the biggest splash usually won. In the 20th century, naturally, they became consumerist and spectatorial. Woodrow Wilson's campaign tune mimicked a whiskey ad; Al Jolson sold Harding; Hoover's 1928 song was a Lindbergh endorsement, his 1932 flop an attack on FDR as "that slicky wacki wicki Bolsheviki Mickey Mouse." A president now represents a pop-cultural base as much as an electoral one: When Frank Sinatra, whose Rat Pack had helped Kennedy win in 1960 to a rewritten "High Hopes," switched his allegiance to Reagan in 1980, it spelled the end of the New Deal coalition.

Rock too much and you're not presidential; don't rock and you're not only "stiff," you've left grave doubts about your tastes.

In this, the first election to feature two baby boomer candidates, America is called upon to pick not just a leader, but a successor to Bill Clinton as rock-and-roll president. But the wildness that draws people to rock runs the risk of bringing scandal and disreputability down upon politicians. Rock too much and you're not presidential; don't rock and you're not only "stiff," you've left grave doubts about your tastes. So Bush and Gore dance around the issue like radio stations afraid to play a nervy song that would turn off as many people as it turned on.

Except as a whipping boy like R-rated movies and violent video games, music has factored negligibly in this campaign, as when Tom Petty asked W. to quit using "I Won't Back Down," or Republicans accused Democrats of hypocrisy after a stickered record by the Eels, with a song on it called "It's a Motherf#&!@r," was handed out at a Nita Lowey event. Gore's use of Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" seems no more or less absurd than the Fatboy 2000 campaign poster that's up on Norman Cook's Web site. It scarcely matters that Bush recruited Tejano singers as governor (Republicans wrote campaign songs in Spanish as far back as Ford), or that the Zappa kids made up with Tipper and Al after dad's PMRC battles.

Greil Marcus argues in his new Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives that Clinton won the 1992 election when he went on Arsenio, picked up a saxophone, and blew "Heartbreak Hotel." America couldn't resist electing Elvis, the baby boomers had their first presidential icon, and the Clinton-Gore ticket found the perfect theme song: Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)." The tune was mainstream but not hackneyed, lightly on-message, reaching Garth Brooks suburbanites and MTV's Rock the Vote cohort alike. Clinton evoked it in his farewell address at this year's convention, but Gore should have found some way to recycle it, the way the Democrats drew on "Happy Days Are Here Again" for decades.

Because the Gore-Lieberman theme, "Let the Day Begin" by '80s U2-wannabes the Call, is a nonstarter: not only completely unfamiliar, but a litany that's the musical equivalent of an overstuffed Gore stump speech, the way the tune he usually exits to, BTO's moldy "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," parallels his comic attempts to seem like a guy who stands tough politically. Even worse is Bush's campaign tune, Billy Ray Cyrus's "We the People," a would-be Chevy ad that goes out on a godawful voice-over of the Preamble. Cyrus admitted to the L.A. Times that he offered the song to the Democrats first and isn't sure who he's going to vote for. Another track on Cyrus's new album, Southern Rain, says it all: "Hey Elvis, where the hell are you?"

Next Page »