Journey, ABBA among campaign favorites

by Tere Figueras Negrete and Casey Woods

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

28 January 2008


MIAMI - John McCain has a soft spot for Swedish disco icon ABBA. Mitt Romney likes to crank up Journey.

And Rudy Giuliani favors the theme from a feel-good movie about a scrappy underdog, a choice that now seems even more apropos given his recent dip in the polls.

Just like sound bites and photo-ops, a candidate’s song playlist can serve as an important campaign-trail tool: pumping up crowds, giving a rock-concert flourish to otherwise rote stump speeches, and conveying a particular theme or idea to voters.

With Republican hopefuls hitting the state in a flurry of rallies and meet-and-greets before Tuesday’s primary, they were invariably preceded by staffers toting along iPods and boomboxes.

Some highlights of the Florida primary soundtrack:

As Mitt Romney made his weeklong crisscross through Florida, his campaign aides put a few songs into heavy rotation: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” - a favorite, by the way, of Hillary Clinton’s - and Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation.” The latter, said Florida campaign director Mandy Fletcher, was picked because “the idea is that there’s too much conversation in Washington, not enough doing. He’s a doer.”

Also frequently queued up on the portable stereo: Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Aint’ Seen Nothing Yet,” played so often that members of the traveling press corps, some of whom have been tailing Romney since Labor Day, have taken to wearily chanting the song’s refrain - “buh-buh-buh-baby” - while hunched over their laptops.

Giuliani made the score to the appropriately titled “Rudy” - a movie about a pint-sized Notre Dame football player overcoming the odds - a fixture throughout his campaign.

But this week, as polls showed Giuliani trailing frontrunners McCain and Romney, his campaign swapped out the stately instrumental at a recent event with the more dynamic “The Best of Both Worlds” - the Van Halen song, not the Miley Cyrus tune of the same title, Hannah Montana fans being presumably too young to vote.

“Music is a useful tool to instill emotion in a person,” said Shelton Berg, dean of the University of Miami Frost School of Music. “If you hit a demographic with a song that reminds them of a time in their lives, their aspirations, you plug into that in a powerful way.”

In a chat with reporters on the campaign’s Florida press bus, McCain admitted to a liking for ABBA.

“You can go everywhere, and it’s like, `Oh ABBA, I can’t stand them,’ but they happen to have sold more records than anybody,” McCain said.

His pick: “Take a Chance.”

Some listeners found it an odd choice for a war veteran.

“When it came on I got a negative feeling about it,” said Lake Worth resident Eileen Hunt, 68, at a town hall meeting in West Palm Beach. “It didn’t evoke enough confidence.”

There have been some famous musical missteps on the campaign trail over the years.

Songwriter Isaac Hayes was publicly annoyed when Bob Dole’s campaign fiddled with his lyrics, turning “Soul Man” into “Dole Man” in 1996. Bobby McFerrin objected when George H.W. Bush used “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” during his first run for office. And Bruce Springsteen was offended when Ronald Reagan turned his “Born in the U.S.A.” into a campaign anthem.

And this election season, McCain had to pull the plug on Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” after the Gainesville native protested. (Petty also told George W. Bush to cease and desist using the song in the 2000 election, but so far hasn’t had a problem with Hillary Clinton’s use of “American Girl.”)

Mike Huckabee, who has barely campaigned in Florida this week, doesn’t have a regular soundtrack, but does play bass in his rock cover band Capital Offense.

A typical jam: John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K in the USA.”

The use of music to rally votes is, of course, nothing new. Early American electioneering often repurposed familiar tunes like “Yankee Doodle” with pro-candidate lyrics.

In 1960, Frank Sinatra rewrote his “High Hopes” into an ode to John F. Kennedy.

During recent Florida stops, campaign aides have generally been in charge of playing DJ.

McCain picks the song that plays at the finale of every event - for the record, he recently subbed in ABBA for another favorite song, Chuck Berry singing “Johnny B. Goode” - but a campaign coordinator chooses the rest of the music, working off an iPod, CDs and a computer to put together a demographically appropriate mix. “I just really take a look at the crowd, because you don’t want to play Bon Jovi for a bunch of war vets,” said the coordinator, who asked to remain anonymous because he isn’t an official press liaison.

The official Romney playlist, supplied by a campaign aide, cuts through a fairly wide swath of pop music territory. It includes “Down On the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “Head over Heels” by the 1980’s girl group The Go-Go’s, and a few nods to the youth vote with alt-rock songs from OKGO and Postal Service.

Romney added his own impromptu musical selection last week, greeting some teens at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Jacksonville with some lines from “Who Let the Dogs Out,” a clip of which has made the inevitable YouTube leap.

Giuliani’s folks have cranked up Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” during Florida events in his bid to court northern transplants.

A soundtrack can also serve tactical purposes: When the former New York mayor was walking in the recent Three Kings Parade in Calle Ocho, a protester marched alongside shouting into a bullhorn. Giuliani staffers cranked up the music on the bus loudspeakers to drown him out.

Musical choices can also serve as subtext, said UM’s Berg.

Romney, who has painted himself as a Reagan-style consensus-builder, has a wide-ranging playlist “that indicates he’s trying to be something to everyone,” said Berg.

And McCain’s affinity to ABBA, whom Berg personally dislikes, “shows he’s independent and is going to go with his gut.”

Thanks to a rift in the Democratic Party over Florida’s decision to hold primaries earlier than usual, Florida voters haven’t much of a chance to hear the musical stylings of the campaigns of Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. (Who have used songs by Celine Dion, U2 and John Mellencamp, respectively.)

All of the dueling soundtracks, of course, are merely a prelude to claiming the ultimate musical intro in the world of politics: “Hail to the Chief,” first played to announce the arrival of a president at James K. Polk’s inauguration in 1845.


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