Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 9, 2008

McCain vs. Obama: Battle of the Bands

Today’s campaign entry in the This Is Getting Ridiculous Derby comes from the McCain/Palin ticket. In yet another painful grab for what is perceived as the “rockin’ youth vote” by a 72-year-old man, the campaign has begun using the 31-year-old Heart song “Barracuda” (#11 on Billboard charts, 1977) as Sarah Palin’s theme song. Palin apparently picked up the nickname “Sarah Barracuda” as a high school basketball player, and it still plays to her political perception as a “tough” conservative.

Meanwhile the writers of the song, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, have strongly requested that the campaign stop using the song, because as they said, “Sarah Palin’s views and values in no way represent us as American women.” (Nancy, the redheaded sister and superb rhythm guitarist, has been married to filmmaker Cameron Crowe for years, and both have been noted for their liberal politics in the past.) The “free market” McCain camp said they bought the rights to use it, fair-and-square, and will keep using the song. So there. Nyah!

Does Music Matter, Politically Speaking?

I think it does. Unfortunately our elections are still more foolish popularity contests than serious discussions of policy, so the right soundtrack can really make a difference in a culture hooked on silly theme restaurants. No word yet on what theme song the Obama/Biden campaign will counter with.

While Stevie Wonder playing at the DNC certainly had national and trans-racial appeal, I believe Obama will need to come up with some more recent hit to take advantage of the small musical “bump” that often helps energize a campaign.

My biggest recommendation: Obama should get John Mayer on board. He’s young. He’s hot. He gets lots of press. His politics are clearly progressive, and he’s not afraid to say so in songs or in interviews. And he’s not an idiot who would become a liability instead of an asset.

I’d advise the Dems stay away from anyone that emits even a whiff of the hippie vibe of the 1960s (sorry, Neil Young), and they ought to think twice about even using any more R&B at all (though it pains me to say it). Why? Because they’ve got to work harder at reaching the economically challenged rural and “small town” white voters that might still be within their grasp in the swing states. I’d stay away from African-American country singer Cowboy Troy, though. He’s already declared himself by performing at the RNC. (Yikes.)

Former(?) Hootie & the Blowfish frontman (and African-American) Darius Rucker has crossed over to country music with a top five hit this year , and would seem a likely ally for Obama, …but again, he’s not a guaranteed long-term asset and not all that big anyway. On the other hand, a white country star with an appropriate song and a definite Obama endorsement could be well-recieved by some swing voters and engergize Obama’s base (though use of such a song would probably seen as pandering by others, and rightly so…)

Bill Clinton hit the right note way back when with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”, a clear, forward-looking Boomer anthem. Obama needs to find a similar grace note, and fast.

As for the dubious use of a song, like with “Barracuda”, these kinds of battles have been going on at least since the Reagan era. Teflon Ron, the political mentor of John McCain, showed his politically savvy by co-opting and twisting Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” to his own advantage during the 1980 campaign (it’s an anti-Vietnam, help-the-poor-man song very clearly coming from a liberal perspective, except for the anthemic, tongue-in-cheek chorus that Reagan and his lemmings took instead at face value).  Reagan continued trying to ride the Boss’s coattails in the 1984 campaign with references to Springsteen’s song “Promised Land” and other iconic images he knew would play to a Jersey crowd, and maybe a Christian or “heartland” crowd as well. At that point the stellar Rolling Stone musical and political writers Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus  wrote the following:

“What’s up for grabs right now isn’t just an election, much less the meaning of rock & roll songs. It’s the meaning of America itself that’s at stake. What we can’t repeat is the awful error of the sixties, ceding all images of patriotism to the opposition. And rock stars can’t fight this war alone, not if there’s any chance of winning. It’s up to the rest of us to also find ways of thinking and speaking clearly and of acting effectively together in order to reclaim our country and our future.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, boys.

Long live rock ‘n’ roll!!!

Hey, speaking of which: Chuck Berry’s still alive! He practically invented the rock genre (and definitely invented the phrase “long live rock ‘n’ roll”.) He was even on Leno last week ). Let’s see if he’ll do a re-write of Johnny B. Goode, asking McCain/Palin to shape up, do right by America, and “be good”. (And to stop ruining a great Heart song for the rest of us, for the rest of our lives.)


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