Opinion: Obama, Romney and the battle of the bands

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Hope versus anger: It’s not just shaping up as the theme of the November presidential race; it’s the clashing musical theme of the presidential campaigns.

David Fahrenthold pointed out in the Washington Post on Wednesday that GOP hopeful Mitt Romney is taking a new tack with the music played at campaign rallies. His main theme remains the rather bland but inspirational ballad ‘Born Free’ by Kid Rock, but at the end of Romney’s speeches, the campaign has taken to playing a much edgier tune, ‘American Ride’ by country singer Toby Keith. Meanwhile, President Obama released a list Thursday of 29 songs picked out by his election staffers to represent the themes of his 2012 campaign. David Graham at the Atlantic does a nice job sifting through the political rationale for Obama’s choices, pointing out in particular that the list contains zero rap songs even though Obama has identified himself as a devoted rap fan, and that it’s heavy on country tunes because he’s courting white middle-class voters. But I’m more intrigued by the contrast between Toby Keith and Sugarland.


Romney and Obama would both like to win votes from the country/Western demographic. The Romney campaign’s choice for reaching it is a tune that’s a perfect encapsulation of conservative protest: heavy on anger while a little fuzzy on the details. The most cutting criticisms in Keith’s song are actually directed at pop culture and the media, but there’s plenty of political stuff too, particularly in the first verse:

‘Winter gettin’ colder, summer gettin’ warmer Tidal wave comin’ ‘cross the Mexican border Why buy a gallon, it’s cheaper by the barrel Just don’t get busted singin’ Christmas carols.’

The video version of the song makes this political content even more overt: An animated Al Gore is depicted naked and sunburned in the desert heat, and a bunch of arms wearing red-white-and-blue sleeves slap gags over the mouths of caroling children. Whether any of this makes sense -- if Al Gore is boiling in the sun, doesn’t that imply that his climate warnings are accurate? And when has the government ever prevented anyone from singing Christmas carols? -- is a bit beside the point. It fits the narrative of an aggrieved populace oppressed by science wonks, illegal immigrants and the government. The only sour note in Romney’s campaign symphony is that Keith also seems to be criticizing profit-gouging oil companies, which is not something one would ever hear coming from the mouth of a GOP candidate.

Contrast this with the country songs on Obama’s playlist, in particular ‘Stand Up’ by Sugarland. It, like Romney’s tamer ‘Born Free,’ is an inoffensive ballad, but some verses seem as if they were lifted from Obama’s hope-and-change campaign of 2008:

‘There’s a comfort, there’s a healing High above the pain and sorrow Change is coming, can you feel it? Calling us in to a new tomorrow.’

In this video for ‘Stand Up,’ singer Jennifer Nettles spray-paints the word ‘Home’ on a banner, with a peace sign in the middle of the ‘O,’ and then gives it to a child in the crowd. Had this been a GOP theme song, the banner would have said ‘America’ and the letter ‘A’ would be crossed with an assault rifle.

Campaign music matters because, like a commercial jingle, it tends to stick in one’s head long after the speeches have been forgotten, and music can travel a more direct path to the heart than mere words. Romney’s campaign wants to leave listeners steaming; Obama’s wants to leave them hopeful and inspired. Of course, when it comes to their personal musical stylings, Romney likes to appeal to patriotism while Obama just wants us to know he still loves us.


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--Dan Turner