Politicians hope music puts them in tune with voters

Hartford Courant

Political campaigns are essentially juiced-up sales pitches by people desperate for you to buy their product -- themselves.

They'll try anything: kissing babies, bad-mouthing the fat cats in Washington, catchy slogans and -- for nearly as long as there have been campaigns -- music.

Bill Clinton co-opted Fleetwood Mac's refrain "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow" for his successful presidential run in 1992, but he was hardly the first to adopt a theme song. Franklin D. Roosevelt sold voters on his 1932 campaign with the jingle "Happy Days Are Here Again," and Henry Clay had his own march for his unsuccessful bid in 1844, titled "Hurrah for the Clay!"

"Music has always been part of the campaign process," says Harry Rubenstein, political-history curator at the National Museum of History in Washington. "From the very beginning, the political process in America has always been coupled with serious dialogue of issues and entertainment."

Now it's practically an icebreaker to ask presidential candidates about their favorite songs and artists: Howard Dean likes Wyclef Jean; Dick Gephardt prefers Eric Clapton; John Kerry is a Deadhead, according to a survey in the November issue of Blender. (Pop culture anti-maven Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman declined to participate in the magazine's poll, although he has elsewhere cited "My Way" by Frank Sinatra as his favorite song.)

Interesting, sure. But what's more interesting is the role music plays in campaigns and the subtle effect it has on the emotions of voters.

Advertisers use music, particularly pop music, to associate their products with the feelings such music evokes in their target audiences: better moods, nostalgia, hipness and so on. The same principles apply in political campaigns, says Ravi Dhar, professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management.

"They use similar ideas. One thing was using patriotic music, for instance, or the flag flying at the back. It's that idea of trying to link any positive feelings or associations you have for the flag or for the country onto the politician," he says. "And obviously you often use music of the generation of the people you're trying to attract and relate to. So, if you like a certain type of music, and then you hear that music, you sort of transfer that liking to the politician ... because in a way you might assume they have similar taste."

It's not a conscious process, Dhar says, which is part of why it can be an effective tool.

"The key is that people aren't aware of the way music affects them, and when you're not aware of how something is affecting you, it has a much larger effect, in some sense," he says. "If you ask somebody if the music played by a politician has an effect on your liking for the politician, they'll say no.... But studies have shown that people are not aware of the ways in which these variables influence their preferences."

Music in campaigns can also help communicate a candidate's message, says Dee Dee Myers, press secretary for Clinton in 1993 and 1994.

"It's like a bumper sticker. If you can put something important about a campaign into a sound bite, onto a bumper sticker, into a song, it helps people understand what the candidate is about," Myers says.

Clinton's use of "Don't Stop" in 1992 is a good example.

"I think other things were much more important than the song, but one of the central things about a campaign is repeating the message in as many ways as you can, and a song can be helpful in that way. The more ways you can say the same thing and the more times you can say it, the better off," Myers says. "If you can use it as a shorthand to remind people about the more complex, bigger message, that helps."

It can backfire too, as the Reagan campaign discovered in 1984, when it tried to turn Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the U.S.A." into a patriotic anthem. Unfortunately for them, the song is about a Vietnam War veteran's hellish tour of duty and subsequent difficulties finding a normal life upon his return home.

"It was absurd," Myers says. "Did anyone on that campaign even listen to that song? But people responded to it, even though it was wrong."

That's been the point of music in political campaigns for 200 years: getting people to respond to candidates, issues and each other.

"It's deeply embedded in our culture and society," Rubenstein says. "Partially, it's tied to: How do you get people to the polls? Part of this is: How does public discourse work in America? Part of this is just the nature of American society toward how we deal with issues. I think the three sort of come together."

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