When presidents go pop: how music has soundtracked 200 years of US elections

Music has been used to complement a campaign’s message long before Joe Biden and Donald Trump stocked up their playlists

US President Donald Trump dances at the end of a rally at Carson City Airport in Carson City, Nevada on October 18, 2020. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN
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One can learn a lot about US presidential candidates from their playlists.

As we head towards election day on Tuesday, November 3, both President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden are upping the tempo during campaign stops with anthemic songs to match their catchy slogans.

From Guns N'Roses' Live and Let Die and Pharrell Williams's Happy to Despacito by Luis Fonsi, the songs chosen are as diverse as the electorate itself.

The early campaign songs

The premise also underscores a time-honoured tradition nearly as old as the US.

The first election battle cry is credited to one of the nation's Founding Fathers, John Adams, in a move that today would be considered a remix. For his successful 1800 campaign as the country's second president, Adams hired poet Robert Treat Paine Jr to pen the song Adams and Liberty to the tune of To Anacreon in Heaven, the anthem of 18th-century gentleman's club The Anacreon Society.

It was a sound move. With the original song popular at the time, Adams rightly figured using a familiar melody would galvanise crowds more than an original and unknown track.

While future presidents James Madison (1809-1817) and William Henry Harrison (1841) went on to commission original tunes, the use of popular songs became a hit on the campaign trail from the turn of the 20th century.

For his 1932 push, Franklin D Roosevelt used big-band arrangements of Happy Days Are Here Again by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen. When it comes to Harry Truman's 1948 campaign, the team found their anthem in Broadway. Lifted from the show Shuffle Along, the jazz standard I'm Just Wild about Harry powered Truman's elevation to the White House. It's not hard to see why the track was chosen.

Popularised nine years prior by singer Judy Garland, the opening couplets could have been written by the campaign team itself: “I am here to state / I'm here to relate / To explain and make it plain / That I'm just wild about Harry.”

While effective, the choice of song was viewed as cheesy in political circles at the time. Some colleagues and critics reportedly hummed their own version of the track called I'm Just Mild About Harry.

When pop music mattered

With the US population diversifying over time, so, too, has popular music. To reach out to as many communities as possible, campaigns began adopting a multi-track approach to sell their message to voters of various backgrounds.

While presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr were among the first to adopt the strategy, some of the songs chosen still smacked of novelty – the less we say about the tepid The George Bush Song by Willie Barrow and Sylvia Johns Cain, the better.

Pop songs really came into play as potent rally tools from the 1992 election onward. Bill Clinton's victorious campaign displayed keen awareness of pop music's power to inspire. The use of Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop and the operatic West End tune This is The Moment became a clarion call to voters to seize the day.

It has been a blueprint followed ever since. Presidential candidates from both aisles have fine-tuned their rally playlists to choose songs that mixed emotional messaging (Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down for George W Bush in 2000), symbolism (former soldier John Kerry use of John Fogerty's Fortunate Son) and vigour.

The latter was best exemplified by Al Gore's use of Praise You by Fatboy Slim in 2000 and septuagenarian contender Bernie Sanders's swaggering 2019 intro to the youthful riffs of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes.

To underscore the high stakes of the 2020 election, present and past philosophies of campaign songs have been adopted in dramatic fashion. In a race to engage with all ages and backgrounds of voters, more than 40 songs have been used across both sides, ranging from 1960s pop and rock classics to modern club bangers and even Nu-metal hits.

Trump goes eclectic

A lot of that zig-zagging is down to President Trump. In a game of 'catch me if you can' with a growing horde of angry artists, his campaign's allegedly unofficial use of popular songs is often followed by cease and desist orders.

Such an approach saw him burn through nearly 20 different songs as entry and closing music to rallies. Even with such a blink-and-you-miss approach, the choices are telling.

Tracks such as REM's barrelling It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) and Neil Young's caustic Rockin' in the Free World compliment the no-holds-barred approach in which Trump tackles his presidency.

Songs of conquest, both modern and classical, also feature in events, such as We Are the Champions by Queen and late tenor Luciano Pavarotti's oration of Puccini aria Nessun Dorma.

To perhaps show a lighter side, Trump has occasionally dropped The Village People's YMCA and Happy by Williams. The plug was eventually pulled, however, with the arrival of legal notices days later.

Biden does the 'Despacito'

The Biden campaign has also adopted both old and new strategies from the songbook.

Biden's use of modern pop tracks is perhaps even less subtle than Trump's. To appeal to Latino voters in Florida, he did a little dance to Despacito by Puerto Rican artist Fonsi. In an effort to woo Desi voters in swing states, the campaign team released an 'Indians for Biden' video soundtracked by popular Bollywood hit Chalo Chalo.

This comes on top of a recent move to revive the nearly forgotten practice of commissioning original campaign songs. This month, the Biden team unveiled its official anthem, The Change, sung by soul singer JoJo and composed by Grammy Award winner Dianne Warren.

Like many songs from that genre, it is certainly sweeping but will be hard pressed to trouble the charts.

All of this effort makes you wonder if it is even worth it? With so many songs blasted our way over the decades, and music being a subjective experience, it is unknown if these campaign ditties ultimately moved the needle towards a particular candidate.

Then again, perhaps, that was never the point. Every great victory and crushing defeat is deserving of a soundtrack.