Choosing an anthem is an opportunity for a candidate to suggest that there’s reason to hope for a better future.
Campaign songs became a force in American politics around 1840. After laws that had restricted voting rights to landowners were repealed, candidates needed a way to spread the message of democracy to voters who had little to no experience with the political process. The earliest campaign songs followed the same template as pop songs—reduce and contain the message, and then present it in a way that’s simple, enjoyable, and, most importantly, replicable. Because this was before the advent of commercial recording, these songs had to be earworms—you wanted to send people home from the rally still humming the tune.
At first, campaign songs were original compositions, with lyrics espousing the virtues of an individual candidate, but, by the middle of the twentieth century, most campaigns were using what are called contrafacta, or songs where the music and melody remain unchanged, but the lyrics are re-written to suit a particular scenario. Think of Carol Channing singing “Hello, Lyndon” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly,” or the three little girls from the the U.S.A. Freedom Kids singing a song about Trump to the tune of “Over There,” an old First World War song.
Usually, the safe move is to pick something anodyne and vaguely rousing, the sort of song that might play in the drugstore while you’re reading the back of a box of allergy medicine. The bar is so low that the only pressure is just to not get it totally wrong—like Ronald Reagan using Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” which is very much an anti-war anthem, or George H. W. Bush using Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” a song that laments inequality and imperialism. The big gaffes tend to be Republican, in part because most popular musicians tend to skew left, politically, and in part because pop music celebrates rebelliousness and pleasure over more traditional values. In 2016, Trump kept playing the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at his campaign events, which was an odd and surprising choice—the song is mainly about acquiescing to defeat. The band has asked Trump to stop using it, which is unsurprising, but he has nonetheless gone on playing it at his rallies (in this case, it may be the Rolling Stones who aren’t getting what they want).
The candidates running in the 2020 Presidential election have recently started rolling out their own campaign songs. In the video above, I look at this new crop of themes—a genre-crossing group that encompasses Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Mary J. Blige’s “Work That,” and even Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”—and consider what they say about their candidates.
Theoretically, a successful campaign song should embody the ethos and spirit of the campaign itself, in some musical or even extra-musical way (like, say, choosing a song by a woman or a person of color). It’s an opportunity for a candidate to suggest that there’s reason to hope for a better future. There’s nothing more American (or intoxicating) than the idea that there could be something better around the corner.