By John Douramakos
Sex, drugs, music, Nixon, and Clinton. The next 30 years of American life saw huge (and sometimes controversial) changes in the political and social environments that were built since the end of World War II. Citizens continued to fight for their rights and many took advantage of this boost of freedom by using drugs and making love. The 1970s to the 1990s saw the last dying embers of the Cold War flicker out and with it less public anxiety in America. Although conflict was still present in the political landscape. Thankfully, music – especially rock music – helped alleviate some of the stress surrounding the next few presidents.
To many, the most important event in 1970 was the Beatles disbanding, and while they weren’t the only band in the world, this gave the opportunity for several other bands to thrust themselves into the spotlight. Over the next ten years, the Rolling Stones were considered by many as the best rock band in the world, U2 exploded onto the scene after beginning as a cover band for songs by the Beatles and the Stones, and Led Zeppelin sold 200 million records worldwide (Olsen, 2004).
Around this time, Richard Nixon was briefly President of the United States. His choice of campaign song was enthusiastic and highly customized for his re-election – “Nixon Now”. It was catchy, simple, and enthusiastic, and apparently helped him persuade the minds of the American public, as he would go on to win the 1972 election. His opponent’s choice? The Billboard hit “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by incredibly talented duo Simon & Garfunkel (Cozier, 2012). Even by today’s standards, this is one of the worst possible selections for a campaign song. Not only is it painfully slow and somber, it describes a romantic connection between two people, and McGovern clearly failed to win over the majority of public hearts with his campaign song.
As years passed and more campaign songs appeared, Ronald Reagan decided that he would capitalize on the increasingly popular rock music scene, which had been pumping out superstars and rock bands since the ‘70s. One of these artists was Bruce Springsteen, and one of his biggest songs to date is “Born in the USA”. Apparently unbeknownst to many politicians however, is the fact that the song famously criticizes the American government’s lack of support and overall mistreatment of war veterans returning from Vietnam (Cozier, 2012).
When Bill Clinton came into the presidential conversation in 1992, he utilized a very upbeat tune by Fleetwood Mac, one of the biggest rock and roll bands of the time. Fleetwood Mac reunited on stage for a live performance of “Don’t Stop” as part of his campaign, and even Michael Jackson made an appearance (Cozier, 2012).
This introduces an interesting question – what makes a campaign song effective? Is it the ability to become synonymous with the candidate? Or is it just a rallying point for voters to latch onto? Ted Brader discusses this point in “Striking a Responsive Chord: How Political Ads Motivate and Persuade Voters by Appealing to Emotions”.
Brader begins with asking whether political ads should play to emotion or if they should play to reason, though he is really worried about whether both are equally as integral to persuading the public. He notes that psychologists and political scientists have found “emotions play a fundamental role in reasoning and are as likely to enhance rationality as to subvert it” (Brader, 2005). Simply put, emotion has just as much positive effect on reasoning as it does negative.
Brader later discusses how specifically important music is to political ads, and how its mere presence strongly influences voter responses. Playing to different emotions with campaign songs “can dramatically influence responses to campaign ads” and that using enthusiastic music and imagery can heavily sway voters’ feelings (Brader, 2005).
Further, Brader’s findings found that evoking fear through emotional music and imagery worked in similar ways to enthusiastic methods of political campaigning. Uniquely, political ads evoking fear were more likely to be memorable and increased anxiety altered political decision making. On the contrary, his research found that negative music “stimulated bottom-up reasoning” while positive music tended to “encourage fidelity to prior beliefs” (Brader, 2005), showing that depending on the intended audience, politicians would be most inclined to combine both positive and negative music to sway emotions.
When looking back at the aforementioned campaign songs, it’s clear that content and artist relevance is not important, but the emotions conveyed by each song is. Nixon used “Nixon Now”, which was full of enthusiasm and exuded patriotic emotions, while his opponent used a melancholy, romantic tune. Reagan, though very controversial and with Bruce Springsteen’s disapproval, used “Born in the USA” to inspire Americans to vote for him. Clinton brought out one of the grooviest bands of his time to perform “Don’t Stop”. Every winning campaign needs a winning anthem, and voters need to feel positive about the product that you’re selling. Seemingly, the positive, upbeat, and highly spirited songs were the most effective at winning votes.
Even though we can’t tell if Clinton liked music more than his Oval Office interns, his presidency coincided with the rise of the internet, and the internet has made it exponentially easier to preach politics and find interns. Instant news, video sharing, Shazam, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook – all tools for the modern politician, and they were right around the corner after Clinton’s controversial presidency.
Current politicians must be reading Brader’s study as well, as the trend of highly enthusiastic songs has continued well into the 2000s. Even with several new genres and thousands of new artists, politicians continue to use the hits from their younger years as part of their campaigns, presumably wanting to connect to a similarly aged crowd of voters. Obama famously used “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” during his first presidential campaign, and according to his two terms and Brader’s research, he made a pretty good choice.
Check back in two weeks for Scott Stevenett’s post on campaign music from 2000 to the present in America.
Brader, T. (2005). Striking a Responsive Chord: How Political Ads Motivate and Persuade Voters by Appealing to Emotions. American Journal Of Political Science, 49(2), 388-405.
Cozier, T. (2012, March 7). Campaign trail mix: A brief history of presidential theme songs. Retrieved November 9, 2017, from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/the-daily need/campaign-trail-mix-a-brief-history-of-presidential-theme-songs/13257/
Olsen, E. (2004, March 30). The 10 best rock bands ever. Retrieved November 9, 2017, from https://www.today.com/popculture/10-best-rock-bands-ever-2D80554936