Now that 2012 is upon us, so is another presidential election. Barack Obama is seeking a second term as the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, and four candidates are currently vying for the Republican Party nomination. There are many strategic decisions which these politicians make to promote their candidacies, including crafting inspiring speeches, offering eloquent answers to interview questions, and creating patriotic backdrops at campaign events. For as long as there have been American presidential elections, one of the candidates’ quadrennial considerations has also been selection of the right music.
President Obama made news on February 9th when he announced his campaign’s Spotify playlist. For those not familiar with Spotify, it is an online music service that streams songs to members of the website. President Obama released his playlist in 2012 in much the same way that he announced his iPod playlist during his 2008 candidacy. Playlists such as this can send powerful messages to the electorate, as they can transmit political ideas or associate a candidate with a notable musical celebrity. With this in mind, let’s have a look at a few of the 28 songs on President Obama’s Spotify playlist.
One of the more notable selections is Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” President Obama previously sang the first few bars of this song at an appearance in the Apollo Theater in New York City on January 19th. Although originally written as a romantic song when first released by Green in the early 1970s, the song’s title and hook offer a powerful message from an incumbent president to the voters: vote for me, so that we can mutually continue along the path we are on now.
A second song choice by President Obama that musically asks for another opportunity to serve the country is U2’s “Even Better than the Real Thing.” In multiple places the overarching message is that the listener will be satisfied by giving the singer one more chance. The song goes on to refer to its audience as the real thing and even better than that. This can be interpreted as a way to “pump up” supporters of the President. Again, like “Let’s Stay Together,” the lyrics of “Even Better than the Real Thing” were clearly originally written with romantic intent, but the key catchy parts of the song can be co-opted to express relevant political messages.
REO Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes” exemplifies another important political theme for President Obama. The title of this tune harkens back to one of the President’s major campaign slogans from 2008: Change we can believe in. The lyrics go on to tell the listener that the singer is available when the listener is ready to move along with the changes that lay ahead. The lyrics also tell the listener that the tables have turned, and they imply that the darkest hour has passed. Certainly, one could see this as a message from President Obama that the economy is on the mend and things are getting better because of the changes he has implemented.
The songs a campaign chooses can also be used to thwart the message of the political opposition. One song on President Obama’s playlist that does this is “No Nostalgia” by Ages and Ages. Recently, Republican candidates have expressed a message that the country is on the wrong path, and only they can restore America to its past greatness. The hook of “No Nostalgia” takes aim at this notion, claiming that instead of looking to the past we should concentrate on the promise of what our country is now and can become in the future.
Of course, one must be careful not to read too much into these lyrics and song choices. Still, there is no doubt that President Obama and those working on his reelection campaign thought long and hard about which songs to release. Ultimately, song choice is an important consideration for presidential campaigns. The right song can become a memorable way to express important political messages. On the other hand, the wrong songs can muddle a campaign message, and key song omissions can lead to hurt feelings among those who were musically snubbed.
About the authors: Benjamin S. Schoening and Eric T. Kasper are the authors of Don't Stop Thinking about the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns. Benjamin Schoening is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Barron County and music director of the Red Cedar Choir in Rice Lake. Eric T. Kasper is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Barron County and the municipal judge in Rice Lake.