Jazzing up the ‘08 Election

Jeff Kehl

“And long may the sons of Anacreon entwine the mertyl of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.” This is the last line of a drinking song written by Ralph Tomlinson, Esq., dedicated to the Anacreon, the master of drinking songs in ancient Greece. This was a song favored by the British and their counterparts in the American colonies around the mid-eighteenth century, including Francis Scott Key. It that would eventually be adapted by Mr. Key to become the most well known song in the United States, the national anthem, the “Star Spangled Banner”.

The writing of the “Star Spangled Banner” marks the start of the long-standing relationship between U.S. politics and music; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking back on the songs of African Americans in the early fight for civil rights that would become the foundation for jazz or the latest Jib-Jab election satire.

Since the start of the 2008 race, music has constantly popped up as the proverbial rabbit pulled out of the hat of politics. One of the most popular ads to debut was the pro-Obama “Yes We Can” commercial that aired in early February of 2008, which featured such major artists as Will.i.am. and Nicole Scherzinger performing to a speech given by Barack Obama focusing on his message, “Yes we can.”

Aside from this new trend of minute long political music videos, there has been the usual amalgamation of songs used to propagate certain perspectives when you watch a candidate’s commercial. Some organizations even put forward a little extra money to get big name artists’ songs in their ads, a tactic favored since the Reagan era. Obama and McCain have both used this tactic in their commercials. For Obama, the method has gone seemingly unnoticed. McCain, on the other hand, was sued for 75 thousand dollars for using Jackson Browne’s song “Running on Empty.” The purpose for the lawsuit was that the song as used without permission. However, Browne later announced that the lawsuit was put forth because of the commercial, creating the false perception that he was endorsing McCain's candidacy.

However, along with the serious ads that have managed to air on primetime TV, there have been just as many small-scale online ads. Yes, it would seem that election of 2008 is a war of two worlds when it comes to music, the world of television, and its counterpart, the internet. Thanks to the surge of music in this year’s election, the number of low-budget music videos has surged. The “Obama Girl,” for instance, has released countless music videos combining sex appeal with a desire to vote Obama for president that are now smattered across the pages of YouTube.

Similarly, Senator Mike Gravel, a former 2008 presidential candidate, found his video niche within the virtual walls of the internet. Due to his lack of funding throughout the primaries, Gravel posted a series of personal campaign music videos online. Some of the more popular ones found their way to YouTube, including “Give Peace a Chance” and “Gravel Lobbies the Obama Girl!”

Not to go unnoticed, viral video website Jib-Jab released its latest political satire in July of 2008. The video, “Time or Some Campaigning,” directs its mockery at John McCain’s old age and melanoma along with Barack Obama’s insistent use of the word “change.” It goes further to mock Hillary Clinton and her inability to step aside for Obama even when his victory was evident.

It should be made clear that not all political music for the 2008 election has been conveyed electronically. Countless concerts have been held all across the nation in support of the latest political campaign. Recently, the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers held a concert at Penn State University in support of Barack Obama. The Grateful Dead, holding their first concert in years, even went so far as to put the Obama icon of change in the center of their signature Dead Skull on the bass drum.

Carnegie Mellon University also hosted a concert at the open of Homecoming Weekend 2008 with the intent of urging students to become active in this year’s election. The concert booked such major groups as Pittsburgh’s own River City Brass Band, a variety of whose members double as professors in CMU’s College of Fine Arts, and the band Cellofourte. HEROES’ Zachary Quinto and Mad Men’s Aaron Stanon were featured as emcees.

Whether on TV, over the internet, or otherwise, music strongly reflects peoples’ opinions. During the Civil War, there was the military verse of the Sons of Erin, who, though subject to the abuse of religious racism, fought and supported the Union with a sense of patriotism equaled by no other nationality. In the time of the Vietnam War, big name groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young put out song after song protesting the war. Later, after the events of 9/11, U.S. nationalism against terrorism ended up with the Toby Keith line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass. It’s the American way.” The 2008 election is no exception.

So the real question is now, who is music backing this election? In all honesty, most musical groups have not explicitly stated what candidate they’re supporting. However, while Obama has run the gambit through the election with a minor amount of voiced support aimed directly at him, McCain has been attacked again and again by the musical world. It would seem that Jackson Browne is not the only performer to have had issues with McCain’s use of his music. John Mellencamp, Heart, Van Halen, and the Foo Fighters have all taken up issue with John McCain using their songs to back his rallies, speeches, and advertisements. More recently, on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, Crosby, Stills, and Nash appeared denouncing both current president, George W. Bush, as well as the current Republican Candidate, John McCain.

That’s not to say, though, that no musical artist has formally backed McCain. One of the biggest names to pop up on the side of the Republican candidate’s is that of the Grammy-winning singer, Daddy Yankee. When asked for the reason behind his decision, Daddy Yankee described Obama as a “horrible opponent.” For his decision, Daddy Yankee has been constantly under fire by the media as well as other musicians. Rapper Fat Joe even went so far as to call Yankee a “sell-out” for backing the Republican candidate and challenged the reggaeton recording artist to a political debate on the matter. Yankee has since declined the offer and has been defended his decision on countless occasions.

Through all of this, McCain has been constantly making new efforts to yank music into his campaign. One example of this was in an ad that never made it to main stream television. The ad was called “Obama Love” and was meant to poke fun at media’s unadulterated fawning over Barack Obama. Originally, the ad was posted online in an attempt to pull support from the masses by having them vote for the song that should be run with the ad. However, the McCain campaign forgot to pull rights for the songs they offered selections from (i.e. “My Eyes Adore You” or “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frank Valli). Facing another lawsuit, the campaign immediately yanked the ad from the web before it was finished.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side, relatively few music-based names have publicly voiced support for Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. Neither have there been any significant number of names denouncing the candidate.

From 1776 to November 2008, it can be seen that music has always shared a certain close relationship with United States’ politics, most notably during elections and major historical moments. From supporting equality, to nationalism, to general political affiliation, music presents large scale, popular opinions that often tend to shape and reflect the culture and mentality of the U.S. political scene.