“Happy Days Are Here Again!” — musings on music and politics

As both political conventions are about to take over the airwaves and the web — first the Democrats in Denver and then the Republicans (minus Larry Craig, presumably) in Minneapolis — the soundtrack won’t just be talking heads and voter-on-the-street interviews. Music will also be a big part of the brouhaha coming out of both conventions. Although music has always been a powerful tool in the fight for the hearts of American voters, this year’s campaigns will be more tune-drenched than normal — largely because of the Obama campaign’s emphasis on youth, change, and activism. Hey, isn’t that Rock ‘n Roll’s triple play?

First of all, check out all the names that show up in this New York Times blog just a couple days ago, reporting on the acts that will show up at the conventions. My hunch is the list is much, much longer.

Excuse my Boomer attitude but, I’ve gotta wonder, where’s the real political conviction that we saw in past decades from pop stars? McGovern, despite his abysmal showing on the electoral map in ’72, was among the first to successfully line up a pantheon of political pop personalities — James Taylor, Carole King, and Barbra Streisand, among others. Now it seems more of a career move for artists as they choose just the right venue and release advance notices to just the right media for obviously promotional purposes. And then there’s Chris Daughtry who, infuriatingly, will perform at private events for both conventions. For the first time, I almost regret all those damned text votes I cast a couple years ago during a better-than-usual season of American Idol.

Let me share a bit of history — did you know that every campaign going back to Washington has had a quasi-official song? I came across this recording, “Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789 to 1996” by Canadian-born folksinger Oscar Brand. It contains a few expected classics, like “I’m Just Wild About Harry” for Truman and “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” (the Fleetwood Mac hit) for our first Boomer president, Bill Clinton (’92 and ’96). And then there are a few discoveries like “Hello Lyndon” (for LBJ, ’64, to the tune of “Hello Dolly”) and “Rumadum Dum” for Zachary Taylor early in the nineteenth century. I just like the title of that one. OK, enough history, already.

You probably saw that Jackson Browne had to do a “cease and desist” just a few weeks ago with the McCain campaign’s co-opting his hit “Running on Empty.” Bruce Springsteen, one of the few current rock stars with a heartfelt passion for politics, is sure to provide some recognizable melodies and sentiments in the coming weeks. It’s worth noting that his “Born in the USA” was seized by the Reagan campaign a few decades ago and then had to be relinquished when the Boss protested its use for a candidacy he didn’t support.

So give a good listen over the coming weeks as music weaves itself into the campaigns. In the avalanche of words with the reporting, debates, press releases, and spin sessions, one thing is for certain: music — with its ability to rally, energize, speak to the heart, and get people on their feet — will play a big role in American politics, this year and always.

Oh, did you wonder about this blog’s title. “Happy Days Are Hear Again”? The Ager/Yellen tune from 1929 was written for the movie Chasing Rainbows and then used for FDR’s first presidential campaign in 1932. Since then, it’s been the unofficial song of the Democratic Party. You’ll hear it this next week, who knows, maybe sung by J Lo. But the best interpretation still belongs to Barbra Streisand, first recording it on her debut album. I’ll close with this YouTube performance of Babs appearing on the Dinah Shore show in May 1963, when America was captivated by JFK’s Camelot.

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