John Mellecamp and Campaign Music
By now, John Mellencamp is used to hearing his songs on the Election 2008 soundtrack. McCain, Clinton and Edwards all used his patriotic “Our Country”—the one on the Chevy pickup ads—as whistle-stop walk-on music during the primaries. Clinton, Edwards and Obama also went for the iconic Mellencamp ditty “Small Town.” Mike Huckabee tried to sell “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” while McCain picked “Pink Houses”—until he heard that Mellencamp is an ardent Democrat. Still, Mellencamp was surprised one day this June when he was watching Clinton on TV as she delivered her campaign farewell speech, which ended with a rocking number called “Thank You.” “I thought, ‘That’s a pretty cool song.’ Then I realized it was my song,” Mellencamp says. “I called up one of the guys in my band, and I said, ‘Did you hear that?’ I put it on an album, never played it live and forgot about it.”
Mellencamp loved the shout-out—and he’s added “Thank You” to his concert set-list. But other musicians haven’t been whistling Dixie when a politician co-opts their work. When McCain started using “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry made a point of announcing his support for Obama. John Hall, formerly of the 1970s band Orleans and now a Democratic congressman from New York, threatened to send a cease-and-desist letter to McCain about “Still the One,” just as he did four years earlier to President Bush. It’s not just Republicans who’ve had to reshuffle their playlists: soul singer Sam Moore (of the 1960s group Sam and Dave) told Obama to hold off playing “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” There is nothing illegal about playing a recorded song at most campaign events, if the candidate pays the royalty—the writer doesn’t have to give permission. Mellencamp says he never actually asked McCain to quit using his songs. He uses a more, well, political tactic: “I’d just say, ‘Look, are you aware that Mellencamp is very liberal and that he is supporting the Democratic Party, and do you think it’s a good idea to use his material?’ “
Historically, music had been presented to the candidates by the songwriters, not the other way around. As far back as the 1800 election with “Jefferson and Liberty,” clever lyricists provided party loyalists with issue-based odes set to familiar tunes. In 1920, Al Jolson’s pro-Harding tune “Harding, You’re the Man for Us” appeared. Irving Berlin gave Eisenhower “I Like Ike.” It wasn’t until 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt declared “Happy Days Are Here Again” to distract the country from the Great Depression, that a presidential candidate employed an existing song for his campaign. When the musical connection clicks—such as the way Sinatra’s “High Hopes” helped define JFK’s candidacy, or the mileage Bill Clinton got from Fleetwood Mac’s ’70s hit “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)”—it can make a major impact. So it’s probably not surprising that the McCain and Obama camps aren’t talking much about their next big musical moment: which songs they’ll use at their conventions. Perhaps Obama will pick from among his current favorites, including Stevie Wonder, Brooks & Dunn and Bruce Springsteen. And McCain—well, he just had to remove the Frankie Valli background music from his popular “Obama Love” video. Maybe some day he’ll find a song that doesn’t have such a sad ending.
(Photo: Martin Overstreet)