Popular songs and their lyrics have profound effects on people. Who can forget the words to John Lennon’s "Imagine" or Steve Perry’s "Don’t Stop Believin?'" These are just two examples of generational anthems that have a life and meaning long after their release. There’s no denying the power of song lyrics; they can indelibly change how one sees the world. Presidential candidates, for better or worse, have attempted to use the power of song lyrics with varying degrees of success.
Many candidates running modern political campaigns favor wholesale appropriation of hit songs rather than the altering of its lyrics. This way, a candidate can plug directly into the cultural zeitgeist while appealing to younger voters.
It was in this way that two beloved names came together in the lights in 1984 with Ronald Reagan’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as his reelection campaign song. However, the candidate misinterpreted The Boss’s lyrics. To Reagan, the song’s lyrics meant that, "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen.” But many young Americans heard a different song, one that spoke of a spiritual crisis, isolation, and inequality.
Yet sometimes the worlds of music and politics don’t play nice together, and instead collide. During the 1996 presidential election, the Republican candidate, Bob Dole, altered the lyrics of the 1967 hit “Soul Man” to “Dole Man” without first obtaining permission from the record company. The song’s publisher, Rondor Music International, threatened to sue the campaign if they continued to use the soul-music classic. The Dole campaign subsequently discontinued use of the altered song.
Now in 2016, in the throes of a fierce election, candidates have taken campaign theme songs to a different level, exploring different genres, getting behind the microphone themselves, and utilizing America’s youth.
In 1987, Bernie Sanders, then mayor of Burlington, Vermont, teamed up with 30 Vermont artists to create a five song CD that has seen its highest sales year in 2015. In the folk album titled We Shall Overcome, Sanders’ thick Brooklyn brogue can be heard in spoken word. The album, which features “This Land is Your Land,” was reworked in 2014 when Sanders began his trek down the campaign trail. Now, it is the 62nd most downloaded album on Amazon.
In an attempt to reach young black Americans, Ben Carson published a 60 second promotional rap entitled “Freedom.” Carson did not do any of the rapping, rather, he concluded the short tune with a voiceover that proclaims, “I'm very hopeful I'm not the only one who's willing to pick up the baton of freedom, because freedom is not free and we must fight for it everyday." In keeping with his bubbly persona, he was nothing but enthused in his address. Far from “Freedom”—and all things—Carson is a sort of residual solemnity.
The most audacious musical endeavor of all was put forth by none other than Donald Trump. In January at the Trump For America rally, three young girls clad in red, white, and blue stars and stripes took to the stage and performed a choreographed song and dance number that incorporated some of Trump’s most famous lines. With strong parallels to Hitler Youth, the “USA Freedom Kids” ended their jingoistic piece singing, “Enemies of Freedom face the music / C’mon boys, take them down / President Donald Trump knows how to make American great / Deal from strength or get crushed every time.”
Songs have the ability to produce a potent effect on people. They can create different worlds, imagine new ones, and criticize this one. They can make you hopeful for the future and long for the past. And they can, if used incorrectly, make you stop believin’ in somebody.