Trump's Campaign Theme Song Headache? Blame Michael Jackson, Sort Of

Trump's Campaign Theme Song Headache? Blame Michael Jackson, Sort Of

1:19pm Jul 08, 2015
Republican presidential candidate and TV personality Donald Trump arrives by escalator to the tune of "Rockin' in the Free World." Musician Neil Young did not approve of his song choice.
Republican presidential candidate and TV personality Donald Trump arrives by escalator to the tune of "Rockin' in the Free World." Musician Neil Young did not approve of his song choice.
Brendan McDermid / Reuters/Landov

Donald Trump entered the race for president descending an escalator. A wave to the right, a thumbs-up to the left — all to the tune of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."

But there was a problem. Trump's camp cleared it with the copyright holder; Neil Young, on the other hand, hadn't been consulted. And, based on the statement from his record label, he wasn't happy about it.

"Donald Trump was not authorized to use 'Rockin' in the Free World' in his presidential candidacy announcement," read the statement. "Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America."

It's a common tale in modern politics. A candidate for president picks a theme song that seems perfect for his or her campaign, and then, whoops, it turns out the band or the musician totally disagrees.

But this is more than a story about a few politicians picking the wrong song. It's a story about the evolution of political campaigns and commercial advertising. So if Trump is looking for someone to blame, he might start with Michael Jackson.

First, though you have to go all the way back to the 1830s and '40s. There, you'll find the rise of what might be called the campaign jingle, brought on, in part, by a large expansion of the right to vote. Many of those new voters were uneducated or illiterate.

And so, the campaign song was born out of necessity.

"How do you get your message across? Well, obviously if you print something up, that might not resonate with a large percentage of these new voters," said Eric Kasper, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "But songs certainly would be one way of reaching people and get that message out there."

Tippecanoe And Tyler Too

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In 1840, the song "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" sang the praises of William Henry Harrison — known for his victory decades earlier at the Battle of Tippecanoe — and his running mate John Tyler.

"Amongst some people, they claim that it sang Harrison into the presidency," Kasper said.

That campaign, in 1840, cemented music as a staple of American presidential campaigns. Abraham Lincoln's campaign used an old Irish drinking song with new lyrics, renamed "Lincoln and Liberty."

YouTube

The song became hugely popular, in part, because everyone already knew the melody.

'I Like Ike,' The Ultimate Campaign Jingle

Fast-forward 100 years, and the campaign songs sound very much like the commercial advertising jingles of the day. Kasper said he plays the "I Like Ike" song for his college classes, and it doesn't exactly translate to the millennial generation.

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"They're like, 'Well, yeah that's a catchy tune, but it's very cheesy; it's very hokey. No one would use this today,' " Kasper said, quoting his students.

Why? Because advertising jingles are dead. And Michael Jackson helped kill them.

The King Of Pop Helped Kill The Jingle

It's January 1984, and the King of Pop films a Pepsi commercial. The melody is "Billie Jean," but the lyrics are all Pepsi. This was the beginning of the end of the traditional jingle and the beginning of the rise of popular music in advertising.

YouTube

"It happened because TV ads were getting shorter," said Seth Godin, a blogger and author of several books on marketing. "Competition for attention was going up and pop music was at a peak."

That Michael Jackson ad was a huge success for Pepsi. Before long, companies ditched the rewritten lyrics and just started using popular songs in ads, and so did political campaigns.

Later that year, Lee Greenwood released "God Bless the USA," and it quickly became a hit.

Ronald Reagan's campaign then used the song in a video and it became the theme for his campaign.

YouTube

A couple of other candidates had used pop songs before, but after Reagan, they were here to stay. Godin says there's a simple reason why campaigns and companies made the switch to popular music:

"Because it's way cheaper to steal some of that good feeling from a pop song that has already earned the attention and love of the people that you're trying to connect with," Godin said.

Just make sure you've also got the love of the people who made the song, because otherwise you're going to get their attention in all the wrong ways.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's a common tale of modern politics. A candidate for president picks the theme song that seems perfect for their campaign. And then - oops - turns out the band or the musician totally disagrees. NPR's Tamara Keith decided to look into the history of this sort of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Donald J. Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' IN THE FREE WORLD")

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Donald Trump entered the presidential race descending an escalator - a wave to the right, a thumbs-up to the left - all to the tune of Neil Young's "Rockin' In The Free World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' IN THE FREE WORLD")

NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Keep on rocking in the free world.

KEITH: But there was a problem. Trump's camp cleared it with the copyright holder. Neil Young, however, wasn't consulted, and based on the statement from his record label, he wasn't happy about it. This sort of thing happens all the time, but this is more than a story about a few politicians picking the wrong song. It's a story about the evolution of political campaigns and commercial advertising. So if Trump is looking for someone to blame, he might want to start with Michael Jackson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIE JEAN")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) Billie Jean is not my lover. She's just a girl...

KEITH: But first, you have to go all the way back to the 1830s and '40s. There you find the rise of what you might call the campaign jingle, brought on in part by a large expansion of the right to vote. Many of those new voters were uneducated or illiterate. And so University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire political scientist Eric Kasper says the campaign song was born out of necessity.

ERIC KASPER: How do you get your message across? Well, obviously, if you print something up...

KEITH: ...Like a brochure or a position paper...

KASPER: ...That might not resonate with a large percentage of these new voters. But songs certainly would be one way of reaching people and getting that message out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO")

OSCAR BRAND: (Singing) Oh, who has heard the great commotion, motion, motion, all the country through.

KEITH: This song is called "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." It is about William Henry Harrison, known as Tippecanoe, and his running mate, John Tyler.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO")

BRAND: (Singing) For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too - for Tippecanoe and Tyler, too. And with them will be Little Van.

KASPER: Amongt some people, they claim that it sang Harrison into the presidency.

KEITH: And that campaign in 1840 cemented music is a staple of American presidential campaigns. Abraham Lincoln's campaign used an old Irish drinking song with new lyrics, renamed "Lincoln And Liberty."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LINCOLN AND LIBERTY")

CHRIS VALLILLO: (Singing) Hurrah for the choice of the nation - our chieftain, so brave and so true. And go for the great reformation, for Lincoln and liberty, too.

KEITH: The song became hugely popular, in part because everyone already knew the melody. Fast-forward a hundred years, and the campaign songs sound very much like the commercial advertising jingles of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIKE IKE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Ike for president. Ike for president. Ike for president. Ike for president. You like Ike. I like Ike.

KEITH: This is Dwight Eisenhower's campaign song. Kasper says he plays the "I Like Ike" song for his college classes.

KASPER: And they're all like, well, yeah, that's a catchy tune, but it's very cheesy. It's very hokey. No one would use this today.

KEITH: Why? Because advertising jingles are dead, and Michael Jackson helped kill them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEPSI AD)

JACKSON: (Singing) Your whole new generation. You're loving what you do.

KEITH: It's January 1984, and the king of pop fills a Pepsi commercial. The melody is "Billie Jean," but the lyrics are all Pepsi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEPSI AD)

JACKSON: (Singing) I guzzle down and taste the thrill of the day and feel the Pepsi way.

KEITH: This was the beginning of the end of the traditional jingle, the beginning of the rise of popular music in advertising. Seth Godin is a marketing expert and blogger.

SETH GODIN: It happened because TV ads were getting shorter, competition for attention was going up and pop music was at a peak.

KEITH: That Michael Jackson ad was a huge success for Pepsi. Before long, companies ditched the rewritten lyrics and just started using popular songs in ads, and so did political campaigns. That year, Lee Greenwood released "God Bless The USA," and it quickly became a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE USA")

LEE GREENWOOD: (Singing) And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free.

KEITH: Ronald Reagan's campaign then used the song in a video, and it became a theme for his campaign. A couple of other candidates had used pop songs before, but after Reagan, they were here to stay. Godin says there's a simple reason campaigns and companies made the switch to popular music.

GODIN: Because it's way cheaper to steal some of that good feeling from a pop song that already has earned the attention and love of the people that you're trying to connect with.

KEITH: Just make sure you've also got the love of the people who made the song because otherwise, you're going to get their attention. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE USA")

GREENWOOD: (Singing) God bless the USA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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