Musical politics: How election campaigns choose their songs

Leaders are hyper-aware of their image during political campaigns and the songs they choose can send a powerful message. But choosing the right song has proven to be a difficult task ripe for miscalculation.

'If you allow it, it can go on forever,' says political adviser about process of choosing

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau arrives for a rally in Vancouver on Thursday. Presumably, the Deadmau5 song The Veldt that Trudeau has been using during his election campaign is blasting out at his crowd of supporters. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Leaders are hyper-aware of their image during political campaigns, from the clothes they wear, the way they speak to the food they're seen eating.

Campaign songs add to their image; they pump up the crowd and help to promote an ideology and a feel-good mood. 

What's more, these songs are played repeatedly, so it's crucial that the music fits the message. But picking the right song has proven itself to be a difficult task ripe for miscalculation.

This past week, for example, Neil Young told Donald Trump to stop using his song Rocking in the Free World at his political events. The Donald just can't catch a break: R.E.M. also recently asked Trump to stop using their song It's the End of the World.

People grow up with certain expectations about music, says Dr. Amy Clement-Cortes, an assistant professor at the Music and Health Research Collaboratory at the University of Toronto.

Because of this, she said, campaign songs are generally up-tempo and energetic. But a bad choice can tarnish a politician's image, she adds, because it signals that they don't pay attention to detail.

"If we hear things that are in major keys, then we have a propensity to associate those with positive emotion. Whereas we hear things in minor keys — we might associate that more with negative emotion."

Music in higher registers and with faster, dance-like rhythms are also more likely to be associated with positive emotion.

This election season in Canada, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has stuck with the song he used in the last federal election campaign — Collective Soul's Better Now.

The song is generic and inoffensive, but Robin Sears, a veteran political consultant, questions its point.

"It's particularly inappropriate. It doesn't mean anything. I can't connect anything politically or message-wise to it," he says.

Others have kept it Canadian: NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has been playing We're All In This Together by Montreal's Sam Roberts Band, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is using The Veldt by Deadmau5.

Most tend to stick with "dude rock," and you can read a rundown of Canadian political campaign songs here.

Choosing a tune

There doesn't seem to be any specific recipe for choosing a song, says Marcel Wieder, another veteran political strategist. He says staffers solicit suggestions and then prepare a list for the leader.

"It has to touch the people that are going to be in the audience and give them that positive vibe," says Wieder.

Sears says the process can be difficult because music is so subjective.

"If you allow it, it can go on forever," he says.

Most political parties use already popular songs, and politicians tend to stick with just one song, similar to how music is used in catchy advertising campaigns.

"Because music is processed across all of the brain, it remains in our long-term memory," explains Clement-Cortes.

Wieder says staff are drilling down more to make sure the song is appropriate. But despite the seemingly easy vetting process, song choices still go off the rails.

Wieder brought up the relatively infamous 1984 Liberal leadership convention song: the extremely catchy, upbeat-sounding Jump by Van Halen.

"It's about suicide — not something that you want to be encouraging. That's a situation where the music and the beat are great … but it's not what you want to be putting out there for your campaign."

Notable complaints

After all the vetting, politicians can still land in hot water for their choices — often from the musicians themselves.

Even if a politician has a licence to play the song (they can be bought in Canada and the U.S.), an artist's objections can often overrule its use. So politicians are advised by ASCAP (in the U.S.) and by Music Canada to get permission.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis cries out after being released from jail earlier this month in Kentucky. Davis emerged from the jail to adoring crowds, with the song 'Eye of the Tiger' by Survivor blaring. (Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press)

Some public spats:

  • In 2008, the Foo Fighters asked U.S. presidential hopeful John McCain to stop playing their song My Hero. Van Halen, John Mellencamp and even Abba also asked him to stop playing their songs.
  • Sarah Palin had a similar problem; Heart, Gretchen Peters and Bon Jovi all objected to the vice-presidential candidate's use of their songs in 2008.
  • Journey didn't believe in Newt Gingrich: they asked him to stop playing their motivational song in 2011.
  • Canadian musician K'naan asked Mitt Romney to stop using his popular song Wavin' Flag during Romney's 2012 campaign.
  • While not a politician (but certainly political), Kentucky clerk Kim Davis used the song Eye of the Tiger by Survivor when she emerged from jail. The songwriter Jim Peterik was not impressed.

Sears says campaigns that don't get permission only have themselves to blame.

"It's stupidity. I would say that anybody who did not understand the risk of not getting permission deserves to get their head smacked," he says.

Can't please everyone

Bill Clinton used the Fleetwood Mac song Don't Stop in his 1992 campaign. He was lucky enough to not only get the band's permission to use the song, but the group performed it at one of his events.

"That's about as good an endorsement as you can get," said Wieder.

He added that some people may not have even known what Clinton's campaign was about, but the song was upbeat, optimistic and a call for a better future. And the high-profile endorsement certainly helped to sell his image. 

Clement-Cortes says that, like politics in general, nothing is foolproof.

"You can't please everyone with your political platform," she says, "and you certainly can't find a song that will appeal to everyone."