Synthpop, hip-hop and 'dude rock': A brief history of Canadian campaign songs

The campaign song is a staple in American politics and though there's not nearly as much hype around songs in Canadian elections, there have been some memorable Canadian campaign song moments.

Campaign songs, a staple in American politics, play a different role in our elections

U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump found himself in hot water this week after using without permission Neil Young's Rockin' in the Free World to kick off his quest for the White House.

Trump later scrapped the song — which bashes former Republican President George H.W. Bush — at Young's request.

But it's another example of how the campaign song is an essential element in American politics — blasted to pump up crowds at rallies, played in commercials and used to woo voters or critique a candidate. 

There's not nearly as much hype around the songs that have been used in Canadian federal campaigns, but they play a role in setting the tone for rallies and try to reinforce the themes of the campaigns.

As our federal parties prepare to pick their tunes for the next election, here's a roundup of some memorable Canadian campaign song moments for inspiration. 

Conservative 'dude rock'

Don't mess with success, right? Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stuck with the same campaign song for the past two elections — Better Now by the American alt-rock band Collective Soul. The song is a curious choice given it was never a huge hit for the band; it's perhaps best known for being in the Christina Ricci box office bomb, Cursed.

John Higney, a Carleton University music lecturer who wrote a paper on Harper's piano performances, says the song is a safe, mainstream choice that screams "dude rock." 

"It's the kind of thing that you hear as standard fare on modern rock radio," he says. "It's the kind of music that I suspect would resonate very well in Fort Mac." Conservatives won't say whether it will return for a third time in the fall campaign.

You chose what song?

Political parties have picked some really questionable past campaign songs. Jason Morris, a political science lecturer at the University of Northern British Columbia and a blogger on political tunes, says the 1993 campaign, when Jean Chrétien and his Liberals won a majority, tops them all in terms of questionable song choices.

The Liberals opted for the 1983 synthpop hit Obsession by Animotion. Morris says it's a "horrible" choice, pointing out its stalker-like lyrics: "You're my obsession / Who do you want me to be / To make you sleep with me." Just picture Chrétien jiving to that.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien used a questionable song choice during his 1993 campaign: the 1983 synthpop hit Obsession by the band Animotion. It's lyrics are sexually charged and menacing. But he won the election. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

That same campaign, the Progressive Conservatives used the Céline Dion gospel-dance tune Love Can Move Mountains. They were reduced to two seats.

"There's no guarantee that some inspirational song is going to put one over the top," says Morris.

It's not just the '93 campaign though. Van Halen's Jump — a song about suicide — was used at the 1984 Liberal leadership convention.

In his 1998 Conservative leadership bid, Joe Clark used the Jesus Jones tune Right Here, Right Now — a song about the Eastern Bloc.

Hip-hoppin' the vote

The Liberals haven't picked a campaign song just yet, so why not make it a hip-hop tune? That's what Baba Brinkman thinks. 

Brinkman's a rapper who has crafted campaign raps for his mother, Liberal MP Joyce Murray, since 2001. Brinkman's latest, Co-operation Time, was launched during Murray's bid for Liberal leader in 2013. It touted Murray's planned co-operation with other parties using lyrics like "You want substance / Well hers has the most / It's time to say goodbye / To first past the post."

Murray lost the bid to Justin Trudeau, but Brinkman says there's still room for a Liberal rap. "I'd like to see an era where hip-hop is accepted as a musical genre that's on par with rock or folk or any other, where it's not feared by the old guard," he said. It wouldn't be a Canadian first — the NDP's Ed Broadbent had his own campaign rap for his 2004 return to politics where he threatened Prime Minister Paul Martin with boxing gloves.

Perfect song elusive

The NDP is the only party that's using a song at the moment — Sam Roberts Band's We're All in This Together. Carleton music lecturer Higney calls it the perfect choice. "[Sam Roberts is] actually one of the few people in Canada and popular music that's actually writing protest songs that actually, amazingly enough, make it into mainstream radio play."

The NDP won't say if Roberts's tune will be used in the fall. The party's past campaign playlist includes lots of youthful, Canadian indie rock. Former leader Jack Layton used The Wire, another Roberts tune, and Believe in Me from Halifax's Sloan during his rallies.

NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash are joined by fellow NDP MPs performing a Stompin' Tom Connors song in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in March 2013. Angus and Cash played in the punk group L'Étranger. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

NDP MP Charlie Angus says the perfect campaign song is hard to come by. One of many musicians in the NDP caucus, Angus played in the punk group L'Étranger (with fellow MP Andrew Cash) and folk-rock band Grievous Angels.

"There's a very delicate line in terms of politics and music where music can sometimes really personify a feeling or a moment, and other times when you think to yourself, 'What were they thinking when they picked that song?'" he laughs. "Music touches people in a way that speeches don't."

Write your own song

Having a hard time finding a tune that reflects party values? Just write your own — that's what the Bloc Québécois has done. In the 2011 campaign, the BQ used a rollicking harmonica-driven tune called Parlons-nous, parlons Québec (Let's talk, let's talk about Quebec), written by Jason Hudon. Though it sounds like something you might hear at a New Orleans blues bar, it has serious lyrics like "Only the Bloc can take us to the end."

In 2004, the BQ wrote another original tune: Parce qu'on est différents. Sung by a handful of cheerful Quebecers, it comes with a strong separatist message.

Bob Rae, former Liberal leader and Ontario premier, is no stranger to writing music, as he penned the children's song, Same Boat Now. Though he's never composed his own campaign song, he helped put together an original jingle for the Ontario NDP back in 1995, the election he was dethroned as Ontario premier.

"We used it as an intro to every speech, and like a lot of other things in the '95 campaign, it didn't actually catch on," he laughs.


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