Striking up the bandwagon Each candidate's taste encapsulates his issues

September 16, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Bill Clinton has said that he looks at this election as being about change.

George Bush, on the other hand, argues that it's about trust.

But on some levels, it's turning out to be about who has the better taste in music, Clinton or Bush.

President Bush is a country music fan, while Gov. Clinton favors gospel, jazz and baby-boomer rock, and neither has made a secret of his preferences. Indeed, each candidate seems to be making a concerted effort to identify himself with a particular type of popular music -- and, by extension, a specific set of voter-age fans.

Why else would the president pepper his stump speeches with lyrics lifted from country songs? "When you peel away all his nice-sounding rhetoric about the plan he's got," Bush said about Clinton at one rally, "the impact of his plan can be summed up by a song by my old friend, Loretta Lynn: 'When the Tingle Becomes a Chill.' "

Or why would the governor have gotten into the groove on "The Arsenio Hall Show" a few months ago, honking out "Heartbreak Hotel" on his tenor saxophone? "My traveling press calls me Elvis," he told Rolling Stone. "They say Elvis is still alive."

Look closely, and you can even find a message in each party's choice of pop stars to sing the national anthem at their national conventions. Aretha Franklin's rendition in New York gave the Democrats a chance to connect their platform to the baby boomers who grew up on '60s soul, to urban blacks, and even to liberal Christians who remember her days as a gospel singer. Meanwhile, Wynnona Judd's performance in Houston lent the Republicans an aura of freshness and youth without compromising the sense tradition and conservatism that has been their hallmark.

In other words, each encapsulated part of their party's message.

Still, it's hard not to wonder: Is the pop music vote really that crucial? On its own, probably not. But as a means of defining each of the candidates, their taste in popular music makes a powerful shorthand for larger issues.

"I tend to think that these kinds of symbols are very, very conscious," says James Ledbetter, media critic at the Village Voice and a contributing editor at Vibe. "Certainly if you look at Bush's '88 race, there was an emphasis that was put on country music, horseshoes and pork rinds -- all these things that it's hard to believe George Bush really enjoys. I think you have to read that as pretty conscious.

"With the Clinton people I think it's equally conscious, although probably somewhat more sincere. I'm willing to believe that Bill Clinton really does like the Fleetwood Mac song that they closed the Democratic Convention with ['Don't Stop']. It makes sense.

"I also think that it's a very calculated strategy to draw generational differences in this campaign," he adds. "The thing that Clinton and Gore have going for them is that they are young enough to be George Bush's sons. They're appealing to a mass of voters who either actively like Fleetwood Mac, or sort of passively like Fleetwood Mac."

A youthful image may be a byproduct of the Clinton/Gore team's rock-savvy strategy, but Bush's thank-God-I'm-a-country-fan approach has its benefits, too.

Country appeal

"The Republicans are playing on the issue of fear of change, and they know that that goes over with the country music audience," says Vic Garbarini, executive editor of Guitar magazine and an alumnus of Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. "And also, remember, a lot of these border states are going to decide the election. A couple of analysts have said it's all going to boil down to who swings Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky. Those are the very states that are actually the heart of the country music audience."

This, argues Garbarini, is part of the reason the president keeps harping on "family values" in his campaign. "Country music fans, by and large, are people who respond when you say the words 'family values,' " he says. "It may be that half the people in country music are alcoholics, singing about cheating on their wives and so on, but when you say the mantra 'family values,' the fans go for it.

"More escapist"

"Country music sometimes deals in a kind of unreality," he adds. "Not just in hope, but in unreality. It tends to be more escapist than any other music form. And Republican politics tends to deal with issues that way, too."

Perhaps that's what the president meant when he said, at last year's Country Music Awards show, "It's easy to see why America loves country music. Country music loves America."

Some commentators believe that the president doesn't love country music as much as he'd like Americans to think, citing examples like the time he referred to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as "The Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird." But the depth of his interest probably matters less to voters than his apparent enthusiasm.

Individualist tradition

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