Message music

Editorial Notebook

August 21, 2004|By Karen Hosler

THE BROOKS and Dunn tune "Only in America" was released shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but uncannily foreshadowed the powerful sense of national unity that arose in their aftermath; a perfect campaign anthem for a president trying to rekindle that sentiment.

It begins with: "Sun comin' up over New York City," describes the aspirations and potential futures of kids on a school bus, and breaks into a refrain about "dreaming in red, white and blue ... where we can dream as big as we want to ... everybody gets to dance. Only in America."

What's more, it's the kind of honky-tonk country song believed to be favored by President Bush's red state supporters, and sung by artists who earned their spurs as a Bush house band at the 2000 Republican National Convention. The tune now rivals "Hail to the Chief" at Bush rallies.

Conversely, in this toss-up race for a sharply divided electorate, the message music favored by Democratic challenger John Kerry has an unmistakable urban, blue state cast.

The gritty, driving beat of Bruce Springsteen, the uplifting yet soulful rock of U2, the infectious rock and roll of Chuck Berry, all typically accompany a Kerry campaign appearance. A dance party DJ might have assembled the rhythm and blues soundtrack of the Democratic National Convention, which often repeated the vintage Isley Brothers' crowd-pleaser, "Shout."

Simple little campaign ditties, such as Dwight Eisenhower's "I Like Ike" or FDR's "Happy Days are Here Again" apparently just aren't up to the job, anymore. The selling of a president seems to require both music and lyrics that are far more evocative and complicated -- if not overtly partisan.

On some level deeper than politics and policy, the intent of both campaigns is for voters to equate the music with the candidates. (If our tunes set your toes a-tappin', our guy can make good things happen.)

Some musicians are actually stumping on their own, as in the "Vote for Change" tour Mr. Springsteen is expected to headline in October and a counter get-out-the-vote effort planned by conservative country artists.

This may be of no help at all, though, to undecided voters -- especially in the vast middle-age category to which much of this music appeals.

Willie Nelson may have been the only cowboy-boots-and-bandanna type to sing for the Democrats; and the Republican Convention in New York isn't likely to include many rockers in its line-up alongside crossover Christian and country stars. But if the music has understandable lyrics, and a beat that's easy to dance to, baby boomers probably like it, red state or blue.

Of course, music has long been an important form for political expression. And it seems a healthy development that young, punk groups, whose lyrics are too edgy to be adopted by candidates, are also using their celebrity to urge voters to the polls this fall.

But it seems a shame if musical taste becomes yet another issue to drive a wedge between Americans.

Just eight years ago, Republican Bob Dole customized the Motown hit, "Soul Man," ("I'm a Dole man"). And President Ronald Reagan used Mr. Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." for his 1984 re-election campaign -- despite lyrics critical of his administration.

Now, the Kerry camp considers "The Boss" synonymous with its base; and Lee Greenwood's inspiring "Proud to be an American" has come to mean proud to be a Republican-American.

That's an unhappy trend. If music has charms to soothe a savage breast, it ought to be able to take the harsh edges out of politics and remind people of what binds them together rather than drives them apart.

It's much more fun when everybody gets to dance -- especially in America.

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