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

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
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.

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

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."

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.

"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.

"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.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.