What Are the Odds Bruce Springsteen’s Obama Song Will Climb the Charts?

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Oct. 19 2012 4:09 PM

Has a Presidential Campaign Song Ever Been a Hit?

Assessing the chances for Bruce Springsteen’s new Obama ditty.

Bruce Springstreen and Barack Obama
In this 2008 file photo Bruce Springstreen and Barack Obama appear together at a campaign rally.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Bruce Springsteen debuted a song called “Forward and Away We Go” for President Obama’s re-election campaign on Thursday. Although catchy in patches, the song is unlikely to climb the charts, because Springsteen ran out of words that rhyme with “Obama.” Has a presidential campaign song ever been a legitimate hit?

Not recently. Popularity rankings don’t exist for most of the golden age of campaign jingles, but a few songs stand out as probable smash hits. Robert Paine wrote “Jefferson and Liberty” for the Virginian’s 1800 victory over John Adams. (Paine had written the Adams theme song “Adams and Liberty” for the previous election, proving he could switch allegiances if not song titles.) “Jefferson and Liberty” caught on immediately and remained the party’s unofficial anthem even after Jefferson left office. American fiddlers still play the tune today. (When stripped of the lyrics, it’s more accurate to refer to the song as “The Gobby-O,” which is the English tune on which “Jefferson and Liberty” was based, but few Americans do so.) Another political classic was the 1884 anti-Grover Cleveland song “Ma Ma, Where’s My Pa?” During Cleveland’s bachelor days in Buffalo, N.Y., hiss lover delivered an illegitimate child. Although she had been sleeping with several different men, Cleveland agreed to pay child support, and it later became a political scandal. The song imagines a child, suffering from a bee sting, plaintively inquiring into his father’s whereabouts. His mother responds, “Up in the White House, darling.”

We live in comparatively lean times for political songwriters. Presidential campaign strategists now largely eschew original anthem-writing in favor of existing popular music. Bill Clinton favored Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” John McCain went for ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me.” During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush cycled through Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” and “Brand New Day” by Sting, as each musician demanded that the candidate stop using his song. Campaign songs are now so unimportant that Hilary Clinton’s advisors let her supporters choose one. (They went with “You and I,” by Celine Dion.)

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Obama has inspired at least two songs—the new Springsteen number and will.i.am’s semi-original 2008 song “Yes We Can,” which achieved viral video popularity if not commercial success—making him something of a throwback in this regard. Before the rise of mass media, every campaign had at least one jingle that supporters could play and sing. Andrew Jackson, the ur-populist of American presidential campaigns, used “The Hunters of Kentucky,” a song that celebrated Old Hickory’s military victories. Supporters of John C. Fremont distributed a flyer full of songs in 1856, including one whose lyrics formed an acrostic of the candidate’s name. There were more than 50 songs praising Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 campaign, such as “Lincoln and Liberty.” (Nineteenth-century political lyricists just couldn’t resist that title construction.) William Howard Taft’s campaign invited voters to “Get on the Raft with Taft,” a peculiar choice given the 27th president’s heft. Franklin Roosevelt also offered a nautical theme during the 1932 campaign with “Row, Row, Row with Roosevelt.” (The chorus was intended to teach Americans how to pronounce the first syllable of FDR’s last name.) The last truly notable original presidential campaign song came in 1952, when Irving Berlin penned “I Like Ike” for Dwight Eisenhower, although jingles limped along for a few more election cycles.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.