Political songs are one of the most under-appreciated aspects of a presidential election. For reasons that would take a behavioral psychologist 300 pages to explore, artistic people who find themselves swept away by political currents are often inspired to write songs for their candidate of choice.
I consider myself one of the world’s foremost connoisseurs of these voter-generated tunes, and like any wise critic, I appreciate them on multiple levels. The melody is important, of course, but these songs often borrow melodies from famous songs, so that’s not the critical factor. Lyrics matter very much—one of the charms of the political music genre is the amateurish, forced nature of the words. You wouldn’t think it was possible to sneak an entire policy proposal into a verse, but brother, you’d be wrong. Then of course, there’s the performance. Sometimes you don’t get to see the artists on screen, but when you do, let me tell you: It’s a real mixed bag. Once in a while a fluid performer will surprise you, but very often, the only adjective that applies is “awkward.”
A few things: First, since most artists tend be of a liberal and/or populist persuasion, most songs tend to go to liberal and/or populist candidates, ie Democrats. Apologies to our Republican friends. Second, Hillary Clinton does not seem to inspire these creative efforts—make of that what you will. The only conclusion we can draw is that in recent politics, this is a fight between President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders.
That being said, we have to recognize that in the annals of political music, Barack Obama is king. There’s no dispute. But lately, Bernie Sanders has begun to give him a surprising run for his money. We’re still early in the primary process, and it’s worth noting that back in 2008, at the peak of song-inspiring powers, Obama had all the way up to the general election in November to rack up his career numbers. It’s not clear whether Bernie will last that long, but even if he doesn’t, he’s putting together an impressive resume, and you could argue that he’s quickly sneaking up on the prez.
So let’s hash it out: Bernie vs. Obama, song-style. First up…
THE CHALLENGER: BERNIE SANDERS
The idea for this post came from a USA Today article I saw this morning about a new song called “Hold Me Closer, Bernie Sanders” by Mel Flannery and Danny Sher:
It’s an instant classic. Melody: Elton John. Lyrics: Cumbersome, wonky. Performance: N/A, but great use of old Bernie photos to set the mood.
Seriously, check out how the song starts:
Hair of white
Got ‘em shaking in their shoes!”
Hair of white! That’s the kind of lyric you’ll only find in a political song. Not to mention that the fourth line, “four-eyed” is an insult…”he wears glasses” didn’t fit there. I give this one a solid B+, but it could have been an A if the performers were on camera looking uncomfortable.
Next up, “Mr. Sanders Bring Us a Dream” by Crackin’ Foxy:
Folks, this is a winner, a flat-out A. Catchy, solid lyrics, and a sepia-toned performance with folky costume.
Bring us a Dream
Government Reform like we’ve never seen
Military spending is out of control
Rebuild our country should be the goal”
It’s not a great political song until you have a line that the performers have to sing really, really fast because it has too many syllables for the melody. That’s exactly what we get in “government reform should be the goal.” And then, brilliantly, they leave off the “ing” in “rebuilding” in order to make the final line scan.
Thoroughly enjoyable. A solid A-grader.
Now, fair warning: I can’t go through every song. There are 28 examples on this site alone, and who knows, maybe some day I’ll write a post ranking them all. For now, we’ll feature a couple more. Starting with “Feel the Bern,” by Alex Vans and the Hide Away:
Whoa! This is legitimately pretty good, right? Unlike 99 percent of political songs, it almost seems like it could be considered “cool.” At times, you can barely understand the lyrics—just like a real rock song! It’s also an original, which gives it huge bonus points, and a catchy chorus.
And speaking of “real,” did you know that Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes wrote his own song?
It’s a classic hippy-dippy feel-gooder, and a famous guy wrote it! I mean, is it pretty clear that Ebert put this one together in about ten minutes? Sure. Definitely. But he did it, mannn. A- all the way.
I’ll leave you with this one, “The Bernie Sanders Song,” from Julia Kate Davis:
From the birthday cake=wealth inequality metaphor at the start, to the great melody, to the great voice, to the great guitar-ing, I just love this. And I mean that without irony. She also distills the question of how a voter should become informed into an absolutely perfect couplet:
“Go on the Internet
But, you’ve gotta give a shit”
Okay. Now you’ve seen a sampling of what Bernie has to offer. With that, we turn our attention to:
THE CHAMPION: PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Oh, Bernie. Bernie Bernie Bernie. You thought you could compete with Young Jeezy, and Mariah Carey, and Jay-Z, and Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie f***ing Wonder? Look at this man’s top ten songs Heavy hitters doesn’t begin to describe it.
Some of those songs were written after his inauguration, and are technically ineligible, but the truth is that Obama doesn’t even need them.
Yup. That one was released in February 2008, in the thick of primary season, and features more famous people than you can shake a stick at. By the summer, it had 21 million views. That’s what we call deadly ammo. And as The Daily Beast pointed out, some of those songs were just as terrible as if an amateur had written them. Famous people can be hacky too! I’m amazed Hillary lasted as long as she did.
But Obama had some populist songs too. One of my favorites of all-time is called “No One’s As Irish as Barack Obama”:
This is so, so sing-able. And the performance is so, so awkward, complete with flop sweat. I wish the guy was wearing a tie so he could tug on it nervously. Plus, it’s Irish! What charm!
It’s actually sort of hard to find many populist songs written for Obama when he was first running for president. Not because they don’t exist, but because so many celebrities got on board that they saturate any and all Google searches. And if you look up “Obama song” on YouTube, you get a lot of conservative parodies (many of them quite racist!) and those other mash-ups where they take one word at a time from his speeches so that he ends up singing a pop song.
But what makes Obama the champ is that he crosses all genres. While Bernie is making a killing on the populist side, only Obama could inspire a real-life, sexy, sultry love song:
That was written in 2007, even before the first primary. It has 27 million views. The king stays the king.