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January 17, 2018

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The Policy Racket

GOP candidates seem tone deaf on music choices at campaign rallies


Steve Marcus

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, arrive for a rally at Brady Industries in Las Vegas on Feb. 1, 2012.

Back in 1984, Ronald Reagan goofed when he started playing “Born in the U.S.A.” at his campaign rallies, apparently oblivious to the fact that Bruce Springsteen was not a Republican and the song was about America’s screw-ups.

In 2012, the Republicans are doing it again.

If you attended any of the campaign rallies in Nevada last week, or have been listening to the victory speeches on C-SPAN over the last few weeks, you may have noticed that almost every Republican presidential campaign includes Toby Keith’s 2009 smash hit “American Ride” on their rally mix CD.

The first time you hear the lyrics, your brain can’t help but conjure up images that are classic Republican campaign fare: Flag. Country. Truck. (Or motorcycle, which is what Keith rides in the video.

“That’s us! That’s right! Gotta love this American ride,” goes Keith’s gritty-but-boisterous baritone. “Look Ma! No hands! I looooove this American ride.”

One can’t help but sing along to such an upbeat song about America with such a catchy chorus. Except if one listens to the rest of the lyrics, it becomes clear that this is a song about America’s problems, and “gotta love this American ride” is meant to be ironic, not rally Republicans around the flag.

Keith — who just so happens to be “a longtime Democrat,” registered Independent but “definitely not a Republican,” according to his publicist, Elaine Schock — fills his song with cutting comments about America’s problems: global warming, the TSA, oil, religion and immigration. His official music video takes a few extra potshots at foreclosures, U.S. presidents (George W. Bush is shown being ridden like a horse by Pat Robertson, and Barack Obama is depicted being carried by Wall Street corporate types) and Donald Trump.

While no Republican has gone so far as to make it their official campaign song, it is ubiquitous at rallies. At Romney’s rallies, it’s the song they usually play right before breaking into his official entrance music, Kid Rock’s “Born Free.” (Mr. Rock is not registered Republican, but has claimed in interviews to lean rightward on his politics. The lyrics to his song are also full of unobjectionable things, like chasing dreams and running wild and God.)

At Gingrich’s rallies, some enterprising producer thought to cut out the verses from “American Ride” and just play the chorus on a loop — an edit that obscures all non-rah-rah-America references save one line about the ozone layer burning up.

Spokesmen for Romney’s and Gingrich’s campaigns didn’t respond to requests about how they made their song choices.

While “American Ride” may be the oddest pick of the cycle, it’s certainly not the most controversial: Song choices have proven to be a snafu for several of the candidates.

Gingrich, incidentally, is currently campaign songless, after Frank Sullivan of the group Survivor sued him for using “Eye of the Tiger.”

Romney, meanwhile, had to apologize to Somalian-Canadian hip-hop star K’Naan last week for using his song “Wavin’ Flag” (which was also the 2010 World Cup theme song).

And earlier this cycle, Michele Bachmann had to stop using “American Girl” after writer and singer Tom Petty sent her a letter to cease and desist.

Keith has not reacted positively or negatively to his 2009 song being featured at political rallies: While Schock said she had heard campaigns were using Keith’s song, she explained it wasn’t really meant to be political.

“It’s just a really fun song,” she said.

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