2. The video is packed with people flashing middle fingers and repeated shots of a sodomy-mimicking pencil sharpener, yet they feel the need to spell out "F—-" literally, as in "eff blank blank blank." Why the fuck don't they just say the word "fuck?" Who are they fooling? Whose standards are they meeting? Is anyone fooled by those blanks?
3. Why, after listening to this song, do I get Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" stuck in my head?
4. According to a press release, the lead singer of this band wrote this song because he "wants to speak out for all American working class people who are subjected to not being able to pay their bills, eat healthy food, consistently provide for their families and loved ones and of course, pay their taxes without being gouged by the IRS." Does he not understand that taxes help pay for programs that help poor people pay bills and eat healthy food, and that less taxes would result in more poverty? Or would arguing with him about taxes be like trying to explain filmmaking to Tommy Wiseau?
5. This shitty band's shitty new album is titled Censored by the U.S. Government. Was it really censored by the U.S. government? If not, then, why would they say that?
6. How much did they have to pay the people in the audience to pretend they liked this music?
7. Why have I spent this long thinking about this shitty band's shitty new song?
In this week's music section, I interview comedian Tim Heidecker about his Herman Cain-inspired album, Canthology: Songs in the Key of Cain. In the piece, I talk for a little bit about "an '80s-aerobics-video anthem" featuring "a comically impassioned vocalist named Krista Branch." It's called "I Am America," and it's best-known for appearing in the background of the atrocious Cain video that inspired Heidecker's album. "I Am America" has its own official video, but I prefer this one, with Branch singing a lame karaoke version of the song at a live edition of The Herman Cain Show in late 2010. My favorite part of this video is watching Herman Cain "dancing" along to the song in the background, with his top half ticking back and forth, left and right, like a metronome.
There's always a market, however small, for conservative-themed music. Branch seems to be the Celine Dion of the conservatives right now; her most recent song is about the plight of Israel. I wonder if she's going to do a teabaggy version of "Crush on Obama" for whoever wins the Republican nomination? "Mitt Is It?" "Song-ny for Romney?" I can't wait to see what Bonnie Tyler knockoff hell Branch will dip into for 2012.
"Just Before Election, Andy" is an anti-campaign song. It's a song that gloats about the fact that Andrew Johnson, who took office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, will not be elected president of the United States.
Just before election, Andy We are thinking most of you; While we get our ballots handy Just be sure they're not for you; No, dear Andy, you'll not get them, But you will get what you deserve; Yes, you'll get your leave of absence As you swing around the curve.
Of course, the song turned out to be correct: Johnson badly lost the election, and he's generally considered to be one of the worst presidents of all time. As an anti-campaign song, it's just about perfect: Cutting, sarcastic, and brief. I love how it refers to Johnson in the diminutive and directs its insults directly at him, although the grammar gets a little clumsy here and there. I wish it was peppier—it's set to "Just Before the Battle, Mother," which is a little too austere for the lyrics—but content-wise, campaign songs don't get much more feisty than this.
Lyrics: 9 Enthusiasm: 8 Infectiousness: 8 Total Score: 8.33
(Updated because I kept confusing my presidents with boring surnames.)
Things were different by the time Abraham Lincoln was up for reelection. It wasn't about keeping the union together anymore; it was about beating the Confederates and saving the union. So he went with another winner for a campaign song. According to Wikipedia, "Battle Cry of Freedom" was "so popular that the music publisher at one time had 14 printing presses going at one time and still could not keep up with demand. It is estimated that over 700,000 copies of this song were put in circulation." And there are two sides to this song. Here's the Union chorus:
The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah! Down with the traitor, up with the star; While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again, Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And here's the Confederate chorus:
Our Dixie forever! She's never at a loss! Down with the eagle and up with the cross! We'll rally 'round the bonny flag, we'll rally once again, Shout, shout the battle cry of Freedom!
All of which goes to show that it was such a popular song that both sides wanted to claim it as their own. Lincoln won, and the Union won, and this song was a rallying battle cry as well as a campaign song. I am going to say this again, and in as plain English as I can put it: Abraham Lincoln is awesome.
Lyrics: 9 Enthusiasm: 10 Infectiousness: 10 Total Score: 9.67
There is literally nothing left to say about Abraham Lincoln that hasn't already been said. That's why people keep arguing about whether he was secretly gay, or a depressive, or an abused husband, or a cross-dresser. They dabble in the unknown, because the facts are indisputable, and well-known: He was one of the best, if not the single best president in history. If you disagree with that, you are either a dick or you have taken part in one too many Civil War reenactments (or, probably, both).
"Lincoln and Liberty," isn't worthy of being Lincoln's campaign song. But then, I can't really think of a song that would be worthy of being Lincoln's campaign song. (The Hallelujah Chorus, maybe?) But as far as lyrics go, it really soaks itself in patriotism:
They'll find what by felling and mauling, Our railmaker statesman can do; For the people are everywhere calling For Lincoln and Liberty too.
Then up with the banner so glorious, The star-spangled red, white, and blue, We'll fight till our banner's victorious, For Lincoln and Liberty, too.
This is a fight song, a song that points to the distance and says "We'll get there one day, with this guy's help, and it'll be better when we all get there together." As far as tunes go, it's fun and lofty and inspiring. (It's to the tune of an old folk song titled "Rosin the Bow.") Here it is:
See? You want something like the good-guy version of the Imperial March*. But that's impossible. At the time, nobody knew Lincoln would be the best of us. He just worked out that way. His campaign songs didn't have a chance to match up to the glory of the man, because a lot of Lincoln's power came in retrospect. The job he had to do was so messy and divisive and enormous. You can't capture that in a song without years of reflection.
Lyrics: 9 Enthusiasm: 7.5 Infectiousness: 8 Total Score: 8.17
* Come to think of it, why isn't there a good-guy version of the Imperial March? Is it just easier to do foreboding than hopeful? The Superman theme comes close, but it doesn't quite get there in terms of majesty.
What? No. I'm sorry. This is garbage. The use of the word "manfully" is kind of funny in retrospect, and the song accuses opponents of having "a woolly headed platform," which is funny for a second or two, but no. This is garbage.
Lyrics: 1 Enthusiasm: 1 Infectiousness: 1 Total Score: Garbage!
Franklin Pierce's campaign song, "Pierce and King," is not a very good song, and it has not aged well.
High Locos, Ho Locos, listen while I sing; A song for you that's good and true about our Pierce and King.
Yes, come next March, we'll take the starch out of Fillmore's collar Old Scott we'll beat the very first heat and make the 'Coons' all holler
Besides the obvious, there's the weird obsession with electoral politics. Rather than talking about goals or beliefs, it's all about how they'll win the vote. Pierce is largely regarded as one of the biggest presidential failures, and I think his campaign song was an early warning of his ineffectuality. Boo for Pierce.
Lyrics: 1 Enthusiasm: 1 Infectiousness: 3 Total Score: 1.67
Millard Fillmore is arguably our nerdiest president. Names fall into and out of fashion with every decade, but there was never a time that being named "Millard Fillmore" did not get you mocked. He was the last of the Whig presidents, the last president born in the 18th century, and when he got out of office, he founded the University of Buffalo. Who cares? Not me.
At least his song, "The Union Wagon," was similarly nerdy; Fillmore didn't pull any kind of bait-and-switch with a hardcore kick-in-the-pants campaign song. The tune was hopelessly bland, and the lyrics were completely wonky. They imagined America as a wagon, made from wood from all our many regions:
Our wagon is a noble one, 'Twas made in seventy-six; 'Twas driven by George Wash-ing-ton, Through stormy pol-i-tics!
Palmetto, cypress, cottonwood, in spokes and wheels you'll find; Western oak and Eastern pine, and Northern ash com-bined!
Wait for the wagon, The Millard Fillmore wagon; Wait for the wagon, And we'll all take a ride!
And then it swings back around and makes the wagon—America—the Millard Fillmore wagon. Fillmore is a man of the nation, a product of America, taking no particular region as his favorite. He's all about unity! (Remember, this is as the state's rights battle that will become the Civil War keeps heating up.) It's not as thunderous as other campaign songs to date, and it certainly doesn't score high in terms of memorability, but it tries to use poetic imagery to bring the people together. Nerdy, yes, but sincere.
Lyrics:5 Enthusiasm: 3 Infectiousness: 2 Total Score: 3.34
First of all: The nickname "Old Rough and Ready" is better than just about any other presidential nickname ever. It works for a soldier who is brave and strong or for a gay porn star. Good job, Zachary Taylor!
Second of all:
Rum-a-dum-dum, vote for Taylor! Rum-a-dum-dum, son of freedom! Rum-a-dum-dum, vote for Taylor! He's the boy can skin and beat 'em!
Old Zack kicked up gun powderation With the Texas annexation. Anyone makes much ado, He'll flog 'em and annex 'em too!
Rhyming "son of freedom" with "skin and beat 'em" is the most awesome thing I've seen in months.
If there's one thing that chafes me, it's bullshit politican man-of-the-people schtick. Here's a semi-recent example:
A much older example is "Jimmy Polk of Tennessee," a folksy tune about how James Polk came from out of nowhere to lead the people of America to glory:
His choice occasioned some surprise Good democrats rolled up their eyes Oh, asking, "Tell us, who is he, James K. Polk of Tennessee?"
Hark, the people rising say He's the man to cope with Clay Ha ha, such a nominee Jimmy Polk of Tennessee!
But soon their vast excitement o'er They see what ne'er was seen before The best selection that could be Ex-Speaker Polk of Tennessee!
But the thing is, you can't say you're outside the system if your title is "Ex-Speaker." I know this blue-collar bullshit is a game that politicians have to play whenever they're up for election, but for anyone paying the slightest bit of attention, it's painful to watch. Good politicians will keep it at a minimum. This song feels hopelessly market tested to make Polk seem like a populist. Even the tune is derivative of every children's song ever. Though his nomination did seem to come out of nowhere, this song's breathless joy doesn't pass the bullshit test. On the positive side: Polk does win an award for president with the best mullet, though.
Lyrics: 2 Enthusiasm: 3 Infectiousness: 2.5 Total Score: 2.5
On Friday, we saw that (unlike Martin Van Buren) William Henry Harrison had a great campaign song. Today, we look at his second great campaign song, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Here's a They Might Be Giants cover of that song:
According to campaign song expert Irwin Silber (via Wikipedia, of course), this is the song that really cemented the idea of the American campaign song. And you're not going to find any contrarian balloon-bursting from me: It's a great song. It portrays Harrison and Tyler as the tools of a great change sweeping the nation, it belittles their opponents at every opportunity, and it features a lot of wordplay and other high-quality lyrical tricks. Good show, Harrison!
Lyrics: 10 Enthusiasm: 10 Infectiousness: 10 Total Score: 10
Yesterday, we saw that Martin Van Buren really didn't have a good campaign song. Instead, his song ham-handedly called anyone who'd vote against him a drunk. His opponent, William Henry Harrison understood the value of a good campaign song. He had two classics of the form, the first of which we'll talk about today.
"The Harrison Yankee Doodle" is notable for two reasons. First: It riffs on "Yankee Doodle Dandy," one of the most popular American songs of all time. And second:
With Harrison, our country's won No treachery can divide her Thy will be done with Harrison, Log Cabin, and Hard Cider.
Taking cues from the campaign, the song openly endorses drinking. Seems in some ways, Harrison was a prototypical Teabagger, running on old fashioned American values like log cabins and drinking hard cider. (This is why Van Buren's song tried to appeal to the temperance freaks, but it inarguably could have handled the drinking bit in a classier way.) Who doesn't love singing a catchy little ditty about booze? I'm surprised Shane MacGowen hasn't covered "Harrison Yankee Doodle" at some point in his career. This isn't Harrison's main campaign song, but it's a good one, setting the stage for a candidate who can bring the good times back.
Lyrics: 9 Enthusiasm: 9 Infectiousness: 9 Total Score: 9
We're skipping ahead a couple of elections to 1840, now—I can't seem to find anything about the music of the 1832 or 1836 elections—and we find ourselves in the middle of a huge clusterfuck of an election. The Anti-Masonic Party was slowly dying and all the parties were in flux. Incumbent Martin Van Buren was running against William Henry Harrison and his vice presidential pick, John Tyler.
Harrison had a couple campaign songs, but Van Buren apparently just had one. But what a campaign song! It's incredibly weird, and it's sung to the tune of "Rockabye Baby." Here are the lyrics:
Rockabye, baby, Daddy's a Whig When he comes home, hard cider he'll swig When he has swug He'll fall in a stew And down will come Tyler and Tippecanoe. Rockabye, baby, when you awake You will discover Tip is a fake. Far from the battle, war cry and drum He sits in his cabin a'drinking bad rum. Rockabye, baby, never you cry You need not fear OF Tip and his Ty. What they would ruin, Van Buren will fix. Van's a magician, they are but tricks.
Crazy! It calls the opposing party a bunch of drunks, and their candidate a scaredy-cat alcoholic who can't even drink alcohol that is uncontaminated. At the end, they say "Vote for our guy, because he's a wizard." You've got to admire the pluck and playfulness of these lyrics—that past tense of "swig" is genius—but it's kind of an off-putting campaign song, in that it insults half the population of the United States. Points for gusto—not even Sarah Palin would have a campaign song like this one—but major points off for sheer aggression.
Lyrics: 8.5 Enthusiasm: 3 Infectiousness: 1 Total Score: 4.17
"The Hunters of Kentucky" was written about Andrew Jackson's victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans. It was apparently wildly popular. Four years after the song was first performed, Jackson, who was from Tennessee, used it as a campaign song (he recycled it for his second run in 1828, too, where Wikipedia points out that he campaigned against someone who was actually from Kentucky, which must've been kind of awkward). It's an epic, Irish lilt of a song:
But Jackson he was wide awake, And was not scar’d at trifles, For well he knew what aim we take, With our Kentucky rifles: So he led us down by Cypress swamp, The ground was low and mucky; There stood John Bull in martial pomp, And here was old Kentucky.
As far as campaign songs go, it doesn't make any promises about Jackson except for his bravery in battle. It's not catchy, it's not especially fun. But it's a great illustration of his character, and it probably educated a lot of people about the candidate.
Lyrics: 9.5 Enthusiasm: 7.5 Infectiousness: 2.5 Total Score: 6.5
In the last week or so, we've seen a lot of different presidential campaign songs. We've seen some that suggest their candidate is the embodiment of America. We've seen some that suggest he's the most capable man for the job, or that he's capable of single-handedly defeating every single enemy army, if need be. But we haven't seen one yet that deals strictly in craven fear.
Enter John Quincy Adams.
Consider what it must've been like to live in America in the middle of the 1820s. Monroe, the last president to be a Founding Father, was leaving office. The party system was collapsing. Nobody was sure what was going to happen to the United States. Get a load of this song, "Little Know Ye Who's Comin'":
Little know ye who's comin', Little know ye who's comin', Little know ye who's comin', If John Quincy not be comin'!
Fire's comin', swords are comin', Pistols, guns, and knives are comin', Famine's comin', banning's comin', If John Quincy not be comin'!
Put simply: If you do not elect John Quincy Adams for president, your nation will fall to famine, war, fire, and crime. It gets even more over the top with the final lead-in to the chorus: "Fears are comin', tears are comin', Plague and pestilence is comin', Hatin's comin', Satan's comin', If John Quincy not be comin'."
The weirdest thing about this weird song is that John Quincy Adams didn't lead the nation on a platform of fear. He oversaw economic growth, and he grew to detest slavery while in office. He was conservative, but he helped modernize America for the times. He was viewed as a failed president at the end of his single term, but that's mostly because (people say now) he was almost too smart for the job (case in point: according to Wikipedia, he was sworn in on a law book instead of the Bible because he was a big believer in separation of church and state). In fact, using a little more fear might have made him a more successful president.
To return to the music: This is by no means a responsible campaign song, but it is a hugely effective one, playing on fear with a catchy beat. It could practically be George W. Bush or Rudy Giuliani's campaign song with very few changes. And it would probably work, too.
Lyrics: 9 Enthusiasm: 7 Infectiousness: 5 Total Score: 7
James Monroe was the last Founding Father to serve as president. He's the originator of the Monroe Doctrine, which was arguably the first step in the "America—Fuck Yeah!" school of foreign policy. (Also: Because every president has his secret shame: Florida is Monroe's fault.) And his campaign song is awesome.
What "Monroe Is the Man"—that title!—lacks in blood and thunder when compared to previous campaign songs, it more than makes up for in selling the candidate to us. The last verse and chorus of the song are exactly what a good presidential song should be:
Who cares not for office, nor power, or place, whose merits and virtues the highest would race. Whose country is his idol, her good all his care And in terrible times who did never despair.
In peace and in war—who can act, who can plan MONROE—yes MONROE—he indeed is the man In peace and in war—who can act, who can plan MONROE—yes MONROE—he indeed is the man
While the song could stand to be a little zippier, it's got whistling, which more than makes up for the swaying tempo. Good fucking work, Monroe. You're the man. But you knew that already.
Lyrics: 9 Enthusiasm: 9.5 Infectiousness: 8.5 Total Score: 9
"Huzzah for Madison," also known as "Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah!," has all the elements of a good campaign song. It has God defeating Satan (Satan, in case you didn't know, sides with the British), and it contextualizes Madison: "While Jefferson to shade retires/and Madison like morn appears/fresh confidence and hope inspires/and light again the nation cheers." But I have a hard time with any song that suggests this guy is like the morning sun...
...because really, his head is big and round (and probably really warm, too) but nobody would want to wake up to it. And the lyrics seem to work extra hard to diminish Jefferson, who was Madison's boss, which seems kind of weaselly. But listen to Oscar Brand's version of the song and you'll see the big problem with "Huzzah for Madison." It drags like a motherfucker. Any song with Huzzah in the title should be a balls-to-the-walls party through and through. "Huzzah for Madison" fails at that. It feels perfunctory. It's the first presidential campaign song that's a total disappointment.
Lyrics:4 Enthusiasm: 3 Infectiousness: 2.5 Total Score: 3.17
When I saw that Thomas Jefferson's campaign song was titled "For Jefferson and Liberty," my first thought was that it was just a boring ripoff of John Adams's song, "Adams and Liberty." (People were pretty blasé about plagiarism back then, you understand.) But those fears were unfounded; it bears no relation to poor old John Adams. Which is not to say that "For Jefferson and Liberty" doesn't borrow from what has come before. In fact, it's just some new lyrics set to the tune of an old Irish jig called The Gobby-O. Here's video of The Gobby O:
It's a decent jig. It doesn't have the towering sense of importance that the songs for Washington and Adams did, but it was probably catchy as hell back in the day. The lyrics are full of that old-fashioned blood and thunder that would make Sarah Palin cream her jeans: "No lordling here with gorging jaws/Shall wring from industry its food/No fiery bigot's holy laws,/Lay waste our fields and streets in blood." You can't ask for much more than opposition to fiery bigots in a campaign ditty. And it culminates in a Bruckheimerian bellow of Biblican proportions: "Let foes to freedom dread the name/But should they touch the sacred tree/Twice fifty thousand swords would flame/For Jefferson and Liberty."
Fuck! Me! You can bet that Jimmy Carter's campaign song doesn't end with a hundred thousand flaming fucking swords. I think this is the best one yet; it combines an optimistic party tune with lyrics that don't dick around. What else do you want in a campaign song?
Lyrics: 9 Enthusiasm: 9 Infectiousness: 8.5 Total Score: 8.83