11 awkward times politicians tried to use music for cool points

Stephen Harper, we're looking at you. A lot.

July 16, 2015

Election buzz has begun to percolate on both the American and Canadian sides of the border, and once again, these would-be leaders of the free world are plotting diabolical strategies to win over the public…through song.

Yes, music is one of the key tools in any politician’s arsenal, an easy way to defuse their stiff, serious personas and connect with large swaths of voters via pop culture. But as we’ve already seen a couple times this year, using music to be a more relatable in politics often has unintended, groan-inducing consequences. Whether it’s with a bad campaign song choice, odd displays of musical talent, an ill-advised attempt at dancing in public, or John Tory’s new self-deprecating Kanye West video, things can get awkward real fast. And it’s always so good.

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Here are 11 of our favourite cringe-inducing music moments from politicians.

Ronald Reagan vs. Bruce Springsteen

Ronald Reagan was pretty much untouchable when he ran for reelection back in 1984, so his campaign instead focused on getting more progressive voters on the wagon. What better way to do that then to latch on to the most popular song in the country?

At that time, it just happened to be Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” – a perfect campaign song for an American president, as long as you don’t know anything beyond the song title. Of course, he’d soon learn that Springsteen was a card-carrying liberal who wrote that song as a scathing decrial of the US, its government and the treatment of war veterans. Whoops.

Ross Perot/Jean Chretien vs. creepy campaign song choices

Reagan is far from the first to flub a campaign song pick, but some choices aren’t so much foolish as they are downright creepy. Ross Perot ran for US president in 1992 on the power of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” because… I don’t know. He really didn’t want to win? Too self aware? Who knows.

Canadians aren’t immune either; though Jean Chretien’s Liberals had no trouble stomping the competition in 1993, the campaign tune choice of “Obsession” by Animotion (also known as the Fashion Television theme song) – with lyrics that clearly detail a stalkerish love affair – was questionable at best.

Bill Clinton vs. dat sax

When Bill Clinton made his Blues Brothers-eque visit to The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, people initially ridiculed it – at the time, subbing in with a jazz band on late-night TV was unbecoming for a presidential hopeful. Over time however, the groovy sesh has been recognized as a strategically brilliant move to appeal to a wider, more pop culture-minded public. It helps that he was actually good, too.

Tom Petty vs. Republicans

Sam Smith wasn’t the only person Tom Petty thought to be thievin’ his classic staple “I Won’t Back Down.” The song’s lyrics detail standing up for your beliefs in the face of overwhelming odds, which is basically Republican Party catnip. George W. Bush attempted to make it his campaign song in 2000, but Petty promptly served him with a cease and desist, claiming that use of the song could be interpreted as an ill-gotten endorsement. He also requested John McCain stop using the tune during his rallies, and also stopped Michele Bachmann from using “American Girl” in 2011, so dude’s pretty on point with those legal notices, at least.

Ed Broadbent vs. rap

Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent briefly got back into politics in 2004 by running for Ottawa MP. Having a sense of humour about himself, he gladly took part in a This Hour has 22 Minutes spoof that saw him rapping cornily about his parliamentary return. The bit never made it to air, but the party decided to throw it up on their website instead, where it promptly went viral. Sure, it’s goofy as hell, but how do you not vote for this?

Paul Ryan vs. Rage Against the Machine

Back in 2012, Mitt Romney was the stuffy grandpa attempting to run against Barack “Jay and Bey-approved” Obama. Luckily he had an in with the kids thanks to Paul Ryan, his young running mate who was pro war, pro life and an avid Rage Against the Machine fan. Wait, what?

Many were baffled at how such a staunch right-winger could be down with RATM’s anti-establishment riffage, but none more than the band themselves; Tom Morello took to Rolling Stone with an op-ed lambasting the congressman for clearly not getting their deal. Later, Ryan would deny his fandom and tell The New York Times “they were never my favourite band,” I imagine through tears while ripping up Zack de la Rocha-signed posters.

Stephen Harper vs. music in general

Whatever your opinion of our current PM, I think we can all agree he’s not exactly the cool guy at the G-20 table. That’s why it’s always a little alarming when he dusts off the piano and reminds us that yes, he does play in a band. That band’s name is the Van Cats, and oh my God they do covers of Guns N’ Roses (and so many others). Axl’s real hair must be spinning in its grave.

Sarah Thomson vs. pop-song parodies

The 2014 Toronto mayoral election was a pretty nutty time for the city, what with this guy around and all. But you know what else made the whole thing feel like a Lynchian nightmare? Fringe candidate Sarah Thomson and her song parodies. Capitalizing on the popularity of “Timber” and “Stompa”, she reimagined the hit songs as pleas for better transit, and concurrently freaked us all right the hell out. I doubt that these would get the Weird Al seal of approval.

John Tory vs. karaoke

Rob Ford’s predecessor has done a pretty good job thus far of preventing his citizens from having to hang their heads in shame. There may have been one slip-up, however, at this year’s Luminato Festival. Opening night featured an orchestral-accompanied karaoke night, and Toronto’s mayor got up with the fest’s artistic director to belt out the classic Dirty Dancing ditty “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”. To be fair, my desire to run out of the room instead of listening to this was no stronger than any normal karaoke I’ve ever seen, so there’s that.

Albertan politicians vs. Trent Reznor

When three Albertan politicians recently met up to talk policy, they commemorated the event in surprising fashion (literally!), drawing up shirts with their last-name initials that parodied the Nine Inch Nails logo. As impressively edgy as their musical taste is, they apparently weren’t big enough fans to know that Captain Buzzkill, a.k.a. Trent Reznor, is pretty protective of the NIN brand. They were promptly contacted by his lawyers to advise against further use of the shirts.

Donald Trump vs. Neil Young

The Donald’s 2016 presidential campaign has already been pretty spectacular thanks to his ability to alienate millions of voters with one or two swift tweets. Those of us north of the border have mostly been safe from his barbs, save for national treasure Neil Young. Trump used his tune “Rockin’ in the Free World” to announce his candidacy, and Young immediately took umbrage with him for not only using it without permission, but also missing the point of the tune entirely.

Trump, ever the lovable scamp, retaliated by calling Young a “hypocrite” for hatin’ after asking the mogul for cash to invest in Pono – which would be a really great burn if Young hadn’t already addressed that very point in literally the second sentence of his statement. The lesson here, of course, is that money can’t buy you reading comprehension.

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