Let's sing it for the candidate

Observations on elections and music

The Republican convention reverberates to the sound of ZZ Top or the country star Lee Greenwood performing "God Bless the USA". Two weeks earlier, John Kerry brought the curtain down on the Democrats to the fanfare of U2's "Beautiful Day". These are inten-ded not just as muzak, but as the soundtracks to the two presidential campaigns.

George W Bush's taste in music seems rather like an extension of his policies. He appears to be taunting liberals: here's another tune you're not going to like, another one to remind you that I'm a Texan hick. In similar vein in 2000, he employed the execrable Billy Ray Cyrus's "We the People" ("We pay the taxes/We pay the bills/So they better pay attention on Capitol Hill") to rally voters.

We have evidently come a long way since F D Roosevelt used the ditty "Happy Days Are Here Again" to bolster his 1932 campaign. Perhaps the key moment came 60 years later when Bill Clinton hit the road to the sound of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)". Clinton knew that his fellow baby boomers constituted the crucial voting bloc. Ever the master of presentation, he gave them the perfect jingle to overlay his brand message that it was time for change.

In a nod to the Generation X vote, he simultaneously cultivated the Irish rock stars U2. On a radio phone-in, Bono and co were taken aback when a caller identified himself as "Bill from Arkansas". Clinton's amiable banter with the band prompted a desperate George Bush Sr to attack his opponent for taking policy lessons from a bunch of musicians. Basking in his new-found street cred, the man from Little Rock never looked back.

Bono, meanwhile, has become something of a bipartisan figure in Washington, DC after he accompanied Paul O'Neill, then treasury secretary, on a humanitarian tour of Africa in 2002. And though he was in the audience this year for Kerry's acceptance speech to the Democratic convention, there was some discomfiture when it emerged that the Democrats had not actually secured permission to use his song.

Kerry eventually settled on Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" as his official anthem. This is not the first time that The Boss has been co-opted by a presidential candidate. Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan told an audience in New Jersey: "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."

It is easy to understand Springsteen's enduring appeal to politicians: he spans the age groups and covers the political centre. Unfortunately for Ronald Reagan, Springsteen quickly divorced himself from the Republican agenda when he got wind of the Gipper's appropriation of his name. Last month, in an article in the New York Times, he offered a qualified endorsement of Kerry.

This awkward fusion of pop and politics is not unique to America. Remember John Major hanging out on the hustings with Cilla Black? Or John Prescott, Neil Kinnock et al, on the night of Labour's 1997 landslide, bopping along to "Things Can Only Get Better" with all the rhythm of geography teachers at a sixth-form dance?

Cringe? I nearly wished I'd voted Tory.