The Politics of Rock

Ex-Staffer’s Book Explores the Music of Campaigns

Posted January 26, 2004 at 2:35pm

Tom Waldman, former press secretary for Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), knew he was on to something during the 1996 presidential election.

Working in Berman’s San Fernando Valley district office, Waldman could hear a very unusual song coming out of his television that was usually set to C-SPAN, a channel not typically known for its musical choices. His eyes squinted and his ears tuned, Waldman could make out that the song was “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave, and was being blared at a rally for the GOP’s then-presidential contender, Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.).

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Has rock and roll really sunk to this level?’” Waldman said of the song, whose lyrics had been changed to “Dole man.”

In his latest book, “We All Want to Change the World: Rock and Politics from Elvis to Eminem,” Waldman was inspired by the peculiar sight of a conservative Senator being backed up by a soulful jam to rally support. Throughout Waldman’s book — his third — he peppers the chapters with more stories of politicians using rock music as a way to get voters dancing to the ballot boxes.

“It’s now a standard question for candidates,” Waldman said of what theme song each candidate will pick in an election, whether it’s Bill Clinton in 1992 with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” or former Democratic candidate Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) blasting of the Bruce Springsteen favorite “Born in the USA.”

Waldman also examines different music genres in his book as he applies them to politics. Although commonly regarded as anti-war music, Waldman said he found in his research that the tunes of outspoken artists like Bob Dylan and the Doors were wildly popular with troops stationed overseas.

The former political reporter found a similar paradox with punk rock. The popular movement that became synonymous with rebellious fashion and liberal ideals was actually widely listened to by more conservative music fans.

“People who loved Reagan also listened to Bruce Springsteen,” Waldman said, pointing out an example of the contrasts he found in the rock-oriented 1980s. “For people on the left, I think that’s something that’s hard to swallow.”

Despite the wave of trends in music and politics, Waldman does not expect hip-hop to be blasting from stereos at any campaign. Citing rap artist Eminem, Waldman said rap and hip-hop are seen as too offensive to many women and gays and could deter voters.

The 2004 campaign will be one of the last to have a musical force, Waldman says. As the baby boomer generation gets older, the author believes music will become a diluted tactic to reach the key demographic.

“I’ll be curious to see if Bush uses rock,” Waldman said of the president’s re-election campaign. “Whatever it is, I doubt it’ll be the Dixie Chicks.”