American Sauce: The strategy of campaign music
Nick Niespodziani, co-founder of a popular tribute band, weighs in on music played on the campaign trail.
February 7th, 2012
02:47 PM ET
11 years ago

American Sauce: The strategy of campaign music

Atlanta (CNN) - Camp Gingrich plays the theme song from "The Karate Kid." Mitt Romney? He's wrapping himself in the long-haired high octaves of Kid Rock. Really.

Why? Strategy. Music, in fact, may be the least-criticized and least-analyzed piece of subliminal campaign strategy. So, this week American Sauce looks the melodic and political reasons politicians pick their rally songs.

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Campaign songs typically make headlines only when politics or controversy come into play. The band Heart made news in 2008 when they condemned the use of their song at the GOP convention. More recently a member of the group Survivor filed a complaint against Newt Gingrich over the use of "Eye of the Tiger."

But, given the highly orchestrated nature of the modern campaign, what do the songs played at campaign stops say about the candidates? As the co-founder of a popular tribute band, Nick Niespodziani has some unique insights into the question.

"Kid Rock was an interesting choice for [Mitt] Romney," he said of "Born Free," a track the GOP frontrunner frequently plays. The song features an acoustic guitar which conjures up images of middle America and old-fashioned hard work. High octaves mean Kid Rock's voice breaks a little as he works to hit the notes, a common feature of many popular campaign songs because "they evoke "a feeling of really putting your best forward just to get up to this high note."

Niespodziani pushes for some high notes himself, taking the badge of "Atlanta's most hated singer" seriously. He fronts the Yacht Rock Revue, a tribute band that specializes in the soft rock of the late 70s and early 80s. Niespodziani describes his on stage persona as, "somewhere in between Ron Burgundy and Ron Swanson, without the mustaches." He's played on cruise ships, at the world's largest 10K race and at election night parties. "I was once asked to change the words in Eric Clapton's 'Cocaine' to McCain," he recalled. The suggestion went unheeded.

Campaigns rarely use word changes. Instead they often rely on not-so-subtle allusions to struggle or fighting in order to get supporters fired up. Niespodziani said that explains the appeal of two songs favored by Newt Gingrich: Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" and "You're the Best Around" by Joe Esposito. Both use something called the pentatonic scale, also known as the blues scale.

According to Niespodziani, that scale has a specific emotional impact.

"When you hear the pentatonic scale your brow kind of furrows and you're just kinda ready for a rumble," he told CNN Radio.

The lyrics also drive home the image of a difficult fight. Though the candidate may have a different fight on his hands if he wants to continue to use "Eye of the Tiger." The complaint against Gingrich from the song's composer was of copyright infringement.

As for President Obama's musical choices, Niespodziani said his 2008 campaign favored aspirational sounds like U2's anthem "City of Blinding Lights." By employing the major scale, the most common scale in western music, Niespodziani explained, the song summons hopeful imagery. The band also uses heavy reverb and echo in their songs.

"This sonically creates a feeling of scale," he pointed out, "a really grand feeling of scale and…that's something that I think Obama is trying to use to his advantage.

No matter the campaign, no matter the goals and policy positions, candidates can benefit from creating good energy.

For that, Niespodziani insisted, you have to get people on their feet. Which helps explain the popularity of "Celebrate" by Kool & the Gang even thirty years on. "Celebrate" is probably the easiest song to dance to that was ever written," Niespodziani said. "It is at 120 beats per minute which is the ultimate dance tempo that the person with the least amount of dancing ability can dance to."

Niespodziani had another suggestion for coaxing even the most staid supporters to shake it: "Footloose" by Kenny Loggins. Not only will this tune ensure movement but also, he maintained, what could be better than a group of politicos doing their best Kevin Bacon impressions?

To hear Niespodziani and to listen to the rest of this week's American Sauce, click here.

You can also listen to American Sauce on iTunes, Stitcher or subscribe to the podcast via RSS.

– CNN's Dan Szematowicz and Lisa Desjardins contributed to this report.

Also see:

Bundlers encouraged to raise for PACs Obama once denounced

Romney says Obama infringing upon religious rights

Biden's 2012 message: 'Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive'

Rocky Mountain High expectations

Filed under: 2012 • American Sauce • Mitt Romney • Newt Gingrich
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Wire Palladin, S. F.

    When I think of Mittens, I am reminded of a song from the 50's about a bikini, " . . . itsy bitsy, teeny weenie, yellow . . . " It pretty much sums up his commitment to America as a chicken hawk, an off shore tax evader, and his ability to lie like a penny in a parking lot.

    February 7, 2012 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  2. DIANA

    Who would want to be associated with these loosers? They should go with Prince's 1999 but change it to 1799 the way they want to take our country backwards. I remember at the beginning of the campaign a few artists said they didn't want their songs associated with some of the candidates. I loved wihen the lead singer of Survivor sang Newt's book on Colbert – that was classic. My all time favorite was "Don't Stop thinking about tomorrow" by Fleetwood Mac during the Clinton campaign. They were honored to be assocated with him.

    February 7, 2012 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  3. Data Driven

    Amusing piece. I think Niespodziani is probably over-thinking things a bit because political strategists aren't that musical or even that smart, but there's some truth to his assertions, even at a subconscious level.

    February 7, 2012 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  4. Truth and Nothing But the Truth

    I hear Obama's campaing music is "Already Gone"....

    February 7, 2012 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  5. Rudy NYC

    Look, all the politicians do most of the time is just simply use the intellectual properties of the artists, and hope the artist never finds out. If the artists do find out and ask you to stop, keep using it anyway until they take you to court. Once in court delay and stall until the campaign is over so that you can file bankruptcy, leaving the artist with nothing while you got everything that you needed.

    February 7, 2012 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  6. Truth and Nothing But the Truth

    NEWS FLASH: Eagles slap Obama with restraining order to stop usage of "Already Gone".
    Obama campaign has reverted to the back up song from the Beatles, "I'm a Loser"

    February 7, 2012 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  7. Rudy NYC

    @Truth – The Eagles? The Beatles? Man, that's proof positive that you are living in a fantasy world. Try Stevie Wonder, who actually showed up and performed his music live, but with new words, back 2008.

    February 7, 2012 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  8. Ah...I See.

    @Lies and Nothing But Lies

    Good thing Obama doesn't use Lenny Kravitz's "Black and White America". Your brain might explode like the Martians in Mars Attacks from all the comoraderie and the phat bass line!

    February 7, 2012 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  9. Al-NY,NY

    Truth and Nothing But the Truth

    NEWS FLASH: Eagles slap Obama with restraining order to stop usage of "Already Gone".
    Obama campaign has reverted to the back up song from the Beatles, "I'm a Loser"

    Look for a few of these at Mittens' next rally.....Bob Dylan – "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" or Eddie Rabbitt – "On Second Thought" or Everly Bros ..."a change of heart" or THE CLASH – "Should I Stay Or Should I Go"

    February 7, 2012 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  10. Truth and Nothing But the Truth

    National Anthem of the Soviet Union would be a good choice for Obama's campaign. Brings back memories for so many of his supporters...

    February 7, 2012 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  11. cali girl

    Me thinks Romney is playing "I'm gonna be a cowboy baby" by kid rock

    February 7, 2012 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |