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Campaign trail mix: A brief history of presidential theme songs

Every election season, politicians (and their spin doctors) select a song (or songs) that they hope will add some jazz to their campaigns. And as any presidential historian can confirm, the right song has the power to inspire, motivate and energize an electorate. This country’s first presidential campaign remains a case study for how a well-chosen campaign song — in this case “God Save Great Washington” (a play on “God Save the King”) — can boost a candidate’s bid for office.

Throughout this nation’s history, there have been a number of examples of how one song can make — or break — a political campaign. Some politicians commission their own original scores, while others tap into the popularity of hit songs. This listicle of the 10 most memorable campaign songs shows how picking the right music is a process that is only slightly less fraught than choosing the right candidate.

1. William Henry Harrison, 1840
“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too”

For many, the nation’s ninth president, William Henry Harrison (whose presidency was cut short due to health complications) has receded into the dustbin of history. But his savvy choice of campaign music shows that he was a candidate ahead of his time. The song “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” helped Harrison on the trail by reminding voters of his victory in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe against Native Americans, while slyly poking fun at his competition, the fastidious Martin Van Buren.

2. William Howard Taft, 1908
“Get on a Raft with Taft”

William H. Taft aspired to be a Supreme Court judge, not president of the United States. But Taft accepted the Republican nomination at the behest of Theodore Roosevelt, who tapped the zaftig former judge as his successor. During his bid for the White House, the former White House administrator encouraged voters to “Get on a Raft with Taft.” The song featured original lyrics.

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932
“Happy Days Are Here Again”

Written three years before Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, Milton Anger and Jack Yellen’s 1929 song “Happy Days are Here Again” became the soundtrack for FDR’s historic three-term presidency. After the stock market crash of 1929, the U.S. spiraled into a dark period of economic uncertainty. On the cusp of the Great Depression, this relentlessly optimistic song reassured many rattled voters. It later went on to become the de facto anthem of the Democratic Party.
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A chilling aural portrait of the deadly earthquake near Japan

Images of a rising tide washing over coastlines, swallowing boats and sweeping away neighborhoods have painted an indelible portrait of the destruction wrought by Japan’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

But what about the sounds? What would an earthquake sound like if we could hear it?

Micah Frank, a sound programmer from Brooklyn, has attempted to answer that question by producing aural interpretations of the seismic activity from Japan’s earthquake. Frank is the founder of the Tectonic Project, which aggregates earthquake data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and turns it into sound sculptures in real time. These soundscapes paint a chilling aural portrait of disasters like the one in Japan.

“I listen to some of these, and they are really sort of haunting,” Frank said in an interview Friday.

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Loving Joni Mitchell: You don’t have to be gay

The Oscars are over, last year’s movies are exactly that. But there’s one scene I can’t let go of.

But first, an aside. Hollywood pictures have been milking scenes of actors singing or emoting to pop songs for about three decades now, ever since that too-cute “Big Chill” gang rocked out in the kitchen to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and — much more amusingly — the incarcerated Eddie Murphy howled “Roxanne” under the headphones in “48 Hours.” There have been countless imitations since, and it’s pretty hard to be charmed or surprised by any of it anymore.

Joni Mitchell in 1972. Photo: AP

Then along come Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, bringing a fresh twist to a tired gimmick in “The Kids Are All Right.” It’s the scene where Bening’s lesbian character and Ruffalo’s straight one psychically bond while singing Joni Mitchell’s lovely “All I Want” as an a cappella duet over dinner. (Meanwhile a perplexed Julianne Moore, whose character has been sleeping with each of them, looks on forlornly, utterly excluded from their vocal hookup.) The scene became significant for me with Bening’s declaration: “You don’t meet too many straight guys who love Joni Mitchell!”

Now, I don’t pretend to know how other straight men feel about Joni Mitchell. (Notoriously, we do not talk about our feelings.) But this movie made me want to say it loud and proud: I love her.

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LCD Soundsystem, I love you but you’re bringing me down

LCD Soundsystem performs at Alexandra Palace in London on Oct. 11, 2010. Photo: Flickr/Paul Adrian

First the White Stripes and now LCD Soundsystem?

LCD Soundsystem recently announced that they will be performing one final show on April 2 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. While many other acts have made similar announcements in the past — only to regroup for another final show the following year — we have a feeling these guys are serious.

Even though, we hope they’re not.
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John Lennon, like he means it

The ’70s are rightly remembered for all the excruciatingly awful corporate rock, numbing disco and pablum-pop that blared from car radios, dorm rooms and just about any place anybody spun records in those pre-iPod days. But it was also an era in which several artists who had gotten started in the ‘60s produced masterpieces of raw feeling (hummable raw feeling, no less) that will be listened to and talked about as long as there is rock ‘n roll: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” Neil Young’s “Tonight’s The Night,” Bob Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks,” and the most magnificently wrenching of them all, John Lennon’s solo debut “Plastic Ono Band.” With its spare production, straight-ahead mix — Lennon’s voice and guitar (or piano) were right out front — and a remarkable collection of deeply-felt songs sung straight from the soul, “Plastic Ono” is an album in which the flimsiest of scrims divides the artist’s emotion from the audience’s experience; it’s as bracing to listen to today as when it was released some 40 years ago.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band Album

I was reminded of the magnificence of that album again while watching my colleague Michael Epstein’s powerfully moving documentary for PBS’s “American Masters” series, LENNONYC. The film covers roughly the period from shortly after the ex-Beatle recorded “Plastic Ono Band” (his last LP recorded solely in England) until the time of his death. It was the period in which he lived and recorded in New York and Los Angeles, and the period in which he made his worst records.

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Alex Ross on great music, plus five faves

Photo: Flickr/Life As Art

The NPR music blog, The Record, recently chatted up The New Yorker’s classical music critic Alex Ross about his day job, and, more specifically, about his personal approach to music appreciation. Taking a cue from Potter “I know it when I see it” Stewart, Ross shares his broad definition of great music as being, “music that makes me stop thinking about any other kind.” He also shares an eclectic playlist of musical favorites, which includes Schubert’s String Quartet, Brahms’s Intermezzos Opus 117 and Olivier Massiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”

This Q&A got me thinking about my own shortlist of favorites. (Ross’s list includes selections from Bob Dylan, Radiohead and Bjork, but in the interest of brevity, I am restricting mine to music that can be very broadly defined as “classical.”)

My five picks, with no obvious organizing principle:
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Ten deliciously horrific soundtracks

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in 1931.

When I was about 8, I became obsessed with a book at the Leon County Public Library called something like “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Scary Movies but Were Too Afraid to Ask.” Mainly, it focused on horror greats of the past like Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Val Lewton, James Whale and my personal favorite, Boris Karloff. I checked it out over and over again, mooning over Boris (laugh if you will, haters — he was my first movie-star crush) and memorizing arcane trivia about the Universal and RKO horror productions of the ’20s through the ’50s: Lon Chaney Jr.’s own German shepherd appears in “The Wolf Man”! Each of the Frankenstein monster’s shoes weighed 13 pounds! I’m sure my mother was simply fascinated by all the riveting facts I had to impart.
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Climax Golden Twins on scoring ‘Session 9’

Robert Millis and Jeffery Taylor are the duo behind Seattle-based musical outfit Climax Golden Twins. Masters of atmospheric audio collage and obsessive collectors of voices from the past (in the form of obscure 78rpm singles), they’d seem to be the perfect choice to score a horror movie … which is exactly what they did for the 2001 film “Session 9.”

Don’t remember that one, you say? Well, that’s what Netflix is for, I reply. In this humble horror fan’s opinion, “Session 9” boasts one of the most interesting soundtracks to come along in a while. A score that knows it’s a score, that builds a sense of place through layered sound and that forwards the narrative rather than sells companion CDs. It’s one of 10 horror soundtracks we’ve listed as need-to-hears for the ghoulish season.

Millis and Taylor were kind enough to talk with me about scary movies and their experience in composing the music for “Session 9.”

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Serge, je t’aime (moi non plus)

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the French are different from you and me. One only needs to watch this trailer for the latest documentary about Serge Gainsbourg for proof of this assertion.

Photo: Bernard Lipnitski / Roger Viollet

To be clear, this film makes no pretense of breaking new ground. Rather, “Gainsbourg and His Girls” (or “Gainsbourg, l’homme qui aimait les femmes”) only looks to burnish the carefully crafted image of the soulful chanteur and devastating ladies’ man that already holds sway in the popular imagination.

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