One of the things I most looked forward to as a kid was listening to the Dr. Demento radio show on Sunday nights. Little did I know that I would one day have the opportunity to apply the musical lessons I was learning from novelty specialists like Tom Lehrer and "Weird Al" Yankovic in my work for political producers.
My involvement in political advertising began early in my career at Baker Sound when producer/director Mark Moskowitz of The Campaign Group asked me to score a TV spot for Al Gore's short-lived 1988 presidential campaign. I soon found myself composing for Republicans as well as Democrats--sometimes in the same race. While this usually involves creating custom instrumental scores for TV and radio spots, producers occasionally ask me to deliver their clients' political messages with a humorous jingle.
One of the most successful of these was for a political action committee (PAC) called The Maryland Fund. This organization was committed to defeating Republican Bob Ehrlich in his 2006 reelection bid, and hired The Campaign Group to paint the incumbent governor as a George W. Bush clone. One of the spots they produced, titled "Erlich is Bush," sets Erlich's record to the tune of "Jingle Bells." I called in Atlantic City regulars Gina Catinella and Dave Maze to record the overly-cheery vocal arrangement, while the great Scott Sanders took on the role of a liberal Santa Claus who admonishes Erlich for his Bush-like policies.
Erlich lost the election, and the jingle went on to win a Pollie Award (given each year by the American Association of Political Consultants for excellence in political advertising). The Campaign Group went novelty again in 2006 as they sought to block Republican Bob Beauprez's bid to become governor of Colorado. Working for a PAC called Citizens for Progress, they crafted a lyric that immediately reminded me of a jingle I had produced a few years earlier for PrePass. So I dusted off my spurs, overdubbed my own voice to create a "cowboy chorus," brought in Jeff Kay for his country guitar skills, and tapped Wes Heywood for the western-ish lead. Naturally, Beauprez lost the election.
Political jingles are not only used to attack members of the opposing party. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were battling in Indiana during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, the pro-union SEIU COPE PAC supporting Obama asked Democratic political consultants Shorr Johnson Magnus to develop some ads that would move voters away from Clinton. One was a jingle titled "Corkscrew" that questioned Clinton's trustworthiness. Traditional country once again seemed the appropriate genre, so I began with a typical "train" beat, added Jeff on guitars, and called in Jersey shore staple Brian Conover (Hawkins Road) to handle lead vocals. Clinton wound up winning the state by a narrow margin; but that left Obama with nearly half of the state's delegates, and of course he went on to secure the nomination.
My students at UArts often ask how I feel about composing music for politicians whose views I may not share. My answer is that while I may not agree with a candidate's message, I respect his or her right to communicate it. My job as a composer is to set their message to music, just as I've done for countless advertisers. My job as a citizen is to evaluate their message and vote accordingly--and I certainly hope Americans are savvy enough to know that they shouldn't base their vote solely on what they see and hear in political ads.
Chuck Butler is celebrating his 30th anniversary as Baker Sound's in-house composer. For more information about Baker's music division, visit our dedicated MONSTER TRACKS website.