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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, June 11, 2019 2:10 pm

Soundtrack 2020: What presidential candidates' walk-up songs say about them

JAMES HOHMANN | Washington Post

The Iowa Democratic Party invited all 19 presidential candidates who spoke Sunday in Cedar Rapids to select the music they wanted to play when they took the stage.

The result was an uplifting playlist as diverse as the field. The choices -- some more inspired than others -- set the mood and also revealed something about the people who picked them.

The four female senators running for president picked high-energy tracks from strong female artists. Two of the men went with hits from the Clash. And, of course, Bruce Springsteen made the cut.

There was rock, pop, rap and country. There were oldies, but also a tune that's No. 6 this week on the Top 40 chart.

There's a long history in politics of songs defining candidates, and vice versa. Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" will always conjure Bill Clinton's 1992 triumph. Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" will forever evoke Hillary Clinton's 2016 defeat.

President Donald Trump takes the stage at his raucous rallies to "God Bless the U.S.A." from Lee Greenwood and exits to "You Can't Always Get What You Want" from the Rolling Stones.

Here are the walk-up songs for the 2020 candidates vying to replace him:

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.: "Work That," by Mary J. Blige.

It's a song about ignoring haters to do what you know is right on your own terms.

"It's been her walk-on music since she launched the campaign," said Harris spokeswoman Lily Adams. "Can't go wrong with Mary J. 'Don't hold back you. Just be yourself.' Who can disagree with that?"

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.: "Good as Hell," by Lizzo.

It's a breakup song in which a woman helps her friend get over a man who has wronged her. "Time to focus on you," she sings.

"Lizzo is a badass who time and again models female empowerment and the beauty in being yourself," said Gillibrand spokeswoman Meredith Kelly. "We love her music and message of acceptance, and nobody is better at pumping you up before a big speech."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.: "The Bullpen," by Dessa.

This is probably the most obscure song on the list. Dessa is a mostly unknown white rapper from Minneapolis. "Forget the bull in the china shop. There's a china doll in the bullpen," she sings. "Swing at every pitch. It's all in the wrist. Fire from the hip."

The song has been playing at Klobuchar's rallies since she announced her candidacy outside during a snowstorm in February. The daughter of a legendary sports columnist, herself a die-hard Minnesota Twins fan who wrote her senior thesis at Yale about the Metrodome, said this song speaks to her. "It's sort of like a woman running for president with all the guys," the senator said. "And that's why I say: May the best woman win."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: "9 to 5," by Dolly Parton.

This 1980 classic is the title track of one of the greatest, and funniest, movies about the empowerment of working women, especially when they unite to challenge sexism in the office, as Parton's character does with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the film. It's also a nod to Warren's working-class roots in Oklahoma. "They just use your mind and they never give you credit," Parton sings. "It's enough to drive you crazy, if you let it."

Mayor Pete Buttigieg: "High Hopes," by Panic! at the Disco.

"The selection is a reflection of a generation's high hopes for a new era of politics," said Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher, who noted that the mayor has been taking the stage to the track since his April kickoff rally in South Bend, Ind.

"Shooting for the stars when I couldn't make a killing," the song goes. "Didn't have a dime, but I always had a vision."

Coincidentally, Frank Sinatra's "High Hopes" was John F. Kennedy's theme song in 1960. Kennedy, then 43, promised a new generation of leadership for a new decade after two terms of Dwight Eisenhower, who was then 70. Kennedy was the youngest man elected president. Buttigieg, 37, would break that record.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.: "Lovely Day," by Bill Withers.

The soothing R&B track from 1977 captures the feel-good vibe that Booker is going for with his stump speech, in which he appeals to people's higher angels rather than their darkest fears.

"Cory is a fan of Bill Withers," said Booker spokeswoman Sabrina Singh. "Overall the song is heartwarming, optimistic, forward-looking and soulful."

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.: "The Rising," by Bruce Springsteen.

The Sept. 11 attacks moved the Boss to write this song about a firefighter climbing one of the World Trade Center towers toward his death. But with its allusions to Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" ("the garden of a thousand sighs") and the Bible ("I see Mary in the garden"), it's really an allegory for the resurrection of America from the depths of its darkest hour of despair.

"'The Rising' is a throwback," said Bennet spokeswoman Shannon Beckham. "It was the song played in 2010 when he won his first-ever electoral victory in the primary."

Joe Biden: "We Take Care of Our Own," by Springsteen.

The former vice president was not in Iowa this weekend, but he's been coming on stage to another Springsteen song. This one laments how folks have become less willing to help one another out over the years. It exhorts listeners to think about the community and their shared purpose. "I've been stumblin' on good hearts turned to stone," Springsteen sings. "The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone." This was a staple of Barack Obama campaign rallies in 2012 and played at the convention that summer. For his formal kickoff speech in Philadelphia last month, Biden came on to Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: "Power to the People," by John Lennon.

One of the most famous protest songs ever, the lyrics urge people to get on their feet and into the street if they want a revolution. It's been a staple of rallies for the democratic socialist since 2016, who calls for a political revolution in his stump speech. His candidacy is also inextricably linked with "America" by Simon and Garfunkel, a song he built a memorable commercial around in 2016.

Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont.: "Small Town," by John Mellencamp.

The classic is a nostalgic paean to life in rural America. The governor's team says he picked it as an homage to his hometown of Helena, population 31,000. "Governor Bullock was born and raised in a small town," said spokeswoman Galia Slayen. "His kids now go to the same schools he attended. So you could say he was educated in a small town."

Former congressman John Delaney: "I've Been Everywhere," by Johnny Cash.

Delaney spokeswoman Carrie Healey said the businessman turned politician selected the song because he has already visited all 99 counties in Iowa, has traveled more than 20,000 miles and has made more trips to Iowa -- 29 -- than any other 2020 candidate. "We have made winning back rural America a big part of our campaign," she said.

Among the cities that Cash recounts visiting in the fast-paced song are four in the Hawkeye State -- Spirit Lake, Oskaloosa, Waterloo and Sioux City.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.,: "Caught Up in the Country," by Rodney Atkins.

The 38-year-old represents the San Francisco Bay area in Congress, but he's eager to highlight that he was born in rural Iowa, where his dad was a policy officer. He refers to Dublin, Calif., as an "adopted hometown." His campaign has been playing the new country song since he launched his candidacy in mid-April to define him as a country boy at heart.

"He likes it because it's upbeat and optimistic, and the lyrics probably remind him of where he spent his early childhood: Algona, Iowa," said Swalwell spokesman Josh Richman. "Good memories!"

Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.: "Mr. Blue Sky," by Electric Light Orchestra.

The 1977 song is about how good it feels when the sun comes out after weeks of cloudiness and rain. That's intended as a metaphor for what might happen at the end of the Trump era, but it's also a reflection of the degree to which Inslee has centered his entire campaign on addressing climate change.

"We used it when he keynoted the same dinner last year, and it's been his walk-up music ever since," said Inslee spokesman Jamal Raad. "We used it in California last weekend, too."

Rep. Tim Ryan , D-Ohio: "Old Town Road," by Lil Nas X.

This catchy song about a modern-day cowboy, with its cross-genre appeal, is having its moment on the charts. It's sparked a debate about whether it's country or rap. Ryan's campaign didn't respond to a request about why he picked it.

Former governor John Hickenlooper, D-Colo.: "Good Life," by OneRepublic.

The wistful song includes a shout-out to Colorado.

Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke: "Clampdown," by the Clash.

This 1970s British punk rock song warns young people against conformity and encourages idealism. It's critical of the establishment and alludes to the shortcomings of unfettered capitalism.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio: "Rudie Can't Fail," by the Clash.

This duet came from the same album ("London Calling") as "Clampdown." It also celebrates youth activism, in this case the rude boys of Jamaica.

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang: "Return of the Mack," by Mark Morrison.

This is also a British song. It's characteristically iconoclastic.

Former housing secretary Julián Castro: "Baila Esta Cumbia," by Selena.

The former San Antonio mayor loves this peppy 1990 dance song from the queen of Tejano music.

Like Castro, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., missed Sunday's event in Iowa. Asked what his walk-up song is, Moulton spokesman Matt Corridoni replied: "Haven't debuted it yet."

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii,: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," by Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye.

"This song nicely represents the spirit behind something that Tulsi regularly says at her town halls," said Gabbard spokesman Cullen Tiernan, adding this quote from the congresswoman: "The road ahead will not be easy. . . . But I know that when we stand united, by our love for the American people and our country, there is no obstacle we cannot overcome. There is no battle we cannot win."

Spiritual guru Marianne Williamson: "Higher Ground," by Stevie Wonder.

"The world today, including politics, is lower ground," said Williamson spokeswoman Patricia Ewing. "We need to seek higher ground."