Last night, Barack Obama’s exit music at the close of his historic Democratic convention acceptance speech was “Only in America,” a song by country’s foremost multiplatinum duo. Meanwhile, rival John McCain has been traveling the country blasting another stirring hit by the same act, “That’s What It’s All About.” At last, it’s become clear what this election is really about: a battle for the hearts and souls of Brooks & Dunn!
Forget the audacity of hope, for a moment. How about the audacity of the Democrats stealing the Republicans’ favorite song? If you’re not aware of the history of the GOP using “Only in America,” a refresher is in order: Brooks & Dunn played it at the Bush inauguration in 2000. At the 2004 GOP convention, Dick Cheney used it as his exit music after his speech. And President Bush frequently used it on the campaign trail four years ago, even asking Brooks & Dunn to come out and play it live at rallies in the final week of the race. So you have to think its sudden repurposing served two purposes for the Democrats. Number one, it told millions of Americans that Obama is heartland-friendly enough to use a country smash rather than a Will.i.am ditty to cap off perhaps the most critical moment of his career to date. And number two, for anyone aware of the tune’s political history, it was also a subtle, funny, knowing tweak — too benign to really count as an old-school dirty trick, but almost in that risible spirit. Click through past the jump for the full analysis:
I wrote about the partisan use of "Only in America" by the Republicans in a book I penned shortly after the 2004 election called Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music.Here’s how I described it then: "…Bush’s recorded intro and exitmusic — along with an occasional live rendition straight from thehorsemen’s mouths — was Brooks & Dunn’s ‘Only in America,’ theunofficial Bush theme song. Funnily enough, that number was cowrittenby a buddy of theirs, Don Cook, who went on to found a fledglingorganization called Music Row Democrats. Having ‘Only in America’drafted as the new ‘Hail to the Chief’ wasn’t really what Democraticactivist Cook had in mind for his song (which isn’t even that gung-ho — listen closely, and there’s an ambivalence about the Americandream to be found in the lyrics). But in Nashville, even of you’re onthe other side of the aisle, sometimes it’s hard not to give at theoffice."
I got Don Cook, the cowriter and Democratic stalwart, on the phonetoday to talk about the tune… and about how Brooks & Dunnthemselves reacted to Obama’s use of it. Since Cook was a little takenaback when the GOP adopted it, does this feel like turnabout is fairplay? “That’s exactly what Kix Brooks said to me when he called,” saidCook. “He said, ‘You had to endure George Bush using it, so it’s onlyfair that I would have to endure Barack Obama using it.’ But he said itin a real light-hearted way. For us as writers and them as performers,truthfully, we’re proud when anybody uses our song for something that’ssubstantial. Even if you’re diametrically opposed politically to theperson who’s using your song, the fact that they like it well enough touse it at an important place in their life, you have to love that.” Butnot everybody necessarily feels the same way. Cook related to me astory about John Rich, the one country star who’s been a strongcampaigner for John McCain already. “John Rich sent an angry textmessage to Kix last night, saying why did Kix allow that song to beused? And Kix said ‘I had nothing to do with it — that was their right.’I sent John a text message today saying ‘If you enjoyed last night,you’re gonna love Kix’s version of ‘Ba-Rock My World, Little CountryGirl’” (taking off on another Brooks & Dunn hit).
Kix Brooks released his official response in a benign statement:“Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at The Republican Conventionlast election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now. Veryflattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspiresall Americans.” Of course the tune isn’t partisan by nature; it’sbecome a staple of 4th of July fireworks shows as well as politicalrallies. As Ronnie Dunn told me when I interviewed him for my book fouryears ago, the song “was apolitical. It was written before 9/11, and itwas just talking about the American dream, what’s out there for all ofus, what’s attainable—the sky is the limit. And that’s it. It’s justironic that the first line is ‘the sun coming up over New York City.’ Ithink that just had a kind of a freaky little coincidence” that gave itsome extra resonance.
Cook reminded me of just what a 9/11 anthem the tune became: “It wasat the top of the charts when 9/11 happened, and after that it became arallying point and had another life. I think it spent 18 or 19 weeks inthe top 10 after 9/11, which is an unheard-of amount for a single thesedays. It was a bittersweet thing for me, and always will be, because ofthose circumstances. For me, the bitterness that I associate personallywith my own song diminishes every time I see it used in a positive waylike last night. It was a lot of fun to be talking about the song inpositive terms even when Bush was using it—better than talking about itimmediately post-9/11,” Cook said.
Brooks & Dunn may be flattered by Obama’s use of it now, but it’s hard to imagine the Ronnie Dunn I interviewed four years agohaving been okay with it if John Kerry had wanted to use “Only inAmerica.” (Kix Brooks, by contrast, has always been more recalcitrantabout getting into his political views.) Of all the Republican countrystars I spoke with in Nashville, Dunn came off as the most intelligentand informed—very nearly a foreign policy wonk, in fact—and was quickto articulate why the Republicans were better prepared to stand up tothe threats of terrorism, which was his primary concern, far more thanany social issues. But a few weeks ago, Brooks & Dunn told CNN theywere sitting out making any endorsements in this election. I’ve sensedfar less passion for the GOP cause among country stars in general thanthere was four years ago, when I was writing Rednecks & Bluenecks—with the exception of Big & Rich’s John Rich, a true believer who wrote a campaign song, “Raising McCain,” for his preferred candidate. Toby Keith, who performed at an election eve rally for Bush in 2004, has come out and said he thinks Obama is a good manand worthy candidate, so I suspect we won’t see him playing any McCainrallies this year. Is everybody backing off over career concerns, notwanting to tick off significant parts of their audience? Or is theregenuine ambivalence, even among some reliably conservative countrystars, over the slate of candidates this time? Hard to tell for surejust now.
One thing that’s certain is how neither Republicans nor Democratsseem too worried about whether the songs they’re drafting as anthemsare by artists who line up on their side. Just as the Democrats havedeveloped a sudden love for Brooks & Dunn, the music that wasplaying after the announcement of Sarah Palin as GOP VP pick thismorning was “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” by Bon Jovi (a prominentDemocratic supporter) and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles (who played aDemocratic convention event earlier this week). But then, that same BonJovi song was also played by the Dems this week. As these musicaltug-of-wars continue, we can only hope for more rock and country turfwars. Will Palin try to wrest Tom Petty’s “American Girl” away from thefirm grasp of Hillary Clinton? Will Obama get really audacious andstart playing Charlie Daniels songs on the trail? To both sides, wesay: Bring it on!
Of course, many of the songs that candidates trot out, from “Born inthe USA” to “Pink Houses,” are fraught with undertones that mayactually contradict the message the politicos want to convey. WhenStevie Wonder sang “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” on Thursday night inDenver, I kept waiting for a Republican commentator to seize on lineslike “Like a fool I went and stayed too long/Now I’m wondering if yourlove’s still strong” and “I’ve done a lot of foolish things that Ididn’t really mean.” Petty’s “American Girl” had a few lines that fitHillary, but her supporters might have have wanted to hit the mutebutton when the lines “He crept back in her memory/God it’s sopainful/Something that’s so close/And still so far out of reach” came on. And when Brooks & Dunn sing, “One kiddreams of fame and fortune/One kid helps pay the rent/One could end upgoing to prison/One just might be president,” it does open the door foreither side’s loyal opposition to suggest that the campaigner inquestion is headed for the wrong big house, of the two mentioned inthat verse.