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Obama’s Changing His Tune for 2012 Campaign’s Mood Music

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks at a rally to help raise money for his re-election campaign in Chicago, Illinois. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

When President Barack Obama crooned the first line of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser last month, it turned out to be the prelude for the new soundtrack of his re-election campaign.

The 1971 hit by Green, who performed at the Jan. 19 event at New York’s Apollo Theater, is an entreaty for patience and forgiveness. It and the other 28 songs on the campaign’s official 2012 playlist, used to set the mood at rallies and speeches, marks a shift in the times and the 50-year-old incumbent’s message.

In 2008, Obama was promising to “change the world,” and the music he used was an upbeat mix that included soul and Motown hits such Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours).”

With the unemployment rate hovering at more than 8 percent and the partisan divide in Washington hardening, the new list, being released by the campaign today, incorporates a mix of artists, ages and genres with songs that touch upon themes such as will, redemption and comeback.

There’s Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town,” in which the locals still fill the church after the mill closed, and Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.” In “Learn to Live,” Darius Rucker sings “You gotta crash and burn, you gotta make some stances and take some chances.”

Changing Times

“Four years ago this guy was riding this crescendo of hope, things seemed like they couldn’t be worse in the country and the music he chose really fit with that,” said Bill Werde, editorial director of music industry magazine Billboard. Now, “It’s less fresh-faced optimism and it’s more pragmatic positioning of a politician who wants a second term.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been featuring the Kid Rock’s “Born Free” and country-themed music before his appearances. None of the Republican campaigns so far have taken the step of releasing a list of songs and promoting them. Obama’s playlist is scheduled to be featured on the digital music service Spotify, according to Katie Hogan, an Obama campaign spokeswoman.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who analyzed Obama’s campaign songs in 2008, said this year’s soundtrack reflects the storyline change for Obama.

With “Let’s Stay Together,” Neal said, “instead of telling the person you’re wooing why you should be with them, now it’s like, ‘Why you should keep me.’”

Many of the other songs, Neal said, represent a “populist playlist” of “hard-scrabble, reaching-for-the-sky type of stuff.”

Eastwood Ad

He said the themes are similar to the Clint Eastwood ad for Chrysler during this year’s Super Bowl. “It gets back to that half-time theme, that we’ve got half of it done, now let’s dig in and finish it off.”

In one of the songs, Dierks Bentley’s “Home,” the lyrics are: “It’s been a long, hard ride; got a ways to go; but this is still the place that we all call home.”

Obama, the nation’s first black president, hasn’t abandoned his taste for reflecting the ideas of the civil rights movement, Neal said. Raphael Saadiq’s “Keep Marching,” and “Keep Reachin’ Up” by Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators are among less famous artists the campaign is highlighting.

There’s some political geography to the strategy as well, with Aretha Franklin’s version of “The Weight” adding the voice of Detroit, and James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” giving a nod to North Carolina, a state where the Democratic National Convention will be held this year.

“Every campaign is a production complete with a soundtrack,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. Obama’s political team “probably spent a long time going over each song and going over who’s going to like it and what kind of message it will deliver.”

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