Why Musical Politicians Risk Off-Key Moments

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney sings 'America the Beautiful' while holding a campaign rally at Lake Sumter Landing in The Villages, Florida Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

An unfortunate musical performance is especially sticky, so it’s no surprise that William Hung’s She Bangs, Tay Zonday’s Chocolate Rain, and Roseanne Barr’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner are seared on our collective memory. That’s why it’s dangerous for politicians to sing in public, providing the perfect fodder for Stephen Colbert, let alone their opponents.

Mitt Romney squawked his way through America the Beautiful, which the Obama campaign used as a soundtrack to a critical ad describing all the jobs Romney has sent overseas. But having a decent voice is no inoculation—a video of President Obama singing a surprisingly melodic few bars of Let’s Stay Together became the backing track for a GOP attack ad tying him to special interests. Call it the Battle of The Crooning Candidates. Still, Romney and Obama are hardly the first politicians to build up (or bust up) their public images with song.

Former President Bill Clinton jams with the Blues Brothers on his saxophone during a celebration of the Mohegan Sun casino
Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Beyond not singing in the first place, the best way for a pol to prevent public mockery is to possess actual musical chops. It’s hard to take down someone like Condoleezza Rice, a classically trained pianist who played Brahms with Yo-Yo Ma at Constitution Hall and performed for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. President Harry S. Truman, who was practically unable to pass a piano without playing, performed for Winston Churchill, then added coolness points by performing with Lauren Bacall.

Speaking of cool, then-Presidential-hopeful Bill Clinton may have changed the course of history by stirring voters with a pair of wraparound sunglasses and a sax blast on The Arsenio Hall Show. That’s a move Tim Kaine is mimicking in Virginia as he guns for a Senate seat—don’t vote for him solely based on his record as governor, but also so you can be entered to win the promotional contest, “Harmonica With Tim,” for a private lesson from Kaine, who’s sharp enough to noodle around with members of the Dave Matthews Band. Jimmie Davis was known for singing You Are My Sunshine, which helped get him elected Louisiana’s governor; it became the state’s official song after his tenure. In the pre-flip-cam days, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson played the violin. During his presidency, John Tyler organized his 15 (!) children into a Jackson Fifteen-style band.

It’s more common—and let’s be honest, more entertaining—for politicians to get their William Hung on. Vladimir Putin, backed by jazzy synthesizer, looked like he was trapped in a Saturday Night Live sketch during his televised performance of Blueberry Hill. On the 2008 presidential campaign trail, the late Senator Ted Kennedy scream-sang in Spanish at an Obama event; Hillary Clinton, apparently not knowing her mic was on, didn’t hit a single note of The Star-Spangled Banner. President Richard Nixon, who frequently played piano in public, got burned when he performed at the White House with Pearl Bailey, who said, “You don’t play as well as I sing.”

Republicans definitely take home the Most Embarrassing Performances award, probably because silly warbling is such a departure from their typically sober public game face. There’s John Ashcroft’s patriotic and cringe-worthy original number, Let The Eagle Soar, and Karl Rove trying to show he was down with hip-hop as MC Rove at a Radio & Television Correspondents dinner. Talk about giving up your dignity for a song: Colin Powell is a repeat offender. He apparently wasn’t sated in 2004, when he donned a hard hat and tool belt to perform a version of YMCA at a security summit in Indonesia, because just last month he burst into a short (but not sweet) rendition of Call Me Maybe on CBS This Morning.

So why would calculating, image-conscious politicians risk such humiliation? There are a few reasons. Romney and Hillary Clinton were both put in tough spots. They had to sing along or risk being labeled unpatriotic, which can be far more damaging to a campaign than being off-key. For others, music is a way to show their Everyman-ness, appealing to those “I’d like to have a beer with him” swing voters. Or maybe, as with Howard Dean’s infamous scream, music is the way tightly wound politicians express something that can’t be articulated in words, a way to momentarily cut loose from the grinding pressures of the campaign trail. Still, public servants have been warned. In the age of viral YouTube clips—unless you have a voice even Randy Jackson wouldn’t call “pitchy”—it’s best only to belt it out in the shower.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.