Why the Obama campaign might want to rethink continuing to use U2's "City of Blinding Lights"

Categories: Commentary


There's no question that the President -- in town this evening to debate Mitt Romney -- is a huge music fan. From quoting Sam Cooke during his '08 acceptance speech to randomly singing Al Green verses during a fundraiser to citing Stevie Wonder as being responsible for his marriage, Obama is far and away American pop music's finest presidential ambassador. So it's all the greater mystery that he continues to employ U2's "City Of Blinding Lights" as his campaign theme song. In 2008 it was the ideal anthem of hope and change, but in 2012 the lyrics read like a conservative strategist's wet dream.

It's indisputable that the Dems have a leg up when it comes to rock star support. While Reagan's erroneous use of Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." in 1984 and Michelle Bachman's on-the-nose employ of Tom Petty's "American Girl" earned them both public derision from the original songwriters, it is impossible to hear "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" without thinking of the promise of Bill Clinton in 1992, or to recall the heated Bush versus Kerry elections without considering the left-leaning Vote for Change tour.

All this momentum was at Obama's back in 2008 when he carefully selected a Big Chill style soundtrack for his campaign rallies, a playlist that included gems from Jackie Wilson, the O'Jays and Curtis Mayfield. All of these boomer classics would get the crowd properly softened and cranked up while they waited in long lines and in hard plastic seats. The inspirational tension would reach its zenith when "City of Blinding Lights" would fall from the speakers, that arpeggio guitar and descending piano chords raining down like saccharine confetti as Obama would make his entrance onto the stage.

Neon heart day glow eyes
A city lit by fireflies
They're advertising in the skies
For people like us... Oh you look so beautiful tonight

The song pulls off that tricky balance of emoting a nostalgia for the past while generating hopefulness for the future -- which was the ideal feeling for Democratic voters in 2008. The combination of losing Bush and gaining Obama was a kind of political speedball, like getting out of a bad relationship only to rebound into something better than you could've ever expected. The love for this previously unknown candidate was explosive, and the way "Blinding Lights" was used to supplement that love was as expertly orchestrated as any million dollar U2 concert.

I miss you when you're not around
I'm getting ready to leave the ground

Obama has continued using the song in his 2012 campaign, hoping to rouse that same fetishistic devotion voters had for him four years previous. Similarly, Republicans have maintained a familiar offense strategy to the one they had in 2008: Characterize Obama as overly idealistic and impractical, someone who sees the world through rose-colored glasses. But even though they now have something tangible to nail that premise to -- a sluggish economy -- voters still aren't convinced. And if the GOP only took the time to examine the lyrics of Obama's campaign theme song, what they'd find is the ultimate apex of their entire strategy.

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