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COMMENTARY

Behind the music that gets candidates off and running

At last, we really get to know the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

September 11, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Forget stump speeches and campaign finance reports. If you really want to know what's in the heart and mind of a politician, snoop around their CD collection -- the songs they blast while cruising the Beltway reveals far more than their sound bites. That's why we were thrilled Tuesday when the Democratic presidential hopefuls were asked at a debate to name their favorite song. Here's one take on their tunes:

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean: Wow. Dean is, as usual, full of surprises. He picked "Jaspora" by Wyclef Jean, the Haiti native, member of the hit group the Fugees and an innovator in hip-hop who taps his Caribbean heritage in song. "Jaspora" is sung in French-Creole on Wyclef's 1997 solo album "The Carnival." Does Dean speak French-Creole? Does he just dig the beat? Watching Dean's favorable press coverage and populist momentum, the other nominees may be humming a different Fugees selection: "Killing Me Softly."

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt: Remember when President Reagan cited Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." as capturing the spirit of a modern patriotism in the 1980s? Well, Reagan probably never read the lyrics about the unraveling of the American dream: "Born down in a dead man's town / First kick I took was when I hit the ground / End up like a dog that's been beat too much / Til you spend half your life just covering it up." Maybe the Missourian picked this one to highlight economic woes and the impact on the working poor. Maybe he just likes Max Weinberg's crazed drumming.

Sen. John F. Kerry: Ah, interesting. Gephardt went with the big Springsteen hit, and the Massachusetts rival took a lesser-known Boss song, "No Surrender," off the same 1984 album. A Vietnam vet, Kerry may be touched by the song's war-weary imagery ("Like soldiers in the winter's night with a vow to defend / No retreat no surrender"), but the whole song is really about some scruffy neighborhood kids who cut class and listen to rock 'n' roll. He should have gone with "Jungleland."

Sen. John Edwards: The man raised in tiny Robbins, N.C., could have made it three Springsteen songs by citing "My Hometown," but instead he went his own way with the more upbeat 1985 hit "Small Town" by John Mellencamp. The tone is fine, but the lyrics suggest Edwards may end up in a little pink house instead of a big white one. "Well I was born in a small town / And I can breathe in a small town / Gonna die in this small town / And that's prob'ly where they'll bury me."

Sen. Joe Lieberman: Bad enough that the Connecticut statesman cited two songs when asked for one, but then one of them was "Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac -- say, haven't we heard that somewhere else? His second pick was "My Way," one of Reagan's favorite songs, suggesting Lieberman is positioning himself as a record-store centrist. On closer inspection, "My Way," written by Paul Anka and recorded by Frank Sinatra, may not rouse the campaign volunteers: "And now the end is near / And so I face the final curtain ..."

Sen. Bob Graham: The Floridian went with home-state hero Jimmy Buffett's 1977 song "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes," a title that nicely evokes tropical climes and progressiveness. But Buffett also sings of an all-night bender and offers a line that could be the motto for all the candidates: "With all of our running and all of our cunning / If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane."

Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun: She cited the 1994 self-esteem hit "You Gotta Be" by British soul singer Des'ree. The lyrics are motivational ("You gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger"), but one line seems to speak to the Moseley Braun campaign: "Some may have more cash than you / Others take a different view / My oh my." The Illinois politician was the only one to pick a song that was a Top 10 hit in the last decade.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich: The man from Ohio picked "Imagine" by John Lennon, which fits in with his pledges to create universal health care and champion nuclear disarmament. It's more debatable whether it fits in with his pledge that, if elected, he will immediately jettison NAFTA and abolish the World Trade Organization. "Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do."

The Rev. Al Sharpton: The flamboyant New Yorker went with "Talking Loud, Saying Nothing," a 1972 slice of funk by James Brown. Sharpton said the choice was a reference at the empty rhetoric of Republican leadership. Good thing -- when we first heard the choice, we thought he was following the musical example of H. Ross Perot, who somehow thought Patsy Cline's "Crazy" would make a dandy campaign song.

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