The National Mix: POTUS edition
Each week we ask our writers to submit their choice of songs for a given theme. Since we didn’t give our writers the day off for President’s Day last Monday, we figured we’d honor the Commander-in-Chief by having each writer choose their favorite songs that involve the President of the United States in some way. But first, let’s give credit where credit is due to Ms. Monroe and the greatest presidential song of all time.
“Battle of New Orleans,” Leon Russell version
Growing up, I had a rather odd obsession with Andrew Jackson. I didn’t know then that Jackson was a standing emblem of the inhumane treatment of Native Americans; I liked him because he was on the $20 bill, he had a cool nickname, and — let’s admit it — the man has some pretty great hair. For me, this song represents a bizarrely nostalgic time in my youth during which I lionized the characters and narrative of American history, before high school and college taught me how gruesome it actually was. And everybody knows the Leon Russell version of this song is easily the best.
“I Wanna Get High,” by Cypress Hill
If you haven’t heard this song, you should absolutely give it a listen. Is it the best song ever made? No. In fact, it is very likely the worst song ever made, and that is coming from someone who once owned a Puddle of Mudd album. But there is a line at about 1:30 that goes, “Tell Bill Clinton to go and inhale,” and that really makes it all worth it.
“Lincoln and Liberty Too,” by Jesse Hutchinson Jr.
When I was younger, my mom and I would fairly regularly make round trip visits from Pennsylvania, where we lived, to Duxbury, Massachusetts, where her sister lived, a seven-hour drive each way. This trip, which wove through New England’s narrow and poorly maintained highways, was always stressful for her. That stress was almost always compound by her annoyingly inquisitive child, who would ask questions at intervals of approximately 30 seconds and, when he didn’t receive an answer, would repeatedly say “Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom?” and eventually start poking her. On one such trip, when I was around 8, she decided that she might be able to pacify me with some music. Hip aesthete that she was, the only tape she had in her car was a collection of Civil War-era songs. Oh, what a mistake she made. I insisted on listening to the 45-minute tape over and over and over again, loudly singing along to every song by the third playthrough. When I boisterously shouted “FOR LINCOLN AND LIBERTY TOOOOOOOO!” she nearly swerved into oncoming traffic. Somewhere around Phillipsburg, New Jersey, she pulled over and snapped the tape in half.
This was, easily, not the worst trip we took together.
“Unworthy of Your Love,” by Stephen Sondheim, from the musical Assassins
I wish I could pick the entire soundtrack from Assassins. While not technically about presidents, the concept of this musical is both close enough and strange enough that it deserves consideration. Sondheim, fresh off of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, arguably two of his biggest successes, decided to write a show about Presidential assassins and would-be assassins. In the process, he made pretty much every one of them, save maybe John Wilkes Booth, sympathetic characters. And it works beautifully.
My favorite song from the show is “The Ballad of Guiteau,” which tells the story of the man who shot President Garfield out of, in combination, anger for not being named ambassador to France, a desire to promote sales of a book, and batshit insanity. I decided, however, to offer “Unworthy of Your Love,” because if I’m going to hype a strange, dark, and moving musical, I might as well talk about the song that most embodies those attributes. This love ballad is a duet between John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme. Hinckley sings to actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was obsessed and tried to impress by shooting Ronald Reagan. Fromme sings to cult leader and crazy person Charles Manson, of whom she was a devotee and for whom she very poorly tried to shoot Gerald Ford. Somehow, when these two ask their objects of affection “what do you want me to do?” it’s beautiful, even though you know the answer is “kill someone.”
Anyway, that was long-winded and adulatory. Just go listen to the stupid soundtrack.
“A More Perfect Union,” by Titus Andronicus
Question for all you music snobs out there: what’s the best way to kick off a rock album? If you’re Titus Andronicus, the answer is “a badass Abraham Lincoln quote read aloud by your high school drama teacher.”
Sure, that’s an unorthodox response, but then, The Monitor is no ordinary rock album. It’s a relentless emotional roller coaster of an album that knows that the only proper response to 21st century existential pessimism is a lot of yelling, several guitars, and a shit-ton of Civil War references. It officially made Titus Andronicus’ name as a purveyor of beer-soaked, insightful-but-still-kickass garage rock, comparable to the Hold Steady or the Replacements. That pantheon ain’t an easy one to break into, but The Monitor managed the task, and it all starts with that incredible Lincoln quote, copped from his 1838 Lyceum address: we are a nation of free men and we have nothing to fear but ourselves. We will live forever, or die by suicide.
If this song doesn’t set your head flailing and your fist pumping, I refuse to have anything to do with you.
“Reagan,” by Killer Mike
Has there ever been an entity that more embodied the “love or hate” dichotomy than Ronald Wilson Reagan? It often seems impossible to feel ambivalently about this guy. On one side, of course, we have modern-day conservatives, who lionize Reagan to the degree that even an ostensibly liberal president like Obama feels the need to pay him homage in order to not piss off vast swaths of the American populace.
Hello, #tcot, I’d like to introduce you to Killer Mike. Killer Mike does not like Ronald Wilson Reagan. “Hate” is a strong word, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that Killer Mike hates Reagan. How do I know that? Because the centerpiece of his 2012 hip-hop masterpiece R.A.P. Music is a track called “Reagan,” and it is three minutes of pure vitriol. “Diss track” does not even convey one-tenth of the hatred this song contains, as it violently takes the ghost of Reagan to task for perpetuating the War on Drugs and how its disproportionate sentences for blacks created a modern form of slavery within America’s racist prison system. Come for the systematic dissection of Reagan’s legacy to the tune of a haunting El-P beat, stay for the vague insinuation that Reagan was the Antichrist (“Ronald Wilson Reagan”=six, six, six).
“James K. Polk,” by They Might Be Giants
Perhaps the most literal choice for a list of songs about Presidents, we can’t leave out They Might Be Giants’ helpful study aid for high school US History students everywhere celebrating our 11th president. Factual and catchy, the TMBG tune explains the stakes of the 1844 election and highlights Polk’s many accomplishments during his one and only term. I’m not going to lie, this song may be the only reason I’ve ever remembered who our 11th president was, which is terrible of me because after listening to this song, I’m reminded that Polk was a pretty important guy (Manifest Destiny, anyone?). They Might Be Giants attempted to bring some deserved acclaim to Polk, the “Napoleon of the Stump,” and for a song that’s really just a basic history lesson, it’s pretty good.
“Ohio,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
Just a matter of weeks after students at Kent State learned the biggest lesson ever taught at an American institution (Neil’s words, not mine, but goddamn), CSNY dropped “Ohio” and placed the deaths of four protesters squarely at Nixon’s feet. Calling out the President is cool in its own right, but creating a song that captured the essence of the death of the 1960s and the spirit of the anti-war counterculture in a few short minutes is truly amazing. Also bonus points for featuring the greatest use of the phrase “sha na na na na” in any pop song.
“Heartbreak Hotel,” by Bill Clinton
Seriously, how great were the 90s that this sax solo helped catapult Billy Bob all the way to the White House. Coming off of countless presidential administrations featuring the blandest form of whiteness seen in the States since Laura Ingalls Wilder stopped writing novels, Clinton was such a breath of fresh air he could get away with playing a saxophone solo transcribed straight from a seventh-graders performance in a middle school jazz ensemble. Keep in mind that before Obama some people legitimately discussed The Big Willy as America’s first black president, and his appearance on Arsenio exemplifies just how dramatic of a departure Clinton was from our prior leaders. Bill’s performance may have the same technical proficiency and subtlety as a Miley Cyrus appearance on an awards show, but hey, it helped get Clinton the keys to Air Fuck One by capturing the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.
“George Bush Don’t Like Black People,” by The Legendary K.O.
Of all of the covers of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” to hit YouTube, this is perhaps the best. In a scathing indictment of the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, The Legendary K.O.’s “George Bush Don’t Like Black People” provides an excellent sample of some of the thoughts likely going through the heads of New Orleans residents as days passed without government aid. While “George Bush Don’t Like Black People” may not be as catchy as “Gold Digger,” the main message comes across very clearly, and it, along with a music video that provides some extra knowledge, definitely provides food for thought on the nation’s response to one of the worst natural disasters of the last decade.
“Bitch I’m Bill Clinton,” by Lil B
Finally, a song about a president that isn’t about a boring topic like accomplishments, war, or the decline of society. Lil’ B gets right to the point in “Bitch I’m Bill Clinton” and lets everyone know why they should admire the former Leader of the Free World: He had sex with women and smoked marijuana.