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Greene: McCain's mystifying music list

  • Story Highlights
  • Choice, pacing of songs played at John McCain's campaign events raise questions
  • Usually "Danger Zone" is played at NBA games to signify the home team is in trouble
  • "Only in America" has become inextricably identified with Barack Obama's campaign
  • Playing "Start Me Up" as McCain leaves stage can seem incongruous
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By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Award-winning writer Bob Greene is riding CNN's Election Express across the country in the final weeks before the election.

Sen. John McCain greets supporters at a rally last week in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Sen. John McCain greets supporters at a rally last week in Woodbridge, Virginia.

ABOARD THE CNN ELECTION EXPRESS (CNN) -- With only two weeks until Election Day, it's safe to say that Sen. John McCain has quite a few things on his mind.

So he's undoubtedly not paying excessive attention to the music that is played at his campaign rallies.

Still ... the selection of songs does raise a few intriguing questions.

On a recent campaign morning, we pulled into Woodbridge, Virginia, to cover a McCain speech. We got there early, because the bus was going to be putting its rooftop satellite dish up in order to broadcast the afternoon event live. Video Watch McCain on the campaign trail »

So we were there for hours before McCain arrived -- including the hours when the crowd was being warmed up by songs blasting over a public address system.

Now ... nothing against the songs themselves. Fine songs, all of them.

But the choice, and the pacing. ...

One of the first to be played was "Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins. "Danger Zone" is often heard in National Basketball Association arenas, when the home team is in big trouble. It's a sign of a possible impending defeat for the good guys:

"Right into the Danger Zone. ..."

Maybe not the precise tune that the McCain campaign should want to be pumping into the ears of its supporters at this particular juncture of the election year. But "Danger Zone" was featured on the soundtrack of the 1986 Tom Cruise movie "Top Gun," so the military/McCain connection might be there. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

"Danger Zone" ended, the day grew chillier, the crowd shivered a little, and then came the rousing opening chords of the Brooks & Dunn hit "Only in America":

"Sun comin' up, over New York City. ..."

Great song. Perfect way to charge up a crowd.

One problem:

It's the song Sen. Barack Obama has been using at his rallies all year. It has become inextricably identified with his campaign. More than 38 million people were watching on television as Obama accepted the nomination at that packed football stadium in Denver, Colorado, and all of them heard "Only in America."

You can make the case that the Democrats have no proprietary right to the song -- George W. Bush and Dick Cheney used it during their 2004 re-election campaign, so the Republicans got there first. But if McCain perhaps might not want to play a song that reminds his audiences of Obama, you would think he certainly wouldn't want to play one that reminds them of Bush and Cheney.

(A side note: Unlike many musical acts who pout and complain when a candidate they don't like uses one of their songs at rallies, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn seem to have taken the wisely pragmatic position that you don't fight a gift that drops upon you unexpectedly out of the sky. Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals -- everyone loves music, and Brooks & Dunn appear understandably quite happy to have "Only in America" played endlessly for potential customers at rallies of different political stripes.)

All right. Back to the McCain event. This is where it got truly odd:

The motorcade was at last arriving. The sirens were wailing. The excitement was at its peak. McCain was on the premises, ready to give his speech.

The song that was played over the sound system as he arrived?

"A Little Less Conversation" by Elvis Presley.

A little less conversation?

As a buildup to a speech?

Next, credit where it's due: The song that was played immediately before McCain stepped to the microphone was the theme from "Rocky." A logical choice: inspirational, certain to conjure up memories about the rise of an underdog.

The speech was delivered. The crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative. McCain waved goodbye.

And the song that played?

"Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones.

"Start Me Up"? At the end?

"Start Me Up" has been used at so many athletic contests, as the excitement-building super-charger for the tipoff or the kickoff, that it has become almost traditional. "Start Me Up" says: This event is about to begin. The thrills will now commence. Ladies and gentlemen, get ready. ... But "Start Me Up" as a candidate departs?


McCain did, indeed, depart, and with him the mystery of the rally's playlist. But there was one good idea, however unintentional, that came out of the whole afternoon:

All presidential campaigns might be more bearable for the electorate if the candidates were to agree at the outset, across the aisle, that "A Little Less Conversation" should become, now and forever, their shared official theme song.

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