Musical Yearning in Bernie Sanders’s Presidential Primary Ad “America”

February 2, 2016

As I was writing this in late January 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was soaring in the polls in early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire. As this piece goes “to press,” it cannot escape mention that Sanders has now achieved at the Iowa caucuses what for his campaign means a victory: by in effect tying Hillary Clinton, he has virtually the same number of delegates as he looks ahead to New Hampshire. And February in New Hampshire promises to be warm indeed for the democratic socialist. Harnessing progressives’ yearning for a more equitable and compassionate society, Sanders is giving the Clinton campaign fits. Republican strategists seem torn between welcoming Sanders as a too-idealistic candidate who could be easily beaten and fearing that he may be riding a juggernaut of social change that will not be stopped.

A striking Internet ad for the Sanders campaign seems to be inspiring many voters. It is among the most shared political ads on social media and has garnered millions of YouTube views in its first week. It presents images of rural and small town America—spinning wind turbines, Main Street, tugboats docked along the riverbank, farmers feeding livestock, as well as scenes from a coffee shop and family scenes that could be anywhere. These are interspersed with sequences of Sanders on the campaign trail talking with individual voters and speaking to large crowds. The ad has a specific locale: Iowa. This is not surprising given how closely Iowa is associated with agricultural imagery; “America” situates itself in middle America, “God’s country,” “heartland America.” Sanders appears comfortable in this milieu, smiling and welcoming supporters.

Bernie Sanders’ America Ad (2016)

Together with sound effects of crowd roars at irregular intervals, “America” uses as its soundtrack the beginning and ending of the eponymous song by the folk rock duo Simon and Garfunkel. From the 1968 album Bookends, the song was originally written four years earlier while Paul Simon was hitchhiking across the U.S. with his then-girlfriend Kathy Chitty.  In Paul Simon: A Life, Marc Eliot writes that the song “creates a cinematic vista that tells of the singer’s search for a literal and physical America that seems to have disappeared, along with the country’s beauty and ideals” (95). If that was true for people in 1968, it is just as true today for voters who feel that the America that they learned about in school does not exist.

Like “Nixon Now,” a prominent 1972 TV spot of a self-confident incumbent, “America” makes no claims of grandiose accomplishments—there is nothing to fact check. Instead this is an atmospheric ad intended to capture the idealistic spirit currently animating his volunteers. Unlike the 2008 McCain campaign’s unauthorized use of “Johnny B. Goode” at campaign appearances, a use to which Chuck Berry strenuously objected, as have other artists whose songs have been appropriated for political campaigns, Sanders’s campaign was given permission by both artists to use the song with their good wishes (Garfunkel 2016).

Commentators, such as Susan Page of U.S.A. Today, have compared Sanders’s “America” to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Prouder, Stronger, Better” (otherwise known as “Morning in America”) ad (citied in Rehm 2016). They see both as creating a euphoric mood, appealing through pathos and ethos as opposed to logos and eschewing any kind of attack on opponents. There are clear parallels. Such a comparison is a bit too facile, though: “Morning in America” is just substantially more polished and well-produced (Christiansen, forthcoming) and employed its own original orchestral music written expressly for that campaign. Nevertheless, the Sanders ad similarly stirs emotions. It does so cumulatively: with Sanders greeting gradually increasing crowds, the ad ends with stadiums filled with adoring fans. “America” does not need to explain Sanders’s ideology or policies—it just revels in the candidate’s growing popularity.

Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America Ad (1984)

While the ad visually constructs an Iowan utopia, the original message of the song runs counter to this vision; in other words, Sanders misreads a song that is about disillusionment and unease, rather than unfettered optimism. The visual images the candidate puts forth here, combined with the omission of some of the song’s less cheerful lyrics, keeps the focus on Sanders’ overarching message. Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is in effect the soundtrack for the unvarnished optimism of his supporters. Hope and change deferred by ultra-pragmatic policies of the Obama administration are sought by supporters of Sanders, who is perceived by progressives as either quasi-messianic in the best case or quixotic in the worst case.

The lyric “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” originally refers of course to Simon and his girlfriend. As a political ad song, “Let us be lovers” speaks to another love: philia or agape, love for our fellow man. “Marry our fortunes together” conveys the sense that we must care for others and we must forge our collective future together. The lyric “They’ve all come to look for America” seems to suggest that poor and working-class Americans are searching for the ideal of America that has been eclipsed by corporate greed and political (i.e. Washington) cronyism. The appeal is thus primarily to class, although some prominent minority faces appear through the mostly white crowds.

At a point thirty-seven seconds into the sixty-second ad—which is incidentally the golden mean—we see a huge crowd with Sanders at the podium in front of a body of water and with a prominent American flag in the background just as the word AMERICA is superimposed over the scene, coinciding with the same song lyric. After the arrival on AMERICA, there is a dénouement that leads to Sanders’s disclaimer. Not quite as slickly produced as “Morning in America,” “America” is nevertheless well-conceived and brilliantly executed. Whether or not he wins the Democratic nomination or ultimately the general election, I suspect Sanders will be remembered in association with this spot.     

A folk-style song connotes a communal musical experience in which the audience feels connected to the performer in the struggle for a more inclusive and fairer society. The 6/8 meter lends the carefree melody a gentle lilt, while the falling diatonic bass line propels the song forward. The acoustic guitar and drum kit and the humming and close harmonies musically convey unpretentiousness and calm contentedness. Voices harmonizing together can also be interpreted as a musical representation of people working together for common cause.

On the other hand, could the use of the acoustic guitar and voice itself be a symbol of violent social upheaval? Guitars were ever-present during anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. Most of the artists we think of in relation to social justice, the environmental cause, women’s rights, and a host of other social movements played guitar and sang, such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Sam Cooke. And the message on Woody Guthrie’s guitar was, after all, “This machine kills fascists.” But as Brian Barone reminds us, “[W]hile it is clear that the acoustic guitar stands in opposition to the modern, industrial, technological cast of the electric guitar, it is less clear what the political implications of that opposition might be. Such an opposition might proceed equally well on conservative grounds of traditionalism, ruralism, and individualism as it would on progressive grounds of anti-corporatism, communitarianism, and cosmopolitanism” (2016).

The visual sphere supports the aural. More specifically, editing matches the music. Cuts are rhythmically synchronized with the emphasized lyrics. Thus the editing contributes to the overall musicality of the ad. Further, some of the images might have broader implications. The spinning wind turbines could imply interest in pursuing energy independence and environmental consciousness. The word “Marry” is heard at the same time as we see two young women who could be friends or sisters but also could be partners who are now in 2016 legally allowed to marry. The message would be that the campaign is welcoming to LGBTQ people. Later in the ad we see blinking patchworks of small-amount donors (average contribution to his campaign is $27). This illustrates Sanders’s commitment to accepting small donations from average citizens. Voters with these values will find resonance in the song’s lyrics.  

Because the verses are too specific and unrelated to Sanders’s message (e.g., a suspected spy in gabardine with a “bowtie camera”), most of the verses and the bridge are not heard in the ad. In fact, it only uses the first two lines of the first verse and then jumps to the middle of the final stanza on “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,” with “They’ve all come to look for America” repeating until the end. The splice is done so well that it is virtually unnoticeable. Only those listening closely to the lyrics would hear the inconsistency.

Although the images are of Iowa and the song’s lyrics are about America writ large, the singers themselves conjure up for many listeners New York City. Both Simon and Garfunkel are firmly rooted in the city, living and working there throughout their music, producing, and acting careers. So in addition to appealing to several generations of voters, from Sanders’s own cohort through Generations X and Y to Millennials, the music also has wide geographical appeal. Place matters. Indeed, some boomers might remember the duo’s participation in a fundraising concert for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern at Madison Square Garden during the 1972 election.

Furthermore, nostalgia plays a huge role in how “America” is heard by viewers across the country. The song was among those performed at the legendary free Concert in Central Park, which took place on September 19, 1982. This concert was attended by an estimated 500,000 people, and could mark a nostalgic moment for a generation that came to age in the early 1980s. So music in this ad could arouse nostalgic feelings in Boomers as well as members of Generation X, in those who attended the original concert as well as those who subsequently bought the live album. Notable cover versions by later artists such as Yes, David Bowie, and Josh Groban would help to bridge the nostalgia gap. Tapping into a different nostalgic vein, Donald J. Trump talks about “making America great again.” His slogan’s implicit premise is that the country is not great as it once was. Sanders holds the same premise, and that is why we hear “They all came to look for America.” The difference lies in the radically divergent visions of a utopian America and the means to get there.

Ever since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, candidates have had to include in campaign-sponsored ads a message of the candidate self-identifying and saying that he or she approves of the ad (this is referred to as the “Stand By Your Ad” provision). Campaigns can choose to put the disclaimer either at the beginning or the end, and the choice is sometimes made strategically. That is the case here. Sanders’s voice can at times come across as a bit unpolished, so instead he speaks at the end along with a smiling picture of himself at a podium with sleeves rolled up, as if ready to go to work. Excitement carries through his somewhat bland pronouncement. The disclaimer’s placement at the end serves to offer Sanders as the ideal guide to help them “look for America.”

Playing to voters’ fears is unfortunately often devastatingly effective (Killmeier and Christiansen, 2011). But appealing to their hopes can be a winning strategy and is so rare these days that it attracts attention. So well-known has the ad become that it has been written about in the New York Times, more than once, and Stephen Colbert taped a segment in which he “assigned” various Simon and Garfunkel tunes to specific Democratic and Republican candidates. The only reason a political ad gains so much attention is that is strikes a sympathetic chord with voters who want the real world to bend toward their own vision of an ideal world. With wealth inequality in the United States at alarming levels—the top 0.1% of our richest citizens having a net worth equal to the bottom 90%—many people desperately seek political leaders who are willing to respond to this most pressing of domestic issues. This yearning is what is portrayed musically with Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”

– Paul Christiansen


Barone, Brian. “‘I’ve Been Everywhere’: Martin O’Malley and the Many Meanings of the Guitar.” Trax on the Trail, January 7, 2016. 

Christiansen, Paul. “‘It’s Morning Again in America’: How the Tuesday Team Revolutionized the Use of Music in Political Ads.” Music and Politics 10, no. 1 (Winter 2016), forthcoming.

Corasaniti, Nick. “Bernie Sanders and Fans Embrace Tune of ‘America’ in Ad Free of Attacks.” New York Times, January 23, 2016. 

_____. “Bernie Sanders, and Simon and Garfunkel, Put Focus on Voters.” New York Times, January 21, 2016. 

Diane Rehm Show, The. “Friday News Roundup – Domestic.” [Susan Page filling in for Rehm] January 22, 2016.

Eliot, Marc. Paul Simon: A Life. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010.

Garfunkel, Art. “Art Garfunkel on Sanders Ad Using ‘America.’” [Interview with Michael Smerconish] CNN, January 23, 2016. 

Holub, Christian. “Stephen Colbert Assigns Simon & Garfunkel Songs to Presidential Candidates.” Entertainment Weekly, January 27, 2016. 

Kasper, Eric T., and Benjamin S. Schoening. “The Unwelcome Use of Musical Artists and Their Songs by Presidential Candidates.” Trax on the Trail, December 18, 2015.

Killmeier, Matthew, and Paul Christiansen. “Wolves at the Door: Musical Persuasion in a 2004 Bush-Cheney Campaign Ad.” MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research 50 (2011): 157–77. 

Monaghan, Angela. “US Wealth Inequality—Top 0.1% Worth as Much as the Bottom 90%.” Guardian, November 13, 2014. 

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