Obama’s “One Chance”: Winning Over Hearts and Ears by Jason Lee Oakes

by justindburton on May 16, 2012


The past couple of weeks have seen a huge spike in “spiking the football” analogies. Ever since the above ad was posted online, the president’s one-year-old statement that “we don’t need to spike the football” after the death of Osama Bin Laden has been quoted and embellished ad nauseam. [1. In its original context, President Obama was responding to calls for the release of gruesome Bin Laden death photos. In whatever context, football metaphors are usually a sign that the political stakes have been raised. You don’t have to understand the sport very well to understand the potency of such analogies (politics is football is war without bloodshed) in American politics.] Republican politicians and FOX News lashed out in predictable form after the ad was debuted, and a group called Veterans For A Strong America quickly produced a “response ad.” Even left-leaning Arianna Huffington went on record calling the ad “despicable.” But the spot has its supporters as well, and they’ve been equally passionate in defending the ad’s validity and/or maintaining that it merely fights fire with fire. Either way, it’s Mission Accomplished for the unnamed producers of “One Chance” given that it was a talking point for several news cycles.

Why did this political ad evoke such a powerful emotional response for many viewers? Besides the content of the ad itself, could there be other factors that helped make it the political pseudo-event of the moment? More generally, how might certain production techniques be used to sway voters in the span of ninety seconds? And, more to the point for a music blog, what role does music play in this and other political ads? Given the unprecedented flow of money into the negative-ad bonfire so far this election cycle, not to mention the floods still to come—mixing metaphors just feels right in the wake of Citizens United—these are questions worth asking.

On the surface, it’s not obvious why “One Chance” was such a big deal.  Patriotism and militarism are hardly new terrain for political commercials; nor is bragging about one’s achievements while in office and questioning the decision-making skills of one’s opponent. Clinton’s praising of Obama and his handling of the Bin Laden assassination would hardly have raised an eyebrow if heard on a political talk show. The photographs of Obama looking “presidential” during the compound raid have been in wide circulation since last year and no one seemed to consider them exploitive or manipulative at the time. All in all, the pensive photos and lilting piano music are hardly the stuff of General Patton–no one would spike a football to this music unless they wrapped it in a pretty bow beforehand. The overall effect is more Tebowing than Gronking.

Rather than taking issue with the actual content of the ad, the main rap against “One Chance” has been that it “politicized” the death of Bin Laden. This is somewhat odd, since few would be so naïve to claim that 9/11 and the War On Terror haven’t been thoroughly politicized already. In fact, nothing could be much more political in nature. The 2004 campaign was radically transformed by 9/11 and the War on Terror, and their impact on the 2008 campaign was only lessoned somewhat by the economic meltdown. Still, Rudy Giuliani used his poised handling of 9/11 as a selling point in the Republican primaries and nobody was that offended (instead, his fixation on 9/11 became something of a running joke rather than the basis for treasonous cries), and both McCain and Obama made political appeals to voters based on how they would handle post-9/11 security concerns and the range of policies (and wars) based around these concerns.

Perhaps the issue here is one of politics vs. politicizing. And by “politicizing,” people seem to mean just the opposite–that is, making politics less political and more emotion-based. While “One Chance” did have a specific political point to make, it did this all the more effectively through its application of certain advertising techniques. Central among these techniques, I will argue, is the addition of music to statements and images in order to generate an emotional appeal.

Using music to guide emotional responses is a common strategy in political ads. For example, this Romney attack ad from the Republican primaries simply replays a news report from the 1990s—it’s not a news flash that Gingrich was brought up on ethics charges while serving as Speaker of the House—but adds an ominous musical backdrop to guide the viewer’s emotional response to this factual knowledge.


To be sure, the images, text, and visual editing of “One Chance” all play a significant role in the impact of the commercial. But words and images, and even video editing techniques, are easier for most viewers to parse than music, making them easier to deconstruct and resist. For the average viewer/listener, however, music tends to be less amenable to rational analysis—and more emotionally immediate—than these other elements. For this reason, music can be an ideal tool for the TV ad producer looking to make an impact while still flying under the radar.

According to Ted Brader, author of Campaigning For Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work (2006: University of Chicago Press): “Consultants, journalists, and academics seem to believe that the emotional appeal of an ad stems in large part from its audiovisual packaging…Color, music, imagery, sounds, style of narration, and video editing can all serve as emotional cues.” He goes on to state that “some observers and practitioners regard music as an especially potent instrument with which to elicit emotions. The power of a soundtrack derives in part from its ability to influence mood and emotional expectations while our attention is focused elsewhere—for example, on speech and pictures.”

As if to verify the “attention focused elsewhere” portion of the quote above, political pundits, journalists, and other public commentators tend to focus almost entirely on images and verbal/textual content when describing and analyzing political ads. Given the lack of attention, and the lack of musical training among most Americans, music is practically a stealth weapon when it comes to political advertisements. Music only tends to get discussed when either a) familiar popular songs are used, or b) when it crosses a certain line of absurdity, e.g., the over-the-top “ominous scary” music used in some political ads. Otherwise, when approached with a slight bit more subtlety, music holds great power because it feels instinctual for many listeners, even if quite the opposite is true in reality.[6. Musical semiotics are familiar to anyone who has listened to even a tiny fraction of the music surrounding them, anyone who’s gone to movies and watched TV. But since this semiotic system bypasses language—and also because musicality is considered the domain of the formally trained and the musical professional in Western culture—these semiotics are left almost entirely unexamined. In this context, music operates as a sort of emotional shorthand that’s understood by most but spoken by only a few.] In political ads, just like in other types of ads and in soundtracks, music adds a new and important dimension. In these programmatic settings, music is designed to instruct the listener—indicating what they should think of what they’re seeing, how they should interpret the motives of those on screen, and most simply, what they should fear and what they should welcome.


In this light, how does the music in the “One Chance” commercial work? Is it “manipulative,” and if so, in what ways does it manipulate and how effectively? The musical texture throughout is made up of repeated chords, mostly open fifths, played on a piano, and cascading short melodic figures played at irregular intervals. These melodic fragments are built on narrow intervals and non-chord tones, starting in the very high register of the piano. In the context of the ad and its narrative, one could easily hear this as pitting steadiness and assurance in the middle register (played by the pianist’s left hand), against the little flutters of anxiety and unsteadiness in the extreme upper register (played in the pianist’s right hand). Further reinforcing this contrast, I would submit that the pitting of anxiety against assurance is a structuring principle on multiple levels musically, as will be illustrated in the paragraphs that follow.

For instance, the two rhythm lines in “One Chance” further reinforce this opposition. In the bass register there is a hypnotic bass drum “heartbeat” low in the mix, a heartbeat that could be heard as either comforting or panicking depending on the musical and extra-musical context (the perspective appears to shift at certain key points). There is also what sounds like a reversed clock-ticking that slowly fades in about a third of the way through and continues for the duration, also notable for its nagging insistence. These steady and unyielding rhythms, when compared to more elaborate or identifiable rhythms such as dance rhythms, take on a sort of built-in ambiguity that tends to gravitate toward one extreme or another. For instance, consider the sound of a mother steadily rocking her baby to sleep versus an upstairs neighbor pacing the floor endlessly—the same rhythm takes on divergent meanings based on external factors. In “One Chance,” the heartbeat-and-ticking-clock rhythms shift between these two extremes (anxiety vs. assurance) as cued by the ad’s visual and textual narrative development.

Moving from rhythm to pitch, the soundtrack is in the key of B minor, or so I’m assuming since that’s where the music begins. The pianist pivots between two parallel fifths built on the tonic (B/F#) and built on the submediant (G/D)—in other words, an oscillating i-VI chordal movement. In familiar Western tonal terms, this communicates a sense of instability and ambiguity, especially since these two chords are related to relative major and minor keys (meaning, really, that either B minor or G major could be heard as the overriding key–they have the same key signature). This harmonic ambiguity, taken together with open chords that lack a clarifying major or minor third, has the overall effect of subverting stable tonality. The harmonic progression moves at some points to other chords but never into the more comforting and tonally grounded realms of the IV and V chords. Thus, the risk and uncertainty depicted in the commercial’s narrative—and the contrast of Obama’s sure and steady handling of a dangerous situation with Romney’s hypothetical inability to handle this same situation[7. This is probably meant to reinforce the larger metanarrative of Romney’s inconsistency on policy positions.]—is supported by music that combines unsettled harmonic movement between two primary centers of tonal gravity with mellow, comforting instrumental timbres (piano and strings, primarily).

Once the i-VI chordal movement is established, the composer guides the listener through a series of variations and contrasting sections. While no one but the ad’s designers can say for sure which musical choices are deliberate and which are not, the fact that harmonic dissonance appears consistently at certain key points of attack against Mitt Romney and the former President Bush makes it unlikely that only random chance is at work. For instance, a couple of seconds after mentioning Bush’s name, an extra bit of dissonance is added with a tritone appearing in the VI chord just as Clinton uses the phrase “Decider-In-Chief,” a phrase that became popular after Bush’s declaration in 2006 that “I’m the decider and I decide what’s best.” The tritone is considered the most dissonant interval in Western tonality and from the early 18th century it was dubbed the diabolis in musica, a harmonically “difficult” interval that was sometimes used to connote evil. Although the tritone is much less shocking to modern ears, it still has a dissonant or “wrong note” quality that, as used in the ad, might be meant to echo the “wrongness” of President Bush. Add to this his notorious use of malapropisms and other phrasings that seem a bit “off,” and it makes sense (from a pro-Obama perspective) to throw in a chord that sounds a bit “off” at the moment Clinton evokes the phrase.

This moment is relatively subtle, buried under Clinton’s dialogue, but soon another dissonant interval enters, this time in the foreground and at a slightly higher volume with no narration covering it up. The chord in question is played at the moment when the Reuters’ quote is displayed: “Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for vowing to strike al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan if necessary.” This chord, in combining the tonal center (B) and the leading tone (A), pits two adjacent and thus clashing notes against each other. The chord is repeated again as Wolf Blitzer reads Romney’s “controversial” statement about “not moving heaven and Earth” to catch Bin Laden.

These harmonic developments are closely related to the overall form of the ad’s soundtrack—that is, the way the music unfolds and develops over time—a parameter that can’t help but bear some relationship to the visual and textual narrative. “One Chance” makes use of classic ABA form: an introductory section that sets up certain musical parameters; a middle section that expands, challenges, or violates those parameters; and finally, a concluding section that returns to the opening musical material, sometimes slightly varied. In music, Sonata-Allegro form and other elaborate iterations of ABA structure grew directly out of modern modes of storytelling as developed in the early novel and in early opera—namely, exposition, development, and recapitulation. In these contexts, the ABA form inherently creates a hierarchical relationship between normalcy (however established in the ‘A’ section) and elements that threaten this sense of normalcy (appearing in the ‘B’ section).

In “One Chance,” the middle ‘B’ section of the commercial shifts from the Obama/Clinton axis to a focus on Mitt Romney. At the same time, the music moves into a contrasting ‘B’ section that has a more “worried” sound, although the shift is subtle. The new chordal progression in the ‘B’ section includes the moments of dissonance cited above; the volume increases slightly and the nagging rhythmic figures are brought more to the fore; and a vaguely ominous low synth drone in the lower register is also introduced. The overall effect is one of a disquieting sense of menace sneaking into the music. The ‘B’ section concludes with Blitzer’s reminder that Bin Laden killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11, followed immediately by another of the high-pitched descending melodic fragments, which may be meant to evoke the falling Twin Towers and/or the individuals who jumped from the top floors in desperation.[8. This point is a bit more speculative, but the connection is difficult not to make after several close hearings of the music.] The chord progression then returns to the more familiar ground of the ‘A’ section (centered on the i-VI chordal oscillation), and returns to its original “background music” volume, as the very moment the narrative shifts back to Clinton praising Obama’s resolve, risk-taking, and bravery.

Although harmonic resolution is never achieved, it’s notable that each of the ‘A’ sections concludes with the only two instances of ascending melodic fragments in the highest register—rather than descending or circuitous melodic fragments as heard elsewhere. The first appears over one of the shots of Obama in deep thought looking out the White House window, and the second accompanies the rising sun illustration that appears in the middle of the Obama/Biden logo at the end of the ad. But all is not rainbows and sunshine. The soundtrack concludes, literally, on a note of uncertainty—an open III chord with the scale’s leading tone emphasized by a lingering synth-string single note. This sends a signal that the period of uncertainty and danger brought on by 9/11 is not over, even with the death of Osama Bin Laden. Instead, the strength and resolve displayed by Obama will still be needed in the future, or so the lingering leading-tone indicates.

In conclusion, for the receptive listener, the music of “One Chance” takes what are already clichés of the 2012 campaign (Romney as waffling and inauthentic, Bush as a bumbling predecessor) and transforms them into emotionally resonant realities in musical terms—all the while helping to create entirely new realities (Obama as a foreign-policy president who excels at wartime valor). In this way, the musical football is spiked.


When I gave a version of this presentation to colleagues at Cooper Union they encouraged me to widen the scope of this close reading, stepping back and naming the phenomenon I’m describing and its wider context. I can only do this in cursory fashion here, but to begin with, it’s worth pointing out that the same musical strategies cited above are likewise heard in other political advertising music. The easiest way to verify this is by consulting libraries of stock music (aka production music) designed for political ads. For instance, a musical cue labeled as “Political Attack Fourteen Tick Tock” on stockmusicsite.com uses a similar strategy of setting two oscillating piano chords and a ticking clock against other subtle musical touches to signal urgency and danger. The composer frames this music in an accompanying blurb: “Is your opponent an incumbent a ticking time bomb? [sic] Is that proposition on the ballot bad news? Ominous and dark instrumental underscore with clock FX perfect for that Political Negative Attack Ad.”

In another cue simply labeled “Negative Politics,” a wispy, high-register piano—with chords in the middle register and a snaking melody in the high register—oscillates harmonically between a minor I and major VI chord, just as in “One Chance.” [9. Of course, one could quibble that this “negative” style of music is representing Obama as well as Romney in the “One Chance” commercial, but in the context of Obama’s order to invade the Pakistani compound, the dourness of the music makes a certain kind of sense. In all likelihood, the use of overtly triumphant, military-style music would have led to even more extreme attacks on the ad. With this music Obama eats his cake and has it too, coming across as the tough, decisive commander in chief who at the same time he doesn’t take such life-or-death decisions lightly, nor celebrate acts of murder or vengeance (which also by implication applies to the 9/11 attacks themselves).] The composer notes that “solo piano depicts a sad, lonely, barren landscape,” and observes that “negative political campaigns need just the right emotional touch to deliver ‘Don’t vote for him/her, you’ll really regret it!’” By way of contrast, the same composer has posted a self-described sister track called “Positive Politics.” The cue begins by transposing the opening melody of “Negative Politics” into a major key, going on to set the melody against an I-V-vi-IV progression (otherwise known as the “Axis of Awesome”) played on the piano in un-inverted block chords. Compared to the i-VI progression of “Negative Politics” which sounds trapped and nervous, here the impression is of a more goal-driven, teleological rationality. This impression is heightened by the single-note digital-delay-enhanced guitar part with its “clarion call” rousing vibe, a bass playing steady eighth-notes on the roots of each chord, and a driving tom-tom rhythm fleshed out with hi-hat and synthetic handclaps. Overall the piece sounds like a pastiche of U2 at their most inspirational, resembling “With Or Without You” most specifically in terms of the chord progression and instrumental texture.

Speaking of inter-textual musical connections, my Cooper-Union audience was in agreement that the music in “One Chance” bears a similarity to Philip Glass’s score for The Fog of War, as well as some of Glass’s other music (especially his solo piano work). The Fog of War is a film by Errol Morris consisting of interviews with Robert McNarmara exploring weighty issues of war and foreign policy. McNarmara is one of the most enigmatic political figures of the 20th century, revered and reviled in turn. More to the point in this context, he serves as a poster boy for what I’ll refer to herewith as Political Noir–a genre where great minds and (arguably) good intentions are thwarted by unforeseen circumstances and bad luck, resulting in Greek tragedy levels of drama and suffering. The music of Philip Glass is a major ingredient in the film, bringing pathos to the thoughts and memories of a man who some consider to be a war criminal. As one online film critic puts it: “You could take a film about the bowel movements of Paul Wolfowitz, set it to [Glass’s music] and it would seem important.”

While the stylistic range of his 45-year career is vast, Philip Glass is linked to a certain brand of minimalism in the popular imagination: short, repeated chord progressions, pulsing rhythmic ostinatos, and spare musical textures. In the discourse around Philip Glass, especially his soundtrack work, there is a nearly even split between ascriptions of “powerful emotional intensity” and emotional remove—what one reviewer calls the “almost clinical clarity and eeriness” of his music. In other words, for many listeners, the emotional impact of his music relies on a certain ambiguity between anxiety vs. assurance. It follows from this that Philip Glass’s music, and the stylistic complex under which some of it falls, is a perfect fit for the Political Noir of The Fog of War.

Although it’s impossible to pinpoint where it began, over the years this Political Noir stylistic complex has filtered down to Glassworks-like music written for political ads and themes written for television news reports, political talk shows, action and fantasy film soundtracks, police procedural dramas, celebrity gossip shows, and so on through the infotainment-entertainment food chain. These wide-ranging uses of similar music techniques and semiotic frameworks all inform and reinforce one another (another good example is the Noirish vibe of much gangsta rap and mafia rap—especially East Coasters like Nas, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan and RZA—that often features echo-laden, doomy repeated piano chords looped over a throbbing beat, with lyrics fixated on “street” politics and struggles for power).

Whether artfully applied or woefully misapplied, this musical-stylistic complex is meant to evoke fate-hanging-in-balance. The successful Political Noir soundtrack gives off an aura of both sublime grandeur and controlled consideration. In other words, we’re dealing with some heavy Machiavellian shit here, facing some pretty dark and overwhelming forces, but we’re doing so in a rational and considered manner that will save the day or, at least, preserve our sanity and our way of life. Film noir in general is marked by just such a “hard boiled” mentality. Paul Schrader, the film director and screenwriter who authored one of the great modern noirs with Taxi Driver, describes the noir mentality as “a tough, cynical way of acting and thinking which separate[s] one from the world of everyday emotions—romanticism with a protective shell.”

After four years of ruthless political conflict and painful compromises, four years that threw a cold glass of water in the face of Hope and Change as promised by the Obama administration, probably the only tenable stance for the 2012 campaign to take is “romanticism with a protective shell.” Well-chosen music in political ads may be one small but very effective step in projecting this sensibility. The Political Noir stylistic complex is a perfect fit for this goal. What’s more, due to its prevalence across different media and various musical genres, Political Noir has taken on a sort of universal signifying power. The sheer familiarity of this musical style can cause it to easily disappear into the background and to work on the stealth level alluded to above, one of the central objectives for any advertising music.

Of course, such stealth tactics will not go unopposed. Obama’s opponents in the Republican Party will always try to call him out, and this includes calling him out in musical terms. This point is perfectly illustrated in another recent political ad, an ad that makes abundantly clear that we have a War of Musical Representation on our hands. On 26 April 2012, American Crossroads—a pro-GOP, Karl-Rove-linked super PAC—released a spot with the title “Cool.” The ad uses a generic Dirty South-inspired party-banger track topped with repeated chants of “O-BA-MA!” and an exaggerated basso profondo voice intoning “Oooooh Yeeeeeah” at regular intervals (obviously inspired by the Yello song and possibly the “Yeah” guy from Trading Places).  It is alleged in the ad that Obama views himself as the cooler-than-thou Hipster In Chief, a man who hangs out with musicians, comedians, and other cool folk—as if to say, this is not the President of the United States but rather the “Preezy of the United Steezy” (I’ll leave the racial implications of all of this to another day). Clips of President Obama singing “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green, drinking beer, dancing and making jokes are used to imply that he’s both ignoring his duties and not acting in a suitably “presidential” manner. Both the diegetic and non-diegetic music are instrumental to the emotional impact of the ad—for the intended audience, hip hop, EDM, and soul music are not universalizing but Othering, with frivolity substituted for gravitas. The brief, middle ‘B’-section of the commercial— the only “serious” part of the ad which highlights the dire state of the economy for the nation’s youth—changes abruptly to black-and-white text cards, slow-motion video of brooding young people, and jump-cut swooshing sound effects, all straight from the Political Noir playbook.


In conclusion the stakes of this musical war are high. And with the election still about 6 months away, the US electorate are something like apartment-dwellers trapped in the same building as two very rich neighbors locked in a fierce stereo battle. The long night ahead is just beginning. Let’s hope they play some good tunes.


Jason Lee Oakes received his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Columbia University in 2005 and now teaches at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. His previous blog posting was on popular music, social media, and celebrity.

{ 1 comment }

Maren Stange May 23, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Great piece, Jason! Excellent argument and fun to read.

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