McCain's own Mozart

Composer Todd Hahn is a whiz at using digital technology to create soundtracks that win over voters' hearts and minds.


Ted Rose
February 24, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

The Straight Talk Express, which served Sen. John McCain so well in the early
primary states, wont do him much good anymore. McCain has less than two
weeks to pitch his campaign to voters across the country, in
delegate-rich and geographically expansive states such as California and New
York. If you happen to live in a state with an upcoming primary, theres a
slim chance that youll see McCains cruiser coming down your street. But
theres a good chance youll see a McCain advertisement like "Courage" on
your television set.

"Courage" is one of those gauzy ads that presents McCain in the soft,
sentimental light that has helped his insurgent candidacy flourish. But when
I first saw "Courage," at a Virginia post-production house a couple of weeks
ago, it was lifeless. The images and the words were there, but the emotion
was missing. That's because Todd Hahn, a man most voters have never heard of,
hadn't gotten his hands on "Courage" yet.

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Hahn, who was watching the spot for the first time
that day, too, is a Juilliard-trained composer who
is considered a genius for his ability to inject
emotion into political advertising. Recently, he's
been working to make McCain's advertisements look
and feel like 30-second Hollywood epics. "I know
when Todd has hit a home run," says John Marcus,
who has produced some of McCain's ads, "because I
walk out with a tear in my eye."

Music has been a staple of television political
advertisements for a long time, but until recently
most of it has been, as Hahn calls it, "needle
drop" stuff, canned ditties imported from a music
library. But with the rise of digital sampling, a
professional composer can produce an original score
with a computer and a keyboard that can fit
comfortably inside campaign budget
constraints.

Hahn can deliver a score in 30 minutes. That speed
and his creativity have made him one of
the hottest political composers in the business. He
isn't hired for his political acumen, however -- he
flunked his government course in high school, and
he hasn't made much of an effort to understand
politics since then.

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Hahn is 36, has a trim red goatee that matches his
red face and bright blue eyes. He was born in
Akron, Ohio, and is one of those hopelessly sincere
Midwesterners who drifts across the Appalachians and
ends up on the East Coast. Most imports start
talking like city folks soon enough, but 10 years
after arriving in Washington, Hahn still makes
exclamations like "gosh" and "dawgonnit" without a
hint of irony. He was calling me "buddy" before he
ever set eyes on me.

When I caught up with him, Hahn was watching
"Courage" in a cramped temporary studio while his
main space is fitted for a grand piano. As a
narrator recites the highlights of McCain's
biography, the viewer sees grainy black-and-white
images of McCain as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
That footage dissolves into video of a vigorous
handshake with Ronald Reagan in front of the White
House. Then we see candidate McCain talking with
real folks at his town hall meetings this year.

Hahn is staring up at the monitor intently, hands
resting on the keyboard. Twice through the ad and
he's done. He won't listen to the scripted ad
closely again until he's finished with a rough cut
of his score.

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Hahn begins by laying down a pad of strings from
the synthesizer -- it's an electronic hodgepodge of
violins, violas and cellos -- that he uses to
create the emotional glue of his piece. "Courage"
will be scored in the key of D flat. D flat is a strong, powerful chord
that Hahn used a lot when he did work for Bob Dole
in 1996. As for the tempo, Hahn wants it as slow as
possible. The main goal in scoring a short
advertisement, says Hahn, is to make it feel longer
than it is.

Hahn says he has met the candidate only once, but
that as a composer he is drawn to the latent drama
of McCain's story. "For a guy like McCain,"
he says, "I can't help but write something that has
a heroic theme."

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Although his last two presidential subjects have
been Republicans, Hahn
works for both sides of the political aisle. In
1992, for instance,
he scored ads for Bill Clinton's campaign. In the
heat of the fall
election season, Hahn will turn out 12 or 13
original scores every day,
many for congressional and gubernatorial
candidates. Sometimes, he ends
up scoring ads for two candidates running against
each other. "I have on
a shelf here literally hundreds and hundreds of DAT
tapes of his 30-second commercials," says Mark
Puttnam, a Democratic consultant. "He
must have written more melodies than the Beatles
and Mozart combined."

French horn, medium bore, is the next addition to
the "Courage" score.
Hahn says it adds a "'Right Stuff'-ish kind of feel."
Before the end of
the piece, Hahn will add another French horn and
the tinny fluegelhorn.
Of the fluegelhorn, he says, "It's like the ghost
of fallen comrades." It's an
auditory reminder, Hahn says, of McCain's military
heritage.

On his next couple of passes, Hahn adds a piano
("fills in the weight")
and a single cello ("more bottom weight"). Hahn
says he tends to score a
fuller, more orchestral sound for Republicans. The
bigger sound seems to
capture the emotional core of Republican campaign
themes such as patriotism
and love of country. When he's working for
Democrats, he tends to create
a more humble, grass-roots sound. Hahn is more
likely to feature a
lonely guitar or a plain piano in a Democratic ad.
"I'll stay away from
a big ensemble of horns. Maybe one French
horn."

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After about 20 minutes, the basic score is
finished. Now, Hahn
places the icing on the cake, sprinkling his
creation with a few final
touches. The POW footage at the beginning gets a
slow, reverberating
snare drum. "You hear it and you think military
right off the bat," he
says. Then he makes a pass through with a cymbal,
placing a lusty crash
directly on McCain's handshake with Ronald Reagan.
"Gipper always gets a
crash."

By the end, Hahn has transformed a stale 30-second
video rehash of
McCain's biography into a small-scale "Saving
Private Ryan."
He declares
it a "pretty spot." Greg Stevens, McCain's chief
media consultant,
passes through a few minutes later and signs off
without any changes.

Hahn once viewed the political work as just a way
to pay the bills, but
now he's grown to love his role in American
democracy. "I try to write
the music to follow my own hopes for America," says
Hahn, "and I hope
the American public will pick up on that."

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Ted Rose

Ted Rose is a Washington freelance writer and a contributing editor to Brill's Content.

MORE FROM Ted Rose


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John Mccain, R-ariz.

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