Republicans vs Songwriters
The relationship between Republicans and songwriters is more contentious than ever. GOP campaign songs, and even the tunes on Paul Ryan's iPod, are under attack by those who wrote them.
So far, the Romney campaign has caved to demands to to cease and desist, but that isn't always the case.
Musically, the political landscape was much more interesting in 2008. In the Democratic battle, Barack Obama used a steady selection of soul music to push his message of hope and change, while Hillary Clinton went with "You And I
" by Celine Dion, supposedly chosen in a contest by her supporters, but soon dumped in favor of more accessible choices like "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
" and "Suddenly I See
." John Edwards went with "Pride (In The Name Of Love)
" by U2, co-opting a song written to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee had a musical advantage over his rivals. He played bass in a band called Capitol Offense, and understood how music could motivate. At most of his events, Huckabee had local musicians perform, often joining them on bass for a little Skynyrd.
Ron Paul let his supporters create his music, playing songs with titles like "Hope for America" and "Ron Paul For The Long Haul."
Rudy Giuliani couldn't resist using "Rudie Can't Fail
" by The Clash. Apparently, nobody told him that "Rudie" is a "Rude Boy," which is a Jamaican term for a juvenile delinquent.
The eventual winner on the Republican side, John McCain, bumbled along with "Take A Chance On Me
," which is both Swedish and sounds like a bad pickup line, and "Johnny B. Goode
," a song about a boy who "never ever learned to read or write so well."
Then there was Mitt Romney...
In 2008, when Mitt Romney was campaigning for the Republican nomination, these were the main songs he used:
A Little Less Conversation
- Elvis Presley (the 2002 JXL remix)
- Lynyrd Skynyrd
Heart Of Gold
- Neil Young
More Than A Feeling
- Neil Diamond
Don't Stop Believin'
You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Such Great Heights
- Postal Service
- Van Halen
Back then, we contacted the Romney campaign and got this response from a staffer regarding his use of "A Little Less Conversation":
The song underscores Governor Romney's promise to bring change to a broken Washington. He believes there needs to be more action to address our nation's challenges, with less talk and partisan bickering.
Romney fizzled that year and didn't take much heat for his selections, but 2012 is a different story. Without the Huckabee influence, music wasn't a big deal in the Republican primary race, and Romney has been much more measured in his song selections. Still, he has had some problems.
Alt-rock heavyweights Silversun Pickups ran to the press when their song "Panic Switch
" was played at several Romney rallies. Lead singer Brian Aubert said that neither the band nor its representatives had been contacted about the use of the song, and they had issued a cease and desist. "We don't like people going behind our backs, using our music without asking," he said. "And we don't like the Romney Campaign."
The candidate's spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, was quick to respond. "The song was played during event set-up," she explained. "That said, it was covered under the campaign's regular blanket license, but we will not play it again." In other words, they could play it if they want to, but why bother. There would be no feud with the Silversun Pickups.
Wavin' Flag was a big song during the 2010 World Cup. The celebratory vibe was a good fit for Romney's speech after he won the Florida primary, but K'naan lashed out, threatening legal action and saying, "I would happily grant the Obama campaign use of my song without prejudice." To quell the issue, Romney's campaign stopped using it, stating, "we respect K'Naan's statement and will not use his music again."
This wasn't the first dustup with Romney's musical choices. Months earlier, the rapper K'naan issued a statement very similar to the Pickups', saying that the Romney campaign did not have permission to play his song "Wavin' Flag" and that he requested it no longer be used. He also added a political barb to his request, saying that as Romney didn't care about the poor, he shouldn't be allowed to use their songs. Once again, the Romney campaign acquiesced and stopped using the song.
Romney's musical woes ramped up when he chose Paul Ryan as his running mate. When the New York Times
, pushing the angle of the senator as the first Gen-X VP candidate, asked what was on his iPod, Ryan mentioned Rage Against The Machine as one of his favorite bands. Ryan could hardly have chosen a band more antithetical to his politics (Rage led protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention) and RATM guitarist Tom Morello called him out, publishing an article in Rolling Stone
titled "Paul Ryan Is the Embodiment of the Machine Our Music Rages Against."
In August, Ryan was called out by Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider for using their trademark song "We're Not Gonna Take It" at a Pennsylvania Rally, and in early September, the mother of Thin Lizzy's songwriter Phil Lynott lambasted the ticket's use of "The Boys Are Back in Town," saying that Romney's firmly anti-gay positions were at odds with the band's beliefs.
When they're not playing Toby Keith or Lee Greenwood, Republicans have a hard time finding songwriters who support their cause, and with news outlets looking for crumbs in their overwrought political coverage, more songwriters are making a stink. The legal ground is murky - candidates can play whatever they want at rallies as long as the venue has paid their dues to the performance rights agencies ASCAP and BMI. And while using a song doesn't represent an endorsement by the musician, the implication is clearly there, and the news-starved press is waiting to jump on the story.
Republicans often have a hard time finding the anthemic campaign songs they need when most of the musicians they're drawing from are stoutly liberal. It's an unavoidable problem that rears its head every campaign season. In 2008, John Mellencamp took exception to John McCain's use of "Our Country." Tom Petty called foul when George W. Bush used "I Won't Back Down
" in his 2000 campaign; Bush did stop using the song, but he won the election by squeaking out a victory in Petty's home state of Florida. Bush came under fire again during his 2004 reelection campaign for using Dave Grohl's "Times Like These
." Grohl responded by campaigning for Bush's rival, John Kerry. Before Romney became the presidential candiate, Newt Gingrich was sued in early 2012 for using "Eye Of The Tiger
" as a campaign song, and a few months before that was accused of copyright infringement for his use of The Heavy's "How Do You Like Me Now?
Republicans haven't been entirely unable to lure big-name musical star power. Ted Nugent publicly declared his support for Mitt Romney via Twitter in early March. The Motor City Madman went on to say that he would rather die or go to jail than endure another four years of Obama.
Nugent has become a right-wing firebrand and a regular guest on cable news shows, where his outsized opinions are a ratings winner. We're not likely to hear "Stranglehold
" at a Romney rally anytime soon, however, as the candiate has kept a cautious distance from the rocker. The Romney campaign refused to denounce the musician, but when Nugent claimed that the campaign had endorsed his comments, a representative said that Romney hadn't actually done that.
It's not just the Republican candidates who seem to enjoy the work of songwriters who don't support their views. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh uses "My City Was Gone
" by The Pretenders as his bumper music. The song was written by Chrissie Hynde, who was a student at Kent State University during the 1970 shootings, and has political views that in no way jibe with Limbaugh. Sean Hannity, who is the other leading voice on conservative radio, features "Independence Day
" by Martina McBride on his show. The song was written by Gretchen Peters, who says it's about a young girl watching her mother get abused by her father. Peters told us: "They have to pay me every time they play it, and I don't have any control over whether they play it or not. I don't agree with the guy on anything, but they do pay me. I guess I feel it kind of puts me in slightly better position to support the causes I believe in." And in 2008, after heartily endorsing the new album by British alt-rock giant Muse, conservative pundit Glenn Beck was forced to retract his support, saying that he'd been contacted by their representative and asked not to associate himself with the band.
Understandably, conservative candidates have retreated to their musical stronghold: country music. The 2012 Republican National Convention featured performances from Toby Keith and Kid Rock, shored up by appearances from the classic rock standbys Lynyrd Skynyrd and Journey. A Journey representative, however, was quick to point out that this was only "another paid gig," and that this didn't indicate a political statement from the band one way or another. Romney has wavered in support of the artists who came out for him as well. When Rolling Stone
asked about some of the more questionable language that appeared in Kid Rock songs, a Romney representative's vague reply was simply that he'd check it out and get back to the magazine.
This approach — retreating to a stalwart, inclusive brand of music — is in stark contrast to the strategy adopted by the Obama campaign. The candidate rallied young voters in his 2008 run thanks to an overwhelming, unprecedented level of musical support. Artists as diverse and notable as Bob Dylan, Jay-Z and Herbie Hancock endorsed the candidate. Accepting the Grammy for Album Of The Year in 2008, Hancock said: "This is a new day. It proves that the impossible can be made possible. Yes we can." Will.i.am's song based on Obama's "Yes We Can" slogan remains one of the most memorable musical moments of any political campaign - right up there with Bill Clinton playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show
Democrats usually enjoy more support from popular musicians, something John F. Kennedy used to his advantage when Frank Sinatra sang "High Hopes
" on his behalf in 1960. Republicans aren't going to win the political battle of the bands, and Lane Turner's convention performance of "I Built It"
hardly went viral, but Obama doesn't have anything close to a "Yes We Can" for 2012. Rather than adopt a particular theme song, the campaign released a Spotify playlist, followed not long after by a citizen-generated official campaign playlist, where the songs included were voted on by supporters. Selections from the playlist mostly fall into an alternative/indie spectrum, heavy on No Doubt, Wilco, and Arcade Fire.
Republicans are still squabbling with songwriters, but it's nowhere near 2008 levels and far from the heavyweight battle that was the Ali/Frazier of this arena. In 1984, Ronald Reagan invoked Bruce Springsteen during a New Jersey stump speech, apparently missing the message of "Born In The U.S.A.
" Said Springsteen, "This was when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American."
~September 11, 2012. By Carl Wiser and Luke Dailey.