Candidates vs Musicians

by Carl Wiser

Donald Trump entered the Republican Convention to the sounds of "We Are The Champions," the bombastic Queen hit from 1977 that suits his style - Trump promised, "We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning."

Trump used the song throughout his campaign, much to the chagrin of Queen guitarist Brian May, who posted this message on his website in June:

I can confirm that permission to use the track was neither sought nor given. We are taking advice on what steps we can take to ensure this use does not continue.

Trump doesn't seem to care about getting May's permission, and he doesn't need it: as long as the venue has paid their dues to BMI and ASCAP, it's perfectly legal (using a song in a commercial does require permission). Musicians can't stop songwriters from using their songs, but they can complain, and sometimes it works. May didn't take a side, but objected to his music being used for any political purpose. Other artists find themselves at odds with the politics, and often speak out to make their views clear. Here are some instances where musicians have clashed with politicians who have used their songs.
1984 - Ronald Reagan vs Bruce Springsteen
"Born in the U.S.A."

Ronald Reagan evoked New Jersey's favorite son during a campaign stop there in 1984. "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts," he said. "It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

Springsteen didn't appreciate the shout-out, or any use of his song "Born in the U.S.A." in the campaign. "This was when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American," he told NPR in 2005. "And if you were on the other side, you were somehow unpatriotic."

The song sounds like an apple pie wrapped in an American flag, but it's really about the struggles Vietnam veterans faced upon returning home. Springsteen was surprised to find that most listeners didn't hear past the chorus, so he started performing the song in a much slower tempo to get the message across.

2000 - George W. Bush vs Tom Petty
"I Won't Back Down"

Bush didn't stand his ground when Petty called him out for using his 1989 Full Moon Fever hit - he obediently stopped using the song. Bush ended up being elected president thanks to a 537-vote advantage in Petty's home state of Florida.

Petty wrote the song after an arsonist burned his house down - a traumatic event that left deep emotional wounds. The song was Petty's way of getting through it and finding the strength to move on with his life. Many listeners used the song to find strength as well, and it became an anthem of resilience after the September 11 attacks. "The song has also been adopted by nice people for good things, too," Petty said at the time. "I just write them, I can't control where it ends up."

2004 - George W. Bush vs Dave Grohl
"Times Like These"

Foo Fighters' "Times Like These" is one of their live showstoppers, so it made sense when Bush used it during his 2004 re-election campaign. Lead Foo Dave Grohl was very anti-Bush though, as were many musicians at this time. He issued a statement saying he was "personally offended" by Bush using the song at rallies, and he started campaigning for Bush's opponent, John Kerry.

Grohl appeared at some campaign events with Kerry and found himself drawn into politics. The next Foo Fighters album, In Your Honor was named in tribute to Kerry.

The election didn't go Kerry's way, as Bush won a second term. Grohl had to learn to live again.

2008 - John Mellencamp vs John McCain
"Our Country"

The lyrics to "Our Country" read like a stump speech:

I can stand beside ideas I think are right
And I can stand beside the idea to stand and fight
I do believe there's a dream for everyone
This is our country

It's a pretty obvious choice, although the song was mostly associated with Chevy Silverados thanks to a pervasive ad campaign. McCain went for the obvious in his music, also using "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry and "Take A Chance On Me" by ABBA. That Johnny B. Goode was a country boy who "never ever learned to read or write so well" or that ABBA was a Swedish pop group didn't seem to matter.

When he started using "Our Country" at campaign events when he was running for the Republican nomination, McCain got a missive from Mellencamp, a supporter of John Edwards, a Democrat. "If you're such a true conservative, why are you playing songs that have a very populist pro-labor message written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterized him as left of center?," Mellencamp asked.

It worked. McCain stopped using the song. He ended up winning the nomination but losing the general election to Barack Obama.

2008 - Mike Huckabee vs Tom Scholz
"More Than A Feeling"

When Mike Huckabee used "More Than A Feeling" at his campaign rallies, Boston leader Tom Scholz fought back the only way he could: by blasting Huckabee in the press for using the song without his consent. In a letter to Huckabee that Scholz also sent to Rolling Stone, he claimed to be an Obama supporter and said that he would not support a candidate who is "the polar opposite of most everything Boston stands for."

Former Boston guitarist Barry Goudreau was a Huckabee supporter and joined him on stage performing "More Than A Feeling" as some events, which apparently was more than Scholz could take (Scholz wrote the song and Goudreau didn't play on it).

The Huckabee campaign didn't stop using the song, pointing out that when Huckabee broke out his bass and jammed on "Sweet Home Alabama," it didn't imply an endorsement from Lynyrd Skynyrd.

2012 - Mitt Romney vs K'naan
"Wavin' Flag"

K'Naan, a rapper of Somalian and Canadian decent, scored big with "Wavin' Flag" in 2010 when it earned airplay throughout the World Cup. Romney who was doing very well in his fight to win the 2012 Republican nomination, started using the song to signify his victory. This didn't go over well with K'Naan, who took umbrage. "Mitt Romney makes the sort of statements that are the antithesis of the very music that I make," he told MTV.

The rapper made the hollow threat of legal action, and Romney's team agreed to stop using it out of respect. K'Naan said he would have no problem letting Obama use the song.

The Romney/Paul Ryan ticket drew more ire over their song selections during the presidential campaign: Dee Snider of Twisted Sister publicly objected to Ryan's use of "We're Not Gonna Take It," and Philomena Lynott, the mother of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott (who died in 1986), took exception when Romney used "The Boys Are Back in Town." "Mitt Romney's opposition to gay marriage and to civil unions for gays makes him anti-gay – which is not something that Philip would have supported," she told the Irish magazine Hot Press.

You've probably detected a pattern here. 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. And while Bill Clinton enjoyed the Fleetwood Mac endorsement (which worked well for the group, which was badly in need of a boost), no candidate has ever received as much support from the music community as Barack Obama.

In 2008, led by, Obama's musical supporters put together an inspirational video based on one of his speeches called "Yes We Can." With a memorable and irresistible tag line, it became Obama's theme song. Scarlett Johansson, John Legend, Ed Kowalczyk and Nicole Scherzinger all appeared in the video along with several other celebrities.

Obama also benefited from an overwhelming anti-Bush sentiment in the music establishment. The Grammy Awards in 2007 resembled the Democratic National Convention, with the Dixie Chicks winning big. There was an outpouring of support for Al Gore, who presented the Best Rock Album award. The following year, there was no specific political talk, but it was clearly an Obama crowd. Obama even won an award - for the audio recording of his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. It was the same award Hillary Clinton won 12 years earlier for her audiobook It Takes a Village. The last award given out at the ceremony went to Herbie Hancock, who in a surprise victory won for Album Of The Year. Hancock, who appears in Obama's video, said in his speech: "This is a new day. It proves that the impossible can be made possible. Yes we can."

July 19, 2012
Further reading:
A look at song selections in the 2008 campaign
Songs Used By Politicians
More Song Writing


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