Campaign Songs and Campaign Wrongs

Sociologist Jennifer Lena was kind enough to provide Election 101 with another fascinating installment to what will ultimately be a  three part series of posts on music in presidential campaigns. Check out her new book, Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music and her post on the uses and abuses of music by politicians after the jump:



Campaign Songs and Campaign Wrongs

Jennifer Lena


In my previous post on presidential campaigns and music, I discussed the ways in which candidates obtain songs for use during their campaign, including commissioning songs and licensing them for adaptation or use of the original. Seemingly in spite of themselves, campaign staffers keep neglecting to obtain licenses for the songs they use, and so recent campaign history is punctuated by controversies over the unauthorized use of pop music in these races. I previously mentioned one case in which Bob Dole used an unauthorized parody of Sam and Dave’s hit song “Soul Man,” and the song’s copyright holders threatened to sue. The song’s use was not only unauthorized, but unwelcome by its owners. In an interview with the New York Daily News, Isaac Hayes (one of the song’s authors) explained, “Nobody gave any permission here” and, “As a U.S. Senator, he ought to know that you can’t do that.  It also bothers me because people may get the impression that David [Porter] and I endorse Bob Dole, which we don’t.”

Perhaps the best-known case where unauthorized music was used by a campaign was Ronald Reagan’s 1984 use of Bruce Springsteen’s single “Born in the U.S.A.” Although the song’s lyrics clearly focus on the deleterious effects of the Vietnam War on Americans, Conservative columnist George Will heard a nationalistic cry in the song, and dubbed the singer “A Yankee Doodle Springsteen.” Will got word to Reagan advisor Michael Deavers, who had his staffers seek an endorsement from Springsteen, which he immediately declined. Nevertheless, on September 19, 1984, Reagan mentioned the rocker favorably in a New Jersey stump speech, and Springsteen countered by invoking Reagan’s name right before playing “Johnny 99” (a song about an unemployed steelworker) at a concert in Philadelphia. The entire episode was covered closely by the media, and proved to be an embarrassment to the Reagan campaign, although patriotic interpretations of the song’s lyrics are still commonplace.

Four presidential cycles later, another Republican candidate made a similar error with similar consequences. George W. Bush used Tom Petty’s anthem “I Won’t Back Down” on the 2000 campaign trail until Petty threatened to sue. Bush pulled the song (and added “We the People” by Billy Ray Cyrus and “Right Now” by Van Halen). In a bittersweet turn, Petty is said to have played his song at the Gore’s house minutes after he conceded the election.

Several Republicans in the current race have received cease and desist letters for using music on the campaign trail without permission. Michele Bachman allegedly got one letter from Tom Petty’s music publisher for her use of “American Girl.” Katrina and the Waves also asked Bachman to stop using their single, “Walking on Sunshine.” Newt Gingrich was asked to stop using “How Do You Like Me Now?” by Third Side Music, the publisher that owns the right to this 2009 song by rock group the Heavy.

This is really the tip of the iceberg. In recent years, John Mellencamp and the Foo Fighters both asked John McCain to stop using their music during his 2008 campaign, and McCain settled out of court with Jackson Browne after the unauthorized use of his hit single “Running on Empty.” When Charlie Crist ran for a senate seat in Florida last year, he used “Road to Nowhere,” a song by rock group The Talking Heads, in one of his ads without seeking authorization from the group. Frontman David Byrne slapped him with a $1 million lawsuit, which was settled out of court; Crist also issued this apology via YouTube:


It could be, as  FoxNews claims in this report, that GOP candidates are less likely to get permission to use music during their campaigns. The news service attributes responsibility to the liberal bias of the entertainment industry, and preferential treatment of Democrats by musicians (and “Hollywood” donors). In recent memory, the only high-profile Dem to be hit with a cease and desist letter was Barack Obama, who used Sam & Dave’s hit single “Hold On, I’m Comin’” without permission.

Fox News may be right that entertainers are more likely to be liberal, and thus more likely to give Democrats access to their music catalogue. It could also be that Republican candidates are more likely to use music without first seeking permission or licensing the work. In either case, the surprising thing is that campaign staffers don’t secure celebrity endorsements, and tend to mis-manage them when they arrive uninvited.

Consider, for example, Kelly Clarkson’s recent statement of support for Ron Paul’s campaign, and almost immediate retraction. Clarkson, a past winner of American Idol and chart-topping country-pop artist, posted a tweet claiming that she would vote for Ron Paul if he won the nomination for the Republican ticket—a statement many interpreted as an endorsement of his campaign. But as news spread of the racist and homophobic content in Ron Paul newsletters, critics declaimed her support for the candidate as an endorsement of hate speech. In December, Clarkson released an apology in a tweet, voicing support for “white/black/purple/orange rights” and stepping back from the controversy by claiming she wasn’t a “hardcore Republican” and disclosing that she voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Perhaps it isn’t a huge surprise that Paul’s campaign mis-managed Clarkson’s statement of support, failing to rush to her side and help her type on-brand messages into her smart phone. After all, Ron Paul often takes the campaign stage to the tune of “The Imperial March,” Darth Vader’s theme song from Star Wars, a song that conjures up both space aliens and fascism.

Rick Santorum also had the uniquely strange problem of receiving a statement of support from heavy metal guitarist Dave Mustaine, only to have him claim it wasn’t an endorsement. Mustaine said in an interview with Music Radar that he hopes “if it does come down to it, we’ll see a Republican in the White House… and that it’s Rick Santorum,” but then released a statement to the press disputing the characterization of his remarks as an “official endorsement.”

How can we make sense out of the evergreen problem GOP candidates have securing endorsements from musicians? Strangely enough, the answer might lie in a satirical column at on-line gossip magazine, inspired by Mustaine’s support for Santorum. The column, titled, “Big Running List of 2012 Metal Endorsements,”  is updated as Gawker staffers contact and secure political platform statements from former and current members of major metal groups. Next to Mustaine’s name, Santorum’s appears, followed by a question mark. Other presidential office-seekers appear on the list, and there are also a number of write-in candidates including Gwar’s Oderus Urungus, who votes for “Murdering every presidential candidate on a gigantic wheel of over-sized knives.”

The conceit behind the list, and Gwar’s “vote,” is that musical communities have their own political platforms, not unlike parties, candidates, and social movements. These are the genre ideals of a group; they reflect the community’s sensitivity to some problem or goal (sometimes strictly musical, and sometimes social), and a developed consensus about both its causes and how it should be addressed. One example I give in the book is Seattle’s grunge rock community, within which members shared an anti-macho and anti-mainstream genre ideal; this was a reaction against both “fluffy” pop (both Madonna and Paula Abdul were popular at the time) and against the big hair and “beef cake posturing” of hair metal groups like Motley Crue, Poison and Bon Jovi. As Gwar’s “vote” for President illuminates, metal’s genre ideal—antimainstream, dystopian—abjures the values you’d find in almost every candidate running for a national office in the U.S. No surprise that we don’t see natural alliances developing there.

But it does seem that one means by which candidates could prevent controversy over their use of music (other than securing permission in advance, of course) would be to encourage musicians to get involved in their campaigns, and to remain invested over longer periods of time. This shouldn’t be too difficult, particularly if these alliances begin at the local level, in small communities, where politicians and local artists are likely to share interests and dispositions. Politicians have resources that could benefit artists—access to audiences, performance opportunities, and the press prime among them—and musicians, as I have been at pains to argue, offer resources that are important to politicians.

Jennifer C. Lena is visiting assistant professor of sociology at Barnard College.



  1. Great post,
    Thank you for sharing ,