12 musicians who refused to let politicians use their songs

by Kathryn Kyte

April 14, 2016






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Neil Young vs. Trump, Rush vs. Rand Paul, and an R&B legend vs. Obama.

Music and politics aren’t always marriage material. Sure, there are political messages in music, and there are some musicians who publicly promote preferred candidates, but that doesn’t mean the sonic landscape is safe for political parties. When politicians overstep their boundaries some musicians refuse to roll over without dispute and this exchange usually happens more with Republicans than Democrats.

The music industry (like the TV and film industries) tends to be quite liberal and this can cause a ruckus when a Republican candidate opts to insert certain music into their campaign set list.

In the 2014 election about 74% of donations from those in TV, music, and movies went to Democrats. It’s interesting to note that was the same year Republicans gained control of the Senate for the first time since 2006, and resulted in the largest Republican majority throughout the U.S. in nearly a century. Even so, just because a political party may rise to popularity doesn’t mean it will be done without serious cultural friction.

A political endorsement from an artist can do wonders for a political party, but when there is no such endorsement it’s better not to mess with the craft and creativity of artists. Here are 12 acts that refused their music to various politicians, parties, and political campaigns.

Bruce Springsteen vs. Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan

“Born in the U.S.A.” may peg as a perfect inclusion in an American political campaign and perhaps that’s why not just one but three political contenders used it. In 1984 Springsteen’s seventh album, Born in the U.S.A., came out and both the album and titled song were crazy popular. Ronald Reagan’s camp asked to use the song and Springsteen objected.

Reagan then quoted Springsteen during a speech, giving reference to the “songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.” He spoke about dreams and how he wanted to make those dreams come true, but during Reagan’s presidential run Springsteen made sure to voice his distrust, ridding himself of any affiliation to the Republican.

In 1996 Bob Dole used the song in his campaign and in 2000 Pat Buchanan did the same until Springsteen pulled the plug again and again.

Sting vs. George W. Bush

Sting did not like the idea of Bush playing “Brand New Day,” during his campaign speeches. Since Sting is not from the U.S. he felt it wasn’t right to get involved and his then manager, Miles Copeland, told Salon the singer didn’t want to take a side in a country where he is a “guest.”

Interestingly enough, the song was heavily used in Bush’s opponent Al Gore’s campaign. Sting was apparently planning to put an end to Gore’s use too, but reports suggest that never came to fruition. Gore is one politician that really tapped into the swing of music, playing songs from Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, among others during his campaign run, which eventually led him to the Vice President chair.

Boston vs. Mike Huckabee

Just because you play bass doesn’t mean you can play Boston. The former Arkansas Governor received an open letter from founder and lead songwriter of the band Boston, Tom Scholz, urging him to stop playing “More Than a Feeling” while campaigning in 2008. Huckabee is known to show off his guitar skills during appearances, playing alongside his band Capitol Offense, but that wasn’t enough to win over the Boston frontman.

Boston’s former member, Barry Goudreau, was seen with Huckabee along the campaign trail and in an endorsement video, but Scholz didn’t want the band to be linked to the politician. In the letter Scholz wrote, “Boston has never endorsed a political candidate, and with all due respect, would not start by endorsing a candidate who is the polar opposite of most everything Boston stands for.”

Scholz further stated, “By using my song, and my band’s name Boston, you have taken something of mine and used it to promote ideas to which I am opposed. In other words, I think I’ve been ripped off, dude!” Scholz suggested that Huckabee “stick to music recorded by far-right Republicans.”

John Mellencamp vs. John McCain

Around the same time Huckabee was heckled by Tom Scholz, Senator John McCain was waging his own battle with his music selection, except it was with John Mellencamp. Mellencamp voiced his disapproval of McCain using his songs “Our Country” and “Pink Houses” during his rallies and after the complaint was made McCain removed said songs from the political playlist.

Mellencamp, a musician self-described “as left wing as you can get”, was in support of Democrat John Edwards who eventually dropped out of the race. Mellencamp also asked George W. Bush to not play “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”

Foo Fighters vs. John McCain

So John McCain didn’t have the best luck when it came to his music inclusions, and one rocker you really don’t want to overstep is Dave Grohl. In 2008 Grohl openly supported Barack Obama so when McCain opted to use “My Hero” as one of his campaign songs, the band fired back their own heroic words: “It’s frustrating and infuriating that someone who claims to speak for the American people would repeatedly show such little respect for creativity and intellectual property.”

According to Rolling Stone, a spokesman for McCain’s campaign argued that they had received and “paid for licenses from performing rights organizations, giving [them] permission to play millions of different songs, including ‘My Hero.’” Other acts including Abba and Heart were among the lot that refused their songs for McCain’s political use.

MGMT vs. Nicolas Sarkozy

In 2009 MGMT’s track “Kids” was one of those go-to anthems of the year and its accompanying video had monsters freaking out a baby, which is always fun to watch. Sarkozy’s team used the uber catchy track for the UMP (Union for Popular Movement) party during its national congress as well as during a presidential field trip and in online videos, and that didn’t sit well with the lads of MGMT.

After threatening to sue the French president, the UMP stepped back and said it had been used by mistake, offering the band a lofty sum of…one euro. After some back and forth between the band, the band’s lawyer and the Sarkozy team, the UMP party dug a bit deeper and the band ended with a U.S. sum of approximately $39,050, according to Billboard.

The band donated the compensation to an artists’ rights organization and wrote on their Facebook page: “We did not want to be ‘typical Americans’ and sue, despite the amazing monetary benefit and chinchilla coats and Navigators it would bring, instead we are using the settlement fee the UMP presented and donating it to artists’ rights organizations.”

Sam Moore vs. Barack Obama

While Republicans appear to bear the brunt of the ridicule, even Democrats can face some burns. Case in point: current U.S. president Barack Obama. 2008 proved to be a time of musical empowerment, at least when it came to fighting against the use of certain songs in political campaigns. For Barack Obama it was Sam Moore (of R&B duo Sam and Dave), that asked him to rid from playing “Hold On, I’m Comin’” during his public appearances and rallies.

According to Slate, some of the attendees had started to swap Obama’s name into the song, chanting “Hold on, Obama’s comin’.”

Keeping it classy, Moore wrote a letter to Obama speaking about the progress that’s been made in terms of a man of colour running for office and his approval of such. However, he made it clear he wasn’t openly supporting him politically. Moore wrote, “I have not agreed to endorse you for the highest office in our land… My vote is a very private matter between myself and the ballot box.” Soon after Obama’s team removed the song from its music arsenal.

K’Naan vs. Mitt Romney

It was 2012 and the song “Wavin’ Flag” had become somewhat synonymous with peace and inclusion — it was used in commercials, video games and during a victory rally in Florida for presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. After word spread that the song had been used in relation to Romney, K’Naan received a lot of flack for supporting the conservative politician, so K’Naan threatened legal action and took to Twitter to set the record straight.

“I’m for immigrants. I’m for poor people, and they don’t seem to be what he’s endorsing,” he said. Although reps from Romney’s campaign said they were able to play the song since it was legally purchased from ASCAP and BMI, they listened to K’Naan’s views and never played the song again.

Rush vs. Rand Paul

Rand Paul is a Senator, physician and a huge Rush fan. Both the band and Paul are said to be libertarians, but that doesn’t mean they see eye to eye on music matters.

In 2010, after winning the primary election and becoming the Kentucky Senator, Paul played Rush’s song “Spirit of Radio.” Prior to his win Paul also used the song in a fundraising video. Using the song didn’t sit well with Rush and apparently one of Rush’s attorneys (Robert Farmer) asked the Paul team to stop playing Rush’s songs.

The band sent a letter and made multiple attempts to contact the Paul campaign via phone and email, eventually delivering the demand to Paul’s head office. When it came down to it, Rush’s camp explained that it wasn’t about political stance, stating, “Look, we’re Canadians, this is a copyright issue; we don’t want to affect any politics in the United States.”

Paul eventually stopped playing Rush’s music, but years later Rush band member Neil Peart became an American citizen and told Rolling Stone he’d never vote for Paul, explaining Paul “hates women and brown people.” Ouch.

Silversun Pickups vs. Mitt Romney

In 2012 Mitt Romney used the LA band’s track “Panic Switch,” which the band felt was laughable considering there are lyrics like “Are you pistol-whipped?” Nonetheless, the band still sent a cease-and-desist letter for using the single. “We were very close to just letting this go because the irony was too good,” the band noted. They also went on to say, “We doubt that ‘Panic Switch’ really sends the message he intends.”

According to the L.A. Times Romney’s team explained the song was not meant to be played, but even so, it was covered under their song license. Still, Romney adhered to the band’s request and never played “Panic Switch” again.

Neil Young vs. Donald Trump

When news first broke that businessman Donald Trump would be jumping into the presidential race, many thought it was a publicity stint. Nonetheless, Canadian icon Neil Young was not about to let his song “Rockin’ in the Free World” become part of Trump’s music trail. Young’s manager was quick to denounce the authorization of the song, stating, “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President.”

The politician was probably a bit heartbroken since it’s known Donald Trump is a longtime Neil Young fan. He respected the musician’s wishes and stopped playing the song.

Soon after, Bernie Sanders pulled a one-two and the trumped track, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” was used in his rallies and throughout his campaign.

Adele vs. Donald Trump

While Trump bowed down to Neil Young, getting him to stop playing Adele’s songs was more challenging. “Skyfall” and “Rolling in the Deep” were among the songs in contention and although the singer and her camp expressed that “Adele has not given permission for her music to be used for any political campaigning,” Trump still used them in his campaign. In the past couple of months there hasn’t been much mention of Adele’s songs à la Trump, so we can seemingly believe he’s removed her songs from the campaign catalogue.

Other musicians who have spoken out and sent letters for Trump to stop playing their songs include Steven Tyler and R.E.M. with the latter not shying from dropping some f-bombs into a heated statement.

Tags: Music, Lists, Adele, Barack Obama, Boston, Bruce Springsteen, Donald Trump, Foo Fighters, K'naan, mgmt, neil young, Rush, sam and dave, sting






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