10 Unauthorized Political Campaign Songs

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Now that presidential primary season is here, it’s hard to escape politics, no matter how frustrating or tiresome it gets. So we might as well embrace it. Not that we’re endorsing a candidate or diving into punditry or analysis of the issues (we’ll save that for the family reunion after a few beers). But it’s hard not to be intrigued by the ongoing and seemingly never-ending drama of political candidates using artists’ music without permission for campaign purposes. It happens all the time, and it’s happened over and over again, and apparently nobody ever learns their lesson. (At least one of the case studies we’re examining here happened more than 30 years ago.) Politics is a dirty business, and that sometimes means copyright infringement, lawsuits, and shit talking on Twitter, as the case may be in recent times. So while the caravan of candidates pitch their platform to South Carolinians this week, we take a look at 10 unauthorized political campaign songs.

unauthorized political campaign songs HeartHeart – “Barracuda”
from Little Queen (1977; Portrait)

Ann & Nancy Wilson’s most thrusting rocker was abducted by Sarah Palin, who was added to John McCain’s presidential ticket in 2008. Palin’s jumbled, beclouded tough talk and pull-up-your-bootstraps-and-kick-a-puppy demeanor landed her the nickname “Barracuda,” so at first glance the match seemed appropriate. The Wilson Sisters demurred and asked the McCain campaign to stop using the song. Claiming that they had a “blanket” ASCAP license, McCain/Palin instead used it as the theme to their acceptance of the nomination at the Republican convention. Nancy Wilson told Entertainment Weekly that she felt “completely fucked over,” and the Wilsons issued an explanatory statement: “Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women… The song ‘Barracuda’ was written in the late ’70s as a scathing rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, particularly for women.” Palin’s followers still refer to themselves as “the Barracuda Brigade.” Other people call them something else. – PP

Rush Moving Pictures unauthorized political campaign songsRush – “Tom Sawyer”
from Moving Pictures (1981; Mercury)

It’s no secret that Kentucky senator and GOP presidential candidate hopeful Rand Paul loves Rush, but the feeling is apparently not mutual. The prog-rock trio were quick to send their laywers Paul’s way when their 1981 classic “Tom Sawyer” was used as entry music by Rush on his senatorial campaign trail. My first instinct was to think the trio (and especially drummer/lyricist Neil Peart) had come a long way since their earlier work, often based on Ayn Rand whose own beliefs had a scary amount in common with Paul’s view. But, according to the band, the motivator here was copyright infringement, and they would have responded in same to any candidate using their music. Guess some things never change. (Drum solo) – ATB

unauthorized political campaign songs SurvivorSurvivor – “Eye of the Tiger”
from Eye of the Tiger (1982; Scotti Brothers)

It’s easy to imagine why Survivor’s 1982 hit “Eye of the Tiger” has been co-opted by politicians. It’s catchy, it’s well-known, it’s about winning, and multiple decaying old Republicans have used it hoping to seem hip. This backfired tremendously for Newt Gingrich, who played the song at campaign events in 2012, and was subsequently sued by Survivor guitarist Frankie Sullivan. Incapable of learning from others’ mistakes, presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee then played the song at a 2015 rally celebrating noted homophobe Kim Davis’ release from prison. Huckabee called the lawsuit “vindictive and almost unbelievable,” and we learned two things: Frankie Sullivan supports gay marriage, and Republican politicians are tragic. – GH

Bruce Springsteen Born in the USABruce Springsteen – “Born in the USA”
from Born in the USA (1984; Columbia)

In all of campaign-songs-used-without-permission lore, no use of a rock song has been so egregious as that of Ronald Reagan and “Born in the U.S.A.” during his 1984 re-election campaign. The song, about a disaffected Vietnam vet (and some of his dead brothers in arms), wasn’t quite the patriotic anthem that it was being misrepresented as, and Springsteen didn’t take so kindly to it. During a 1984 concert, he responded by offering a much less cheery but no less politically charged song from his repertoire. Introducing “Johnny 99,” a song about an unemployed auto worker driven to desperation and murder, he said:  “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” As fuck-yous go, that’s an eloquent one. – JT

Little CreaturesTalking Heads – “Road to Nowhere”
from Little Creatures (1985; Sire)

Let’s just talk about how weird it is that a political candidate would use Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” in a political campaign—the implications are pretty dire. In this case, former Flordia Gov. Charlie Crist used it in an attack ad against his Republican primary opponent Marco Rubio in the 2012 Senate race (which makes a little more sense, but still). And no, Crist didn’t get permission from songwriter David Byrne to use the song. Byrne fired back with a $1 million lawsuit, which is one hell of a slap on the wrist, even if you’re used to schmoozing with billionaires for campaign fundraising. Byrne said of the ad, “in my opinion the damage had already been done by it being out there. People that I knew had seen (the ad), so it had gotten around.” Crist’s Senate campaign subsequently found itself on that very same road. – JT

best R.E.M. songs DocumentR.E.M. – “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
from Document (1987; IRS)

Left-leaning rock musicians frequently have to fight back against the Republican political machine for the unauthorized use of their songs on the campaign trail, but few have had as colorful and vitriolic a response as Mr. Michael Stipe, of R.E.M. fame. After the Donald walked onstage this past September to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” at a rally opposing the U.S.’s nuclear deal with Iran, guitarist Mike Mills relayed Stipe’s gripe via his personal Twitter account, saying: “Go f — yourselves, the lot of you — you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.” The band’s official statement did more than just discourage the use of their 1987 hit at the rally, though, in essence saying that the American voter shouldn’t allow such kerfuffles to act as a smokescreen, and instead “focus on the bigger picture.” – ASB

unauthorized political campaign songs Neil YoungNeil Young – “Rockin’ in the Free World”
from Freedom (1989; Reprise)

Like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” Neil Young’s 1989 anthem is a scathing critique of the American aristocracy’s treatment of the working class that no campaign manager bothers vetting beyond its rousing chorus. But that didn’t stop Donald Trump, much the same way that nothing stops Trump, from using it as his musical backdrop when he descended an escalator into his presidential campaign last year. This did not sit well with Young, and a statement released on his behalf furthermore stated that “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America.” Trump scored a minor jab back by calling Young a “hypocrite,” circulating a photo of them together when Young was raising capital for his in-limbo high-end music player Pono. Sad! The way Trump rallies are seemingly devolving into dress rehearsals for White Power dumbfests, maybe Young should let him use “Southern Man.” – PP

colour-shapeFoo Fighters – “My Hero”
from The Colour and the Shape (1997; RCA/Roswell)

Dave Grohl has yet to run for president, but he’s arguably got more of a following than many candidates do in many circles. So it’s no surprise that a backlash erupted when John McCain used Foo Fighters’ 1997 hit “My Hero” as the official theme music for his 2008 campaign for president. If that song seems like an odd pairing, it’s probably because it wasn’t McCain’s first choice, only being used after Heart, Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp asked the candidate to stop using their music. “The saddest thing about this is that My Hero was written as a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential,” read an official statement by the Foos “To have it appropriated without our knowledge and used in a manner that perverts the original sentiment of the lyric just tarnishes the song. We hope that the McCain campaign will do the right thing and stop using our song—and start asking artists’ permission in general.” I personally think Nirvana’s “School” (“No recess!”) might have been a better fit, but I guess Grohl wasn’t technically on that track. – ATB

Old 97s - Too Far To CareOld 97s – “Time Bomb”
from Too Far To Care (1997; Elektra)

The story of this one slipped a bit under the radar, most likely because the Old 97s never had the same kind of name recognition as Rush or Foo Fighters, but it happened all the same. Back when George W. Bush ran for presidential office, he used “Time Bomb”—a song by a Texas band, not coincidentally—at his campaign rallies. They objected on several grounds, the most important being that they didn’t actually endorse Bush. But as frontman Rhett Miller said that he didn’t really understand why Bush even wanted to use the song in the first place, since it’s about getting involved with an underage girl. Not that understanding the lyrics of a song is all that important when you’ve got aircraft carriers to parachute onto.  – JT

adeleAdele – “Rolling in the Deep”
from 21 (2011; XL)

Donald Trump’s unauthorized use of pop megastar Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” is just plain baffling. Sure, very few artists want the real estate mogul to use their music as a backdrop for his campaign events—that’s understood. But how does the Brit’s chart-topping breakup song have anything to do with Trump’s message? Unless, of course, “You could have had it all” really just means you could have had an idiotic, sexist, xenophobic hellscape where we’re constantly at war. We do wish we had never met you. – ASB


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