Hive Five: Contentious Campaign Songs

Tom Petty performs in New York City, July 2010. Photo: Joe Kohen/WireImage

According to reports, Tom Petty is preparing to serve Republican presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann with a cease-and-desist letter following her use of “American Girl” at Monday’s campaign kickoff. It’s not the first time Petty has objected to politicians hijacking his music; in 2000, the incorruptible rocker asked George W. Bush to stop playing “I Won’t Back Down” at his rallies.

Petty’s lawyers and publishing company clearly have his back, but not all musicians are so lucky. When Ronald Reagan wrong-headedly co-opted “Born in the USA,” Bruce Springsteen’s plaintive 1984 farewell to the American dream, the Boss could do little more than complain. Artists can generally only sue when their songs show up in commercials, or if campaigns alter the words, as would-be California senator Chuck DeVore did in 2010 when he tried to play Weird Al with a couple of Don Henley hits. DeVore lost his court case against the former Eagle, on the grounds that his jokey jingles amounted to satire, not parody.

In a cultural and technological climate where copyright rules shall not be broken under any case, politicians find themselves in hot water now more than ever for co-opting tunes for their own messaging. Here’s five recent contentious battles waged in both winning and losing campaigns.

1. Rush vs. Rand Paul

Evidently, libertarians value low taxes, personal freedoms and the badass drumming of Neil Peart. In 2010, while campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Kentucky Tea Partier Rand Paul sought to energize his base by blasting Rush’s “The Spirit of the Radio.” Although the Canadian prog rockers are said to have Libertarian leanings, they had their lawyers step in and block Paul from using the track, claiming it was merely a copyright issue.

2. Heart vs. Sarah Palin

In high school, Sarah Palin earned the nickname “Sarah Barracuda,” a testament, one hopes, to her ferocity on the Wasilla High basketball squad. While that explains Palin’s use of “Barracuda” during her 2008 vice-presidential bid, Heart founders Anne and Nancy Wilson weren’t amused. In addition to telling the McCain/Palin campaign to lay off the song, they issued a statement accusing the RNC of missing the anti-corporate message in the lyrics.

3. Sam Moore vs. Barack Obama

Although he reportedly found it “thrilling” that a black man was running for president, Sam Moore, one-half of the great ‘60s soul duo Sam & Dave, wasn’t prepared to let Barack Obama use “Hold On, I’m Coming” during 2008 campaign appearances. At least Obama didn’t bastardize the group’s lyrics, like a certain Republican candidate did in 1996 with “Dole Man.”

4. Jackson Browne vs. John McCain

John McCain admitted in 2008 that he hadn’t yet learned to use the Internet, but surely someone on his staff knew how to use Google, right? Apparently not, otherwise the candidate’s handlers might have done a quick search on Jackson Browne, an avowed liberal, and opted against using “Running on Empty” in a Web spot. The RNC wound up losing in court, promising to be more careful about using songs with proper permission in the future. As the next entry on our list makes clear, they kept that pledge about two years.

5. David Byrne vs. Charlie Crist

During his failed senatorial campaign, former Florida governor Charlie Crist used the Talking Heads classic “Road to Nowhere” in an ad criticizing challenger Mark Rubio. Heads frontman David Byrne launched a successful court case, and as part of the settlement, Crist had to film a YouTube video apologizing for the infraction. Talk about a virtual scarlet letter.

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