A Brief History of the Political Misuse of Pop Songs

Why do candidates keep using music without permission, and what can artists do to stop them?

When Kim Davis was released from jail this week, she was met by throngs of rapturous supporters, all celebrating the anti-gay county clerk’s refusal to comply with a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as her job mandated. Flanked by her attorney, Mat Staver, and GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, Davis stood before the assembled crowd as Survivor’s iconic ‘80s anthem “Eye of the Tiger” blasted in the background.

As it turns out, however, all is not well in Kim Davis-land. No, not the because she has been ordered not to interfere while her staff provides the very marriage licenses she herself rejected. No, not because crowdfunding site GoFundMe has rejected any attempt by supporters to raise money on her behalf. No, not even because that she had, unbeknownst to her at the time, provided a marriage license for a transgender man and his wife. In fact, Kim Davis’s camp finds itself in hot water for their choice of rally music.

Upon hearing their song had been used by Davis and Huckabee, Survivor themselves posted the following on their Facebook page:

NO! We did not grant Kim Davis any rights to use "My Tune -The Eye Of The Tiger." I would not grant her the rights...

Posted by Survivor Music (Official FB Page) on Tuesday, September 8, 2015\n


This is not the first time Survivor has had to put the kibosh on politicians using their song, either. In 2012 the band got judicious with then-Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich for using “Eye of the Tiger” as entrance music during his rallies.

Survivor’s objections are part of a long history of musicians lashing out against politicians who use songs without asking permission. In fact, mere hours after the Davis event, it was Donald Trump’s turn to face the music–specifically, R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which played the presidential hopeful to the podium as he addressed a Tea Party rally. Upon learning about the song’s use, R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe issued a statement through founding band member Mike Mills’ twitter account:

The band also posted a slightly less bombastic message on their Facebook page, writing:

"While we do not authorize or condone the use of our music at this political event, and do ask that these candidates cease and desist from doing so, let us remember that there are things of greater importance at stake here. The media and the American voter should focus on the bigger picture, and not allow grandstanding politicians to distract us from the pressing issues of the day and of the current Presidential campaign.”


The Daily Beast points out that this is far from the first time R.E.M. has objected to their music being used in a political context. In 2012 the band’s music publisher issued a cease and desist order to Fox News after the station used their “Losing My Religion” during coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

Perhaps the most famous instance of an artist rejecting the political appropriation of their music came in 1984, when Ronald Reagan begun name dropping Bruce Springsteen, whose “Born in the U.S.A.” had been released that year. The album’s eponymous single was not, however, the patriotic rah-rah anthem Reagan perhaps thought it was and instead dealt with the frustrations and hardships faced by military veterans returning home from Vietnam.

Upon learning that he’d been pulled into presidential politics, Springsteen began speaking out against Reagan’s policies, and went so far as to dedicate a performance of the song to a local union during a stop on his ongoing tour. It was, many critics contend, a definitive moment for The Boss, which saw him begin to make the transition from rock star to activist. Years later, with his working class liberal politics affixed firmly on his sleeve, Springsteen would clash with another political force, this time from his home state of New Jersey, by infamously snubbing Republican Governor Chris Christie, a fanatical Boss-lover who used to pepper Springsteen message boards with praise for the rocker.

Another GOP Governor, Florida’s Charlie Crist, wasn’t so much snubbed by a musician idol, as he was forced to publicly apologize following a lawsuit stemming from his use David Byrn’s “Road to Nowhere” in an ad attacking now-Senator Marco Rubio, as the two politicians competed in the 2010 Florida primaries.

Despite objections from musicians toward politicians using their work, sometimes artists and candidates are able to find common ground. This was the case of Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snyder, who publicly rebuked 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan for using the 80’s glam metal anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It” on the campaign trail.

Wrote Snyder at the time: “I emphatically denounce Paul Ryan's use of my song 'We're Not Gonna Take It' as recorded by my band Twisted Sister. There is almost nothing on which I agree with Paul Ryan,” before adding “except perhaps the use of the P90X [Workout program]”

Ryan, as it turns out, had also provoked the ire of rap-rockers Rage Against The Machine, after members of the band learned the Wisconsin congressman had gone on the record praising the group. In a scathing op-ed for Rolling Stone, guitarist Tom Morello called Ryan the “embodiment of the machine the our music has been raging against” and wondered which of the band’s progressive-minded songs was the congressman’s favorite.

That same election, Ryan’s running mate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, was blasted by rapper K’Naan for using the song “Waving Flag” during his victory speech after winning the Florida primary. In a statement to MTV, K’Naan explained: “I have not been asked for permission by Mitt Romney’s campaign for the use of my song. If I had been asked, I would certainly not have granted it. I would happily grant the Obama campaign use of my song without prejudice.”

While it’s certainly embarrassing for a campaign or politician to be dinged by an artist for misuse of a song, the practice doesn’t seem to show any sign of stopping. It’s conceivable that the political calculus simply favors the benefits of motivating a crowd with the right soundtrack over the cost of an after-the-fact statement (or brutally blunt tweet), from an artist. Political misuse of music is so widespread, in fact, that the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers—the group tasked with protecting artists’ copyrights—has an entire fact sheet for musicians to learn more about their rights in these situations.

As the 2016 election season begins to heat up in earnest, expect more and more musicians to keep an open ear during the next fourteen months of political rallies, speeches, and fundraising events, not because they necessarily want to hear what a candidate might have to say, but because they have a personal interest in what’s playing behind them while they say it.

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