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Politicians vs. Musicians: A Brief History

Michael Buckner, Getty Images

We recently reported that the Dropkick Murphys have taken Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to the woodshed for coming on stage to the band’s rendition of the Woody Guthrie classic, ‘I’m Shipping off to Boston.’ Billboard author Stacey Anderson writes, “Walker was on hand [at the Iowa Freedom Summit] to discuss conservative reforms he’s enacted in his state, which include limiting collective bargaining powers of public workers and eliminating state funding for Planned Parenthood.”

The key phrase here is “limiting collective bargaining powers,” as both Guthrie was — and the Dropkick Murphys are — decidedly pro-union. The latter band took to Twitter to state their displeasure with the conservative Republican governor:

Woody Guthrie, now in his fifth decade of being deceased, had no comment at press time.

Boston’s favorite punk rockers are not the first to have their music co-opted by a politician whose ideology conflicts with theirs; in fact, this isn’t even the first time that this has happened to the Dropkick Murphys. Back in 2012 a Republican candidate for senate used the same song, prompting the band to state that “using a Dropkick Murphys song as an intro is like a white supremacist coming out to gangsta rap.”

Music and politics have gone together like peanut butter and chocolate forever. Rage Against the Machine without politics would have been “Rage Against the,” after all, and the the Clash would have been “The Everything Is Fine.” But when conservative politicians (and these controversies overwhelmingly involve conservatives) grab a popular song for their own purposes, the two go together like chalk and cheese.

It all began 30 years ago, when working class hero Bruce Springsteen‘s tale of a disillusioned Vietnam veteran was the biggest song in the country. This was 1984, which was also an election year, and Republican icon Ronald Reagan was running for his second presidential term. The Reagan campaign, perhaps because of the flag on the cover of the Boss’s album or the song’s title, decided to toss Springsteen into the Reagan camp, adding the following to a campaign speech:

America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.

And so ‘Born In the USA’ became the first in a long line of songs taken totally out of context, and Reagan became the first politician to get the smack down from a rock star for misusing a song.

The ’90s were a peaceful time for candidates and rock stars. Bill Clinton used Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’ as a campaign song in 1992, and the band even reunited to play at his inauguration in 1993:

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When we hit the millennium, the politician/musician cold war escalated quickly. George W. Bush (motto: “If you got a problem, yo we’ll bomb it”) thought Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ was the perfect accompaniment on the campaign trail. Petty responded with a cease and desist order — and Bush backed down. Time reports:

John Mellencamp and Sting also asked Bush to stop using their songs without permission, although Petty was the only one to threaten legal action. And if his political preference wasn’t clear enough, he went on to perform the song in a private concert at Gore’s home the night the Vice President gave his concession speech. Tipper Gore played drums.

In 2011 Petty may have experienced a little deja vu when he was forced to send a cease and desist to Michele Bachmann for using ‘American Girl.’

Like Bush, John McCain was a repeat offender. The same Time article notes that Boston, Van Halen, John Mellencamp and Jackson Browne all asked the McCain/Palin campaign to stop using their songs. So did the Foo Fighters, who weren’t at all amused by McCain’s use of ‘My Hero.’ The Guardian quoted the band’s statement on the controversy:

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….This isn’t the first time the McCain campaign has used a song without making any attempt to get approval or permission from the artist [….]

To have [‘My Hero’] 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.”

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That wasn’t even the biggest musical controversy from the McCain campaign, whose running mate decided Heart’s ‘Barracuda’ suited her to a tee. The Wilson sisters asked the Palin camp to stop using their song but their request was ignored, prompting the pair to tell Entertainment Weekly:

Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song ‘Barracuda’ no longer be used to promote her image. 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. (The ‘barracuda’ represented the business.) While Heart did not and would not authorize the use of their song at the RNC, there’s irony in Republican strategists’ choice to make use of it there.

(While the phenomenon skews Republican, don’t think the Democrats are off the hook. Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame sent candidate Barack Obama a cease and desist letter during the 2008 campaign for using ‘Hold On! I’m Coming’ without permission.)

So the Dropkick Murphys find themselves in some pretty good company. Hold onto your headphones, people — the 2016 campaign is bound to be a wild ride.

Next: Six Music Podcasts You Have to Listen to in 2015

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