Dropkick Murphys Continue Long Tradition Of Musicians Telling Politicians To Stop Using Their Music
This weekend, the Dropkick Murphys (whom, full disclosure, I once ate late night tacos with at a Mighty Taco in Buffalo, NY) continued a long and storied tradition of musicians pulling the rug out from underneath a politician attempting to use their songs for campaign purposes.
On Saturday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker used their song “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” as his theme music during the Iowa Freedom Summit. The band, who strongly supports both workers rights and unions, responded by tweeting this at Walker to voice their displeasure:
— Dropkick Murphys (@DropkickMurphys) January 25, 2015
It’s pretty awesome, and good for them. If I were a musician, I’d be pretty pissed off if a politician who supported things I fundamentally opposed used my music to promote themselves. It’s a really touchy thing. To boot, this is actually a cover of a Woody Guthrie song, which is an especially weird choice for a Republican like Scott Walker. You know, given that Woody Guthrie was, in fact, a socialist and extremely, extremely pro-union.
I would also like to think that if I were a politician, I’d have the decency to not use the music of people fundamentally opposed to things I believed in. For instance, I would probably not use any Ted Nugent or Kid Rock songs. Or Meatloaf. Even though I did do Rocky Horror as a teenager and will gleefully back you up on “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” at karaoke. I would also at least ask first, because that seems like the stand-up thing to do.
Politicians could save themselves a ton of public embarrassment and pain-in-the-ass cease and desist letters by simply having the decency to ask a musician or a band first if they were OK with them using their songs.
One of my all-time favorite examples of this happening is the time it involved Carol Channing. During the 1964 election, the Barry Goldwater campaign started repurposing the then immensely popular song “Hello Dolly” as “Hello Barry” at campaign stops. However — David Merrick, the show’s producer, was an active Democrat, and requested that Goldwater not use the song, and Goldwater agreed not to.
BUT THEN, that gave Lady Bird Johnson’s Press Secretary, Liz Carpenter an idea. You see, Liz Carpenter (who was a super amazing bad ass lady, FYI) was friends with Carol Channing, the star of “Hello Dolly,” going back to the days when her husband, Les Carpenter, had been a theater critic at Variety. Carpenter decided that they should use the song for LBJ instead, so she reworked the lyrics and this happened.
Dead. Carol Channing forever. This performance would later, possibly, be the reason why Carol Channing somehow ended up on Richard Nixon’s list of enemies–a fact which will never stop being funny to me, because can you just imagine how that conversation had to have gone?
Generally speaking, the pols that have had the worst luck with this sort of debacle tend to be Republicans. To be fair, Bill Clinton didn’t ask Fleetwood Mac if he could use “Don’t Stop” as his campaign theme song, but according to Mick Fleetwood, they were honored to have been chosen. Musicians, in general, tend to lean to the left, and are thus less likely to be pissed about a Democratic candidate using one of their songs. The only example I can come up with of a musician issuing a cease and desist order to a Democratic candidate is when Samuel David Moore of “Sam and Dave” issued one to Barack Obama over his use of “Hold On” on the campaign trail. However, this was not because he was opposed to him politically, and in fact, he later played Obama’s inaugural ball with Sting, and my boyfriend Elvis Costello.
One of the most famous examples — possibly because of the Inigo Montoya-ness of it all — is the time Ronald Reagan attempted to use “Born in the U.S.A.” as his campaign theme song. Aside from the fact that Bruce Springsteen was definitely not Team Reagan, the song was definitely not about what the Reagan campaign seemed to think it was about. The message of the song was not so much “WOOHOO! USA! USA! I WAS BORN HERE! GO TEAM!” as it was about Vietnam Veterans not being able to find employment after coming back home and generally having been screwed by having had to serve in that war.
However, no one had less luck in song picking than the McCain/Palin campaign, who were literally stopped at every turn with pretty much every song they tried to use, to the point where it just started getting to be funny. First, I think, McCain tried to use Orleans’ “Still The One” — repeating a mistake Bush II had made a few years earlier. Apparently, the band’s lead singer, John Hall, is an environmental activist who campaigned against nuclear power and was not so hep to his song being used by Republicans.
Then, he tried for John Cougar Mellencamp, which Bush II had also already tried before to no avail. While Georgey went for “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” McCain tried for “Pink Houses” and “Our Country.” Did not work. Mellencamp was a John Edwards supporter though, and allowed him to use those songs at his campaign stops to his heart’s content.
And then there was ABBA. John McCain got a cease and desist letter from ABBA. For using the song “Take a Chance On Me.” Which, really, is a terrible campaign theme song when you think about it. First of all, does not inspire much confidence. Second, just listen to the lyrics. Particularly the line “Cause you know I’ve got so much that I wanna do, when I dream I’m alone with you, it’s maddening!” And then think about John McCain and try not to die laughing.
After that? He tried Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” — which also did not work out well, as Berry was an Obama supporter. He then, ironically, tried to use Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” and was actually successfully sued by Browne, which was the first time such a lawsuit had been successful.
McCain was also asked to stop using “My Hero” by the Foo Fighters and “Right Now” by Van Halen.
His running mate, Sarah Palin, whose high school basketball nickname was apparently “Sarah Barracuda,” tried to use the Heart song “Barracuda” as her own theme music, and was immediately shot down by the band, who issued a statement saying “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.”
A less well known example is the time former Florida Governor Charlie Crist (who has, for the record, switched parties and is now a Democrat) used The Talking Heads’ song “Road To Nowhere” in a campaign video while running for Senate. After being sued by David Byrne, the Governor agreed to a settlement, part of which required that he issue a public apology to Byrne on YouTube for having used the song. It is maybe one of the most awkward things you will ever see.
Michele Bachmann has gotten in trouble twice for using songs without permission. The first was “American Girl” by Tom Petty, which he had allowed Hillary Clinton to use. I am going to go on record as saying that this is a poor campaign song choice for anyone, due to the fact that it will never not remind me of that one creepy scene from “Silence of the Lambs.”
Bachmann later tried to use “Walkin’ On Sunshine,” and was summarily reprimanded by Katrina and The Waves. This choice, however, clearly does appeal to what I imagine would be the Bachmann demographic.
Although not an instance of using songs for campaigning purposes, I feel as though I would be remiss in not including the time Paul Ryan said that his favorite band was Rage Against The Machine, and then Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine wrote an entire editorial in Rolling Stone titled “Paul Ryan Is the Embodiment of the Machine Our Music Rages Against.” Because holy crap, that will never, ever stop being funny.
The lesson here, though, is simple — ask permission. Sure, it’s possible that — as in the case of Fleetwood Mac — the band might be excited to have you use their music, but it’s unlikely that this will always be the case, and you can probably save yourself from some serious public shaming if you just do the decent thing and ask first.