Rock ‘n’ roll and politics often make strange bedfellows – especially on the campaign trail, when candidates will occasionally play songs at their political rallies, only to learn that the creators of those songs do not share their political views.
It’s happened time and time again. In fact, it occurred four times just this week, with Queen, the O'Jays, the Turtles, and Earth, Wind & Fire all coming forward with complaints that their music was played at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
It seems that politicians never learn. And with election season now kicking into high gear, this is probably not that last time that this will happen. History will keep repeating itself. With that in mind, here’s a look at some other notable times when political figures’ use of rock songs resulted in controversy.
Mike Huckabee - Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”
Last year, former Republican presidential candidate Huckabee used Survivor’s Rocky III anthem to welcome anti-gay-marriage Kentucky country clerk Kim Davis out of jail (after she was ordered there for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses). Survivor’s Frankie Sullivan was none too pleased. Sullivan sued Huckabee for copyright infringement, and according to CNN, Huckabee, who had not paid for the rights to play the song. later agreed to a confidential, out-of-court settlement to pay $25,000 for the usage.
Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Sarah Palin - R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”
Just a couple days after the 2015 Huckabee/Davis rally, this trio joined forces in a rally to protest President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, and they used )” as their walkout music. Singer Michael Stipe did not feel fine about this – and he issued a particularly pointed statement.
Donald Trump - Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”
You’d think Trump would have avoided the “End of the World” situation by learning from his earlier mistake, but it often seems like the Donald doesn’t care about anyone but himself.
Back in June 2015, when he announced his presidential campaign, Trump chose to use Young’s famous 1989 track. Young is Canadian, but that doesn’t mean he’s not familiar with and active in American politics. Through a record company spokesman, a disgruntled Young responded: “Donald Trump was not authorized to use 'Rockin’ in the Free World’ in his presidential candidacy announcement. Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America.” Trump’s campaign maintained it had gone through the proper channels and paid performing rights organizations for use of the song.
This year, in an interview with Reuters, it seemed that Young, a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter, was totally fine with Trump using the song. However, Young later clarified via an expletive-laced open letter on Facebook that even though Trump may have used the song legally, that doesn’t mean Young was happy about it.
Newt Gingrich - Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”
The Kim Davis incident was not the first time that the rockin’ Rocky theme has been appropriated by a Republican candidate. Back in 2012, then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich used the song at his campaign rallies, but apparently forgot to ask permission. The above-mentioned Sullivan, a co-writer on the song, sued, alleging the Gingrich had been using the song for three years prior. “I’m sure many of you have heard the news about the request for Newt Gingrich to stop using 'Eye of the Tiger’ as his campaign song,” he wrote on Survivor’s Facebook page. “It is not for political reasons, it is strictly an artist protecting their copyright.”
Michele Bachmann - Tom Petty’s “American Girl”
Back when the Minnesota congresswoman was campaigning for president in 2011, she used this 1977 rock anthem as her walkout music. Apparently, Bachman – who also confused legendary actor John Wayne with serial killer/clown fan John Wayne Gacy – wasn’t the type of “American Girl” Petty had in mind, so he fired of a cease-and-desist letter to stop her from using it.
George W. Bush - Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”
In 2000, during his first campaign for president, George W. Bush tried to get tough with his use of this 1989 rocker. Petty wouldn’t back down, either, and had his music publisher draft a letter to the future president. “It has recently come to our attention that your presidential campaign has been using the above-referenced song in connection with your presidential bid,” Wixen Music Publishing president Randall Wixen wrote. “Please be advised that this use has not been approved… Any use made by you or your campaign creates, either intentionally or unintentionally, the impression that you and your campaign have been endorsed by Tom Petty, which is not true.”
George W. Bush - Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These”
When W was running for re-election in 2004, he tried to turn on crowds with the use of the Foo Fighters’ hit. Dave Grohl did not approve this message. “I was personally offended that George Bush was using 'Times Like These,’” Grohl said. “I know what I’m singing about and it basically mirrored what John Kerry’s campaign was trying to represent.”
John McCain - Foo Fighters’ “My Hero”
Foo Fighters may be popular with Republicans, but apparently they are unaware that Grohl prefers the Dems. In 2008, Grohl was once again dismayed to hear one of his songs used on the campaign trail, this time by Republican presidential nominee McCain. “The saddest thing about this is that 'My Hero’ was written as a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential,” the band said in a statement. “To have it appropriated without our knowledge and used in a manner that perverts the original sentiment of the lyric just tarnishes the song.”
The McCain campaign countered that they had gone through the proper channels and had paid performing rights organizations for the use of the song.
John McCain - Heart’s “Barracuda”
McCain also ran afoul of the Wilson sisters when he used this '70s classic in reference to his running mate, Sarah Palin. Heart was outraged and issued a statement that said: “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.”
John McCain, the Republican Party - Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty”
This beef once again involved McCain, but Browne didn’t stop there. He took on the whole Republican National Committee and the Ohio Republican Party in a lawsuit over their use of his 1978 hit in a 2008 Internet ad mocking then-candidate Barack Obama’s policies on energy. After McCain lost the election, the suit was settled out of court. “This settlement is really a great affirmation of what I believed my rights to be, and all writers’ rights to be,” Browne said in an interview with the Associated Press. “One would hope that a presidential candidate would not only know the law but respect it. It was a matter of bringing that issue to bear.”
John McCain - John Mellencamp’s “Our Country”
McCain is such a repeat offender! Also in 2008, he used this 2007 song while campaigning, much to the displeasure of Mellencamp, who had thrown his support behind Democrat John Edwards at the time. “If you’re such a true conservative, why are you playing songs that have a very populist pro-labor message written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterized him as left of center?” a Mellencamp representative asked at the time. It was enough to make McCain stop using the song.
Ronald Reagan - Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
This is perhaps the granddaddy of all such incidents. During a 1984 campaign stop in New Jersey, Reagan not only played “Born in the U.S.A.,” but he mentioned the Boss in his speech – in Springsteen’s home state! “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,” Reagan said. “And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
Twenty-one years later, Springsteen reflected on the situation in an interview with National Public Radio. “This was when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American, and if you were on the other side, you were somehow unpatriotic. I make American music, and I write about the place I live and who I am in my lifetime. Those are the things I’m going to struggle for and fight for.”