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Pop Stars and Politicians: A Brief History of Politicizing Popular Music

It’s a familiar sight: the stadium house lights dim as thousands of rabid fans erupt in cheers and shouts, their gazes centered on the stage. Popular anthems such as Twisted Sister’s “We're Not Gonna Take It,” or Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” blast through the venue’s speakers as the main act takes the stage.  However, instead of artists such as Bruce Springsteen or U2 emerging from behind the curtain, presidential hopefuls like Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump take the stage to the beat of a song that they may or may not own the rights to use. Often, artists express disapproval over the use of their music by politicians whom they do not support. More recently, Twitter has served as the main platform for such criticism but even before this, high profile artists found other means to draw attention to their objection of politicians using their music, starting in the early 1980s.

Bruce Springsteen and Ronald Reagan: “Born in the USA”

During the 1984 presidential election between incumbent President Ronald Reagan and challenger Walter Mondale, Reagan’s election committee sought to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” at various political rallies and speeches. On the surface, “Born in the USA” seems like a positive, patriotic anthem, but the underlying message actually criticizes American involvement in the Vietnam War. Springsteen, a long time liberal who performed at the 1979 “No-Nukes” concert in Madison Square Garden, denied the committee’s request to use his songs at campaign sponsored events. The New Jersey rock star garnered media attention by criticizing the president’s policies during a concert in Pittsburgh. Media personalities such as Johnny Carson even covered the controversy on The Tonight Show.

Isaac Hayes and Bob Dole: “Soul Man” / “I’m a Dole Man”

The misuse of the 1967 funk/soul classic “Soul Man” is one of the first major incidents in which a musical artist pursued legal action against a politician’s use of copyrighted material. Specifically, during the 1996 presidential election between incumbent President Bill Clinton and Republican Senator Bob Dole, Dole authorized a parody of Hayes’ work, entitled, “I’m a Dole Man.” The song was written in support of the Dole campaign and contained lyrics criticizing the Clinton presidency, as well as praising Dole’s political career. However, the parody was never authorized by the copyright holder, Rondor Music Incorporated. Isaac Hayes, the original writer of the song, did not support Dole's presidential aspirations. With this, Rondor sent the Dole campaign a cease-and-desist letter to prevent further usage of their copyrighted material. After additional warnings about potential lawsuits, the Dole Campaign succumbed and stopped using the parody at political rallies.

The 2008 election: Multiple artists 

The 2008 presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain stands out for its multiple music usage controversies, as both candidates received criticism from various artists. In particular, the McCain and Palin campaigns garnered scrutiny from high profile artists such as the Foo Fighters and Van Halen. Swedish superstar group Abba sent the McCain campaign a cease-and-desist letter for their unauthorized use of the songs “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me.” Also, McCain’s running mate, former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, used Heart’s “Barracuda” at several campaign events, prompting the female-fronted rock group to send a cease-and-desist letter. They also commented that Palin’s politics were not representative of American women. In addition, even President Obama was asked by Liberal Soul singer Sam Moore to stop using the hit single, "Hold On, I'm Comin'” during political rallies.

Dropkick Murphys and Governor Scott Walker: “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”

Boston College Superfans are more than used to hearing this New England anthem blasting through Alumni Stadium or Conte Forum, but the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston native group, objected to their song’s usage by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The Dropkick Murphys, who come from working class Boston families, objected to Walker’s policies of restricting union’s collective bargaining rights. After Walker used the song during a speech in Iowa, the group took to Twitter to express their disapproval.

Here is the full quote for reference: “@ScottWalker @GovWalker please stop using our music in any way...we literally hate you !!! Love, Dropkick Murphys”

Neil Young/R.E.M. and Donald Trump: “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “It’s the End of the World”

Donald Trump would like to think that he’s rocking the free world (and polls) with his ubiquitous Make America Great Again slogan, but with Bernie Sanders surging in the polls, it seems evident that Trump will not be rocking anything, anytime soon. Canadian Singer Neil Young criticized the Trump campaign’s use of his song “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which is critical of the social and economic policies of former President George H. Bush. With this song containing anti-war lyrics such as “That's one more kid that’ll never go to school / Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool," Young’s liberal political views quite distinctly oppose those of Trump’s. After the media exposure, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders began using the song at his political events without objection from Young. Similarly, American rock band R.E.M. also criticized Donald Trump’s use of their hit song “It’s the End of the World.” Taking to Twitter, the liberal group’s singer Michael Stipe tweeted to Trump: “Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.”

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