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Stop Using My Song: 35 Artists Who Fought Politicians Over Their Music

From Springsteen vs. Reagan to Neil Young vs. the Donald

In 1932, FDR became the first presidential candidate to use a pre-existing popular tune for a campaign when he embraced "Happy Days Are Here Again" for his White House bid. It was a move that set future politicians on a collision course with the artists whose songs they adopted.

The first major collision took place in 1984, when Bruce Springsteen objected to President Ronald Reagan's plans to use "Born in the U.S.A." during his reelection run. But it was hardly the last. Springsteen ushered in a new dimension to the campaign-song hit parade: the practice of speaking out against, and sometimes suing, mostly Republican politicians who appropriated tunes without the musicians' endorsement. 

"I don't think it has anything to do with money. It has to do with the political viewpoint of the artist or songwriter or publisher," Chuck Rubin, founder of Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation, tells Rolling Stone. "But they do have the right to either say yea or nay." The fact that politicians feel compelled to link themselves to particular songs, he adds, "just goes to show how powerful music can be."

The issue of who gets to decide how that power is used, politically, flares up every campaign season, it seems – most recently when Neil Young took Donald Trump to task over the latter playing "Rockin' in the Free World" at the kickoff event for his presidential bid. "I do not trust politicians. . . I trust people," the rocker stated on Facebook, expressing the shared sentiments of many of his fellow musicians. "So I make my music for people, not for candidates." 

Here, to make battles past, present and future just a little less confusing, is a history of artists taking a stand against politicians using their songs.

Abba, John McCain

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Abba vs. John McCain

When: 2008
Song: "Take a Chance on Me"
Controversy: The Swedish pop group did not take a chance on McCain. Though the Republican is a noted Abba fan – his favorite song is "Dancing Queen" – the band sent his campaign a cease-and-desist letter for playing its hit at events. "We played it a couple times and it's my understanding [Abba] went berserk," said McCain.
Result: No word on whether McCain told the band, "If you change your mind, I'm the first in line." In any case, the campaign stopped playing the song.

Bon Jovi, Sarah Palin

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Bon Jovi vs. Sarah Palin

When: 2008
Song: "Who Says You Can't Go Home"
Controversy: After the song was played at several Palin rallies, Jon Bon Jovi – who has thrown a $30,800 per plate dinner for Obama at his home – complained in a statement. "We wrote this song as a thank you to those who have supported us over the past twenty-five years," he wrote. "The song has since become a banner for our home state of New Jersey and the de facto theme song for our partnerships around the country to build homes and rebuild communities. Although we were not asked, we do not approve of their use of 'Home.'"
Result: No legal action was taken, and the McCain campaign pointed out that venues pay blanket licenses, entitling many songs by a variety of artists to be played at public events.

MGMT, Nicolas Sarkozy

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MGMT vs. Nicolas Sarkozy

When: 2009
Song: "Kids"
Controversy: The indie band's song was everywhere in 2009 – including two online videos for the French president's UMP (Union for Popular Movement) party. The American psychedelic rockers threatened to sue, and the UMP said it had used the song by mistake and offered a token one euro in compensation. The band's French lawyer, Isabelle Wekstein, rejected the offer as "insulting." Ironically, at the time, Sarkozy was pushing a bill to crack down on Internet piracy.
Result: The UMP party settled for around 29,000 more euros than originally offered (a U.S. sum of $39,050), which MGMT donated to an artists' rights organization. Meanwhile, the Internet piracy bill, known as the "three strikes law," was rejected twice before finally passing in September 2009.

Joe Walsh

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Joe Walsh vs. Joe Walsh

When: 2010
Song: "Walk Away"
Controversy: One Joe Walsh is a guitarist for the Eagles; the other Joe Walsh is an Illinois congressman. A lawyer for Eagles Joe Walsh sent politician Joe Walsh a cease-and-desist letter for making a commercial in which another Joe – Joe Cantafio of the band 101st Rock Division – sings a version of the James Gang number "Walk Away" rewritten as "Lead Away." The letter was the epitome of snark, admonishing, "Now, I know why you used Joe's music – it's undoubtedly because it's a lot better than any music you or your staff could have written. But that's the point. Since Joe writes better songs than you do, the Copyright Act rewards him by letting him decide who gets to use the songs he writes."
Result: The congressman responded with a letter stating that the song was performed as a parody and thus constituted fair use under copyright law. He also mused, "I hope the Democratic National Committee and Nancy Pelosi didn't put you up to this."

Rush, Rand Paul

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Rush vs. Rand Paul

When: 2010
Songs: "The Spirit of Radio," "Tom Sawyer"
Controversy: Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is both a libertarian and an ardent Rush fan – he's quoted their lyrics in speeches and played their songs at a victory rally and in a campaign video. The prog rockers were known libertarians too – they praised Ayn Rand in the liner notes to their album 2112 – but nonetheless, the band hit Paul with a cease-and-desist letter. At the time, Rush's attorney said the action was taken due to copyright issues and that, as Canadians, the group had no desire to mix music with politics.
Result: Five years after the controversy, Paul continues to suffer the indignity of hearing just how much his favorite band dislikes him. Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart is now an American citizen and recently told Rolling Stone that he would never vote for Paul and that it's "very obvious" that the politician "hates women and brown people."

Don Henley, Chuck DeVore

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Don Henley vs. Chuck DeVore

When: 2010
Songs: "All She Wants to Do Is Dance," "The Boys of Summer"
Controversy: By 2010, musicians had taken politicians to trial over non-approved use of their music, but when Henley sued DeVore, it marked the first time that such a court case involved a parody. The California Republican senatorial candidate had turned Henley's song "The Boys of Summer" into a takedown of Obama and liberalism called "The Hope of November." The rocker, an Obama supporter, asked YouTube to remove videos featuring the reworking of his song, upon which DeVore not only demanded that they be restored, but also insisted that his versions were legal as parodies. And he went on to turn Henley's "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" into "All She Wants to Do Is Tax." 
Result: The two sides went to court, and after parsing the differences between "parody" and "satire," U.S. District Court Judge James Selna wrote that DeVore's versions of Henley's tunes failed to mock the songs and songwriter – which would have made them allowable as parody. DeVore wound up settling and apologizing.

David Byrne, Charlie Crist

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David Byrne vs. Charlie Crist

When: 2010
Song: "Road to Nowhere"
Controversy: Like Survivor's Frankie Sullivan, Byrne is one of the few artists who's gone so far as to sue a political candidate over song use. He took Crist to court for no less than $1 million over an attack video against the senatorial candidate's then-opponent Marco Rubio that featured 1985 Talking Heads single "Road to Nowhere."
Result: Crist agreed to pay an undisclosed sum and also posted an apology video on YouTube. Byrne said in a statement afterwards, "It turns out I am one of the few artists who has the bucks and [guts] to challenge such usage. . . . my hope is that by standing up to this practice maybe it can be made to be a less common option, or better yet an option that is never taken in the future."

Journey, Newt Gingrich

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Journey vs. Newt Gingrich

When: 2011
Song: "Don't Stop Believin'"
Controversy: Maybe Newt was obsessed with that Sopranos finale too, because four years after the landmark HBO series cut to black to Journey's motivational anthem, the conservative politician blasted the song at a campaign event. Legal reps of the band's classic-era singer Steve Perry sent a cease-and-desist letter. "They just think music is free like a lot of other people on the planet," his lawyer, Lee Phillips, told Variety
Result: Gingrich was no longer able to "hold on to that feelin'" when he dropped out of the presidential race the following year.

Katrina and the Waves, Michele Bachmann

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Katrina and the Waves vs. Michele Bachmann

When: 2011
Song: "Walking on Sunshine"
Controversy: After finding out that Bachmann was playing the song at campaign events, the New Wave band issued a statement on its website, making it clear that the group did not endorse the politician's appropriation of its music. Singer Katrina Leskanich told Rolling Stone, "If I disagree with the policies, opinions or platforms for [my song's] use, I've no choice but to try and defend the song and prevent its misuse. Music can be both powerful and moving and sometimes even a little dangerous."
Result: The Washington Post's Joe Heim took it upon himself to find Bachmann new campaign music, and learned that Ted Nugent was happy to lend his song "Stranglehold" to her cause. "Michele Bachmann is clearly a Great American," the Nuge wrote in a hilarious e-mail to the newspaper. "Her words have iron, her spirit is indefatigable and her beauty contagious. In a perfect world her ultimate campaign theme song would be WANG DANG SWEET [expletive] just to fire up America and prove that political correctness is laughable."

Tom Petty, George W. Bush

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Tom Petty vs. Michele Bachmann, George W. Bush

When: 2011, 2000
Song: "American Girl," "I Won't Back Down"
Controversy: After Republican presidential hopeful Bachmann played Petty's "American Girl" at a rally, Petty immediately sent the campaign a cease-and-desist letter. Eleven years earlier, he also posted a notice to the Bush campaign telling them to stop using "I Won't Back Down."
Result: Despite Petty's letter, the Minnesota congresswoman continued playing the song – including on the day right after receiving the cease-and-desist notice. Bush, however, did back down, and Petty later made his political leanings clear when he performed "I Won't Back Down" at a private concert in Al Gore's home the night of his concession speech. Tipper Gore reportedly played drums.

Survivor, Newt Gingrich

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Survivor vs. Newt Gingrich

When: 2012
Song: "Eye of the Tiger"
Controversy: Survivor band member Frankie Sullivan is one of the handful of artists who have actually brought suit against a politician for using their music. He alleged that Gingrich has been playing the Rocky III theme song, which he co-wrote, at public appearances as far back as 2009. (The group also complained about the McCain-Palin campaign using the same tune in 2008.) At one point during the brouhaha, former Survivor frontman Dave Bickler appeared on The Colbert Report and sang passages from Gingrich's book A Nation Like No Other to the melody of "Eye of the Tiger."
Result: Gingrich insisted he had the right to use the song and initially fought back with several court motions, but, perhaps losing heart when his campaign began to tank, eventually settled.

The Heavy, Newt Gingrich

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The Heavy vs. Newt Gingrich

When: 2012
Song: "How You Like Me Now?"
Controversy: Gingrich was served with a cease-and-desist notice by Montreal-based music publisher Third Side Music on behalf of the Heavy, for playing their song at a rally in Florida. The British indie-rock band posted on its Facebook page, "If you heard 'How You Like Me Now?' being used by Republican, Newt Gingrich, in his campaign, we'd like you to know it had fuck all to do with us and we are trying to stop it being used. TWATS."
Result: The group didn't pursue any further legal action, but Gingrich was smacked soon after with a lawsuit for using Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger."