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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.

Brian May vs. Donald Trump Music COnventions

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Brian May vs. Donald Trump

When: 2016

Song: "We Are the Champions"

Controversy: Donald Trump began using the Queen track leading up to the RNC convention, and it seems like a natural-born campaign anthem: Singer Freddie Mercury had written the track to rile up audiences. Famously, guitarist Brian May had told Mercury, "You can't do this" – fearing the song would be interpreted as arrogance – but the singer said, "Yes, we can." When "We Are the Champions" came out in 1977, it subsequently became a sports anthem, but the song has had a dodgy history with election bids. Republican Pat Buchanan used it in 1992, a year after Mercury died of pneumonia brought on by AIDS, and Republican Mitt Romney did the same in 2012. While conservative politics in particular don't seem to jibe with the fact that Mercury was gay, the group doesn't want to be associated with politics at all. In the case of Trump, May wrote a scathing post on his website: "I can confirm that permission to use the track was neither sought nor given. … Regardless of our views on Mr. Trump's platform, it has always been against our policy to allow Queen music to be used as a political campaigning tool." In a post to a concerned fan, he described Trump's campaign as "unsavory."

Result: Trump used the song anyway when he walked onstage at the Republican National Convention, sparking ire online both about his defiance of May and the culture clash between his platforms and Mercury's lifestyle. Queen replied the next day with a tweet, this time from the band as a whole: "An unauthorised use at the Republican Convention against our wishes – Queen."

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