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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.

Bruce Springsteen, Ronald Reagan

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Bruce Springsteen vs. Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan

When: 1984, 1996, 2000
Song: "Born in the U.S.A."
Controversy: Springsteen's 1984 classic has become an election-season go-to for politicians who don't seem to get the biting critique behind the song's ostensibly jingoistic title and chorus. The misappropriation began right out the gate, just after the single and its album became monster hits. A Reagan advisor asked if they could use the song in the president's reelection campaign, and Springsteen said no. Even so, Reagan referenced the musician in a stump speech: "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about." Springsteen began to speak out against Reagan, questioning during a show whether Reagan actually listened to his music, and later telling Rolling Stone, "I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening, I think, is that that need – which is a good thing – is getting manipulated and exploited." Later, Bob Dole and then Pat Buchanan also used the song in their campaigns, until Springsteen objected.
Result: At least one commentator has argued that being co-opted by Reagan is in large part what politicized Springsteen, making him the outspoken liberal he is today. Whether this is the case or not, Bruce inarguably paved the way for other artists to take a stand by telling politicians to stop using their songs.

Bobby McFerrin, George H.W. Bush

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Bobby McFerrin vs. George H.W. Bush

When: 1988
Song: "Don't Worry, Be Happy"
Controversy: The VP used the a cappella chart-topper as his presidential campaign theme, but McFerrin was a Dukakis supporter, and asked team Bush to stop. The Republican candidate went on a charm offensive, telling McFerrin he loved the song and inviting him to dinner, but the singer was unmoved. To drive home the point, he even stopped performing the song for a while.
Result: The Bush campaign dropped the tune, and "This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie became its official song instead.

Isaac Hayes, Bob Dole

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Isaac Hayes vs. Bob Dole

When: 1996
Song: "Soul Man"
Controversy: In 1996, Sam Moore recorded a new version of the 1967 Sam and Dave classic for the Dole campaign, in which "I'm a soul man" became "I'm a Dole man." The reworking also included digs at opponent Bill Clinton, like, "And he [Dole] don't have no girl friends, no!" The Dole campaign loved it and used it regularly, including at that year's Republication convention. It turned out, however, that the rights to the song were not Moore's to give. "Soul Man" was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and some rights were also held by Rondor Music (whose owners were liberals). Rondor sent the campaign a cease-and-desist letter, threatening to sue for $10,000 each time the song was used. Hayes told the New York Daily News, "Nobody gave any permission here," adding, "It also bothers me because people may get the impression that David [Porter] and I endorse Bob Dole, which we don't." As the controversy raged, one journalist, Charles Memminger, wrote in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, "Connecting Bob Dole to 'Soul Man' is like connecting Jeffrey Dahmer to 'Feelings.'"
Result: Dole stopped using the song, and no further legal action was taken. Searching for new music to use, the campaign decided on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." until Springsteen protested via an open letter. Eventually the Dole camp settled on "American Boy" by country singer Eddie Rabbitt, who gladly gave permission.

Sting, George W. Bush

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Sting vs. George W. Bush

When: 2000
Song: "Brand New Day"
Controversy: Sting's upbeat hit was on regular rotation at Bush events until the artist asked the campaign to stop playing it. Salon quoted manager Miles Copeland as saying that, as a Brit, Sting simply didn't want to take sides in U.S. politics. But the song was being heavily used by the Gore campaign too, and though Copeland claimed in the Salon piece that Gore's folks would soon be asked to stop as well, such action never came to pass.
Result: The Bush folks pulled the plug on the song, and in 2009, Sting and Al had brunch.

Boston, Mike Huckabee

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Boston vs. Mike Huckabee

When: 2008
Song: "More Than a Feeling"
Controversy: During primary season, one-time Republican frontrunner and amateur bass player Huckabee capped off many of his events by playing "More Than a Feeling" with his band Capitol Offense – sometimes with former Boston guitarist Barry Goudreau laying down a guest solo. "More Than a Feeling" writer and Boston founder Tom Scholz took exception to this, penning an open letter to Huckabee in which he said that he was "impressed" that the candidate had learned his bass guitar parts but nonetheless felt like he'd been "ripped off, dude!" "Boston has never endorsed a political candidate," wrote Scholz, who personally backed Obama, "and with all due respect, would not start by endorsing a candidate who is the polar opposite of most everything Boston stands for."
Result: Huckabee's campaign – and therefore his use of the song – ended shortly thereafter when he conceded the Republican nomination to John McCain.

Sam Moore, Barack Obama

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Sam Moore vs. Barack Obama

When: 2008
Song: "Hold On, I'm Comin'"
Controversy: In a rare instance of a Democratic candidate being asked to cease and desist from using a song, Moore – the tenor voice in R&B duo Sam and Dave – asked Obama to stop playing "Hold On, I'm Comin'" at rallies (where audience members sang, "Hold on, Obama's comin'"). The singer wrote, "I have not agreed to endorse you for the highest office in our land. . . . My vote is a very private matter between myself and the ballot box." He added, however, that he found it "thrilling" to see a man of color run for the presidency.
Result: The Obama team stopped using the song, and all was apparently forgiven. The following year, Moore performed with Sting and Elvis Costello at an inaugural ball for the newly elected president. And in 2013, he played at the White House as part of a PBS music series.

Gretchen Peters, Sarah Palin

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Gretchen Peters vs. Sarah Palin

When: 2008
Song: "Independence Day"
Controversy: Peters won a CMA Song of the Year award for her powerful 1993 country tune, which was recorded and released by Martina McBride. When the track was used to introduce Palin at a rally, the songwriter lashed out, saying, "The fact that the McCain/Palin campaign is using a song about an abused woman as a rallying cry for their Vice Presidential candidate, a woman who would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, is beyond irony. They are co-opting the song, completely overlooking the context and message, and using it to promote a candidate who would set women's rights back decades."
Result: Instead of suing the campaign to make them stop playing the song, Peters donated all of the election season royalties from "Independence Day" to Planned Parenthood. She also encouraged others to make similar donations under the name "Sarah Palin." The organization raised a million dollars during that period.

Jackson Browne, John McCain

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Jackson Browne vs. John McCain

When: 2008
Song: "Running on Empty"
Controversy: After the McCain campaign used a snippet of "Running on Empty" in an ad mocking Barack Obama's statements about gas conservation, longtime Democrat Browne filed a lawsuit against the candidate and the Republican Party. "The misappropriation of Jackson Browne's endorsement is entirely reprehensible," the musician's lawyer stated, "and I have no doubt that a jury will agree."
Result: Browne won an undisclosed cash settlement and a public apology from McCain. The New York Times called the suit, along with David Byrne's successful 2010 suit against Charlie Christ, a "turning point" in the long history of politicians using pop tunes without artists' permission. The controversy also helped McCain earn the dubious distinction of most artist objections to song use in campaigns.

John Hall, Orleans, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush

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Orleans vs. John McCain, George W. Bush

When: 2008, 2004
Song: "Still the One"
Controversy: McCain's use of "Still the One" following his New Hampshire primary win was unsurprisingly met with condemnation from one of the song's co-writers, former Orleans member John Hall – who happened to be a Democratic congressman at the time. Four years earlier, Hall had discovered that the Bush-Cheney campaign was using the same song when he was watching Ohio coverage on TV. "My wife and I were looking at each other with our mouths hanging open," he told Rolling Stone.
Result: Hall sent cease-and-desist letters, both in 2008 and 2004. The McCain campaign had no comment; Bush-Cheney stopped using the tune.

Dave Grohl, John McCain

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Foo Fighters vs. John McCain

When: 2008
Song: "My Hero"
Controversy: An Obama supporter, Dave Grohl did not consider McCain to be his hero nor worthy of using the Foos' 1998 single during his presidential run. "It's frustrating and infuriating that someone who claims to speak for the American people would repeatedly show such little respect for creativity and intellectual property," the band said in a statement, referencing the numerous other instances when the McCain camp used songs against the artists' wishes. "The saddest thing about this is that 'My Hero' was written as a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential."
Result: "The McCain-Palin campaign respects copyright," a spokesman said, repeating the campaign's well-practiced response to such disputes. "Accordingly, this campaign has obtained and paid for licenses from performing rights organizations, giving us permission to play millions of different songs, including 'My Hero.'"

Heart, Sarah Palin

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Heart vs. Sarah Palin

When: 2008
Song: "Barracuda"
Controversy: Vice presidential candidate Palin – whose nickname from high school basketball was "Sarah Barracuda" – used the Heart track at the Republican National Convention as her theme song. The Wilson sisters were not amused and sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Republicans. "I feel completely fucked over," Nancy Wilson said. "Sarah Palin's views and values in no way represent us as American women."
Result: Sarah Barracuda still felt like the song represented her, however, and the McCain campaign continued using it at rallies, claiming that they had the right to do so through a blanket ASCAP license.

Van Halen, John McCain

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Van Halen vs. John McCain

When: 2008
Song: "Right Now"
Controversy: The self-proclaimed "maverick" candidate used one of the dullest tracks from the Van Hagar era during a televised rally; the brothers Van Halen jumped. They issued a statement saying, "Permission was not sought or granted nor would it have been given." While not necessarily a McCain supporter, Sammy Hagar – the song's singer and co-writer – said that he got goose bumps, in a positive sense, from the candidate playing the song. "I was honored that a potential president of the United States used those words in a positive sense, like, 'We gotta act now!'" he enthused.
Result: McCain kept using the song. What's perhaps more important is that the incident actually inspired Eddie Van Halen to call up Hagar, even though the two ended up just playing phone tag.

John Mellencamp, John McCain

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John Mellencamp vs. John McCain, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan

When: 2008, 2000 and 1984
Songs: "Our Country," "Pink Houses"; "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."; "Pink Houses"
Controversy: McCain used the tunes at rallies to underscore his "Country First" message. Mellencamp – who has called himself "as left-wing as you can get" and performed at a John Edwards rally during the 2008 Democratic primaries – asked that the presidential hopeful cease and desist. The rocker also asked Bush to stop using "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." in 2000, and told Salon that he discouraged Reagan from using "Pink Houses" as his campaign song in 1984 when reps reached out.
Result: Four days after Mellencamp's request was made, McCain's campaign announced that it would no longer play either "Our Country" or "Pink Houses" at events.

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."