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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.

Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Wasserman Schultz

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Cyndi Lauper vs. Democratic National Committee

When: 2012
Song: "True Colors"
Controversy: The DNC, led by chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schulz, used Cyndi Lauper's 1986 classic in an attack ad against Mitt Romney titled – surprise! – "True Color." When Lauper found out, she expressed her displeasure on Twitter, writing, "I wouldn't have wanted that song to be used in that way" and "Mr. Romney can discredit himself without the use of my work."
Result: Mitch Stewart, the Battleground States Director for Obama for America, responded on Twitter, "Cyndi Lauper has never spoken truer words." The ad was removed from YouTube.

Dee Snider, Paul Ryan

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Dee Snider vs. Paul Ryan

When: 2012
Song: "We're Not Gonna Take It"
Controversy: Things Dee Snider likes: big hair and working out. Things he doesn't like: Paul Ryan. When the Twisted Sister frontman learned that the Republican vice presidential candidate was opening campaign stops with the glam-metal classic, he issued the following statement: "I emphatically denounce Paul Ryan's use of my song 'We're Not Gonna Take It' as recorded by my band Twisted Sister. There is almost nothing on which I agree with Paul Ryan, except perhaps the use of the P90X." Snider wasn't the only rocker whose hackles Ryan raised during the 2012 campaign: Tom Morello also spoke out against the VP hopeful when the politician expressed his love of the guitarist's band Rage Against the Machine.
Result: A Ryan spokesperson told Politico in an e-mail: "We're Not Gonna Play It anymore."

Silversun Pickups, Mitt Romney

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Silversun Pickups vs. Mitt Romney

When: 2012
Song: "Panic Switch"
Controversy: With lyrics like, "When you see yourself in a crowded room?/Do your fingers itch? Are you pistol-whipped?/Do you step in line or release the glitch?," Silversun Pickups' 2009 alt-rock hit doesn't seem particularly well suited for a political jingle. The band certainly didn't think so, sending the Romney campaign a cease-and-desist notice for using the Swoon single at an event. "We were very close to just letting this go because the irony was too good," the L.A. alt-rockers said in a statement. "While he is inadvertently playing a song that describes his whole campaign, we doubt that 'Panic Switch' really sends the message he intends."
Result: A Romney rep told the L.A. Times that the song was played "inadvertently" during set-up at a rally but was covered anyway under their blanket license. The campaign never played it again.

Al Green, Mitt Romney

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Al Green vs. Mitt Romney

When: 2012
Song: "Let's Stay Together"
Controversy: After the Obama campaign released an ad that featured Mitt Romney singing "America the Beautiful," Romney's side retaliated with a spot in which Obama sings the Al Green classic "Let's Stay Together." Within a day, the ad, as well as footage of the original Obama performance, disappeared off YouTube, due to a copyright claim from BMG Rights Management on behalf of Green, an Obama supporter.
Result: YouTube restored the video after receiving an appeal letter from the Romney campaign, agreeing that it constituted fair use.

K'naan, Mitt Romney

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K’naan vs. Mitt Romney

When: 2012
Song: "Wavin' Flag"
Controversy: The Somali-Canadian musician's song, featuring assists from Will.i.am and David Guetta, gained traction in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and then took off even more when Coca-Cola used a version of it as the anthem of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. When Romney played it during a victory rally in Florida, K'naan was deluged with Twitter messages accusing him of selling out to a conservative politician. The musician threatened legal action against the Romney campaign, explaining, "I'm for immigrants. I'm for poor people, and they don't seem to be what he's endorsing." He also added that he would "happily grant the Obama campaign use of my song without prejudice."
Result: Romney reps insisted they had permission through blanket licenses purchased from ASCAP and BMI, but said they would stop using the song out of respect for K'naan's views.

Eminem, John Key

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Eminem vs. New Zealand National Party

When: 2014
Song: "Lose Yourself"
Controversy: Eminem doesn't usually involve himself with New Zealand politics, but last year the rapper and his publishing company filed a copyright infringement suit against the National Party after Prime Minister John Key used the hip-hop star's "Lose Yourself" in a reelection campaign ad without permission.
Result: The National Party insisted they had obtained the right to use to the song through an Australian production company but stopped using the track. Nonetheless, Eminem is still seeking damages. The case was scheduled to go to court last February, but was put on hold; according to recent reports, it may be reset for any day now.

Scott Walker, Dropkick Murphys

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Dropkick Murphys vs. Scott Walker

When: January 2015
Song: "I'm Shipping Up to Boston."
Controversy: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker walked out to the song at an event in Iowa for presidential hopefuls, and the Celtic punk band responded with one of the bluntest tweets ever: "@ScottWalker @GovWalker please stop using our music in any way. . . we literally hate you !!! Love, Dropkick Murphys." It wasn't the first time the group had spoken out against the politician. In 2011 the Boys from Beantown released the song "Take 'Em Down" to express support for Wisconsin union workers, who were protesting a Walker budget bill that would have taken away their right to collective bargaining. And in 2012, then-Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald walked out to "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" during the Wisconsin GOP convention, after which the group called him a "crony of anti-union governor Scott Walker" and said that his music choice was "like a white supremacist coming out to gangsta rap."
Result: The band stated on its Facebook page that "this isn't a legal issue to us – we're not looking to sue someone," but also said, "We feel that we have the right to ask to not be associated with certain events or people." It remains to be seen whether Walker will continue to use the song.

Axwell and Ingrosso, Marco Rubio

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Axwell and Ingrosso vs. Marco Rubio

When: April 2015
Song: "Something New"
Controversy: At his presidential campaign kickoff rally in Miami, Rubio walked off stage to the Swedish electronic duo's dance-floor smash. The group shortly thereafter stated to Business Insider, "Axwell ^ Ingrosso didn't give their permission for this song to be used and don't want to be affiliated with a particular party during the upcoming presidential race." Rubio is a noted hip-hop enthusiast but recently told TMZ he's "gotten into" EDM, dropping names like David Guetta, Axwell and Ingrosso and the duo's former outfit Swedish House Mafia.
Result: Axwell and Ingrosso have not indicated any plans to sue, and Rubio, no hip-hop flip-flop, assured TMZ that he's "still a Nicki Minaj fan."

Neil Young, Donald Trump

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Neil Young vs. Donald Trump

When: June 2015
Song: "Rockin' in the Free World"
Controversy: On June 16th, the halls of Trump Tower reverberated with "Rockin' in the Free World" – on repeat – when the Donald announced his plans to "be the greatest jobs president that God ever created." Young's manager released a statement afterwards saying that Trump was "not authorized" to use the song, and that "Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President." Trump reps, however, claimed they had permission to use the song through a licensing agreement with the performance-rights organization ASCAP.
Result: Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Rolling Stone that the Republican candidate continues to be a Neil Young fan, regardless of the musician's political views, and as such "will respect his wish and not use ['Rockin' in the Free World'] because it's the right thing to do." Presumably with Young's approval, Sanders has begun using the song.

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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