Home Politics Politics Lists

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.

John Mellencamp, John McCain

Jamie Squire/Getty Images, Ben Sklar/Getty Images

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

Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage, Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

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

Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic, Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News/MCT via Getty Images

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

Theo Wargo/WireImage, Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

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

Rick Diamond/Getty Images, Bill Clark/Roll Call

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

Bill McCay/WireImage, Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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

Gary Miller/FilmMagic, TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

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

Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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

Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect, Andrew Burton/Getty Images

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

Nathan Cox/Getty Images, Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Time Warner

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

Mark Holloway/Redferns via Getty Images, Tim Boyle/Newsmakers

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

Ragnar Singsaas/Redferns via Getty Images, Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

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

Jordi Vidal/Redferns, Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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."

Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Syracuse University, Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE

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

Bobby Bank/WireImage, John Gress/Getty Images

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

Jeff Fusco/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images

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

Kris Connor/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for MTV, Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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

Chelsea Lauren/WireImage, Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images, Steve Sands/Getty Images

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

Getty (2)

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."

Show Comments