When bands, candidates don’t harmonize

Bands routinely ask politicians to choose someone else’s anthem

Tom White For The New York Times/File/2010

Campaign anthems are meant to meld a candidate’s substance with style, a big vision with soaring emotion. But increasingly, it seems, the artists behind the songs are demanding that candidates stop the music.

In the past two weeks, the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan has been bombarded with catcalls from groups that object to their songs being associated with the campaign.

Lead singer Dee Snider of Twisted Sister filed a cease-and-desist order this week that Ryan stop using “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at rallies. Last week, the Silversun Pickups lambasted Romney for playing their song “Panic Switch.” And Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine scoffed at Ryan’s statement that the band is one of his favorites.

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“Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing,” Morello wrote in an opinion piece for Rolling Stone magazine, “because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”


The dissonance has not always been limited to Republicans. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama was asked by singer Sam Moore, of the soul duo Sam & Dave, to stop using “Hold On, I’m Coming.”

Republicans, however, seem to run afoul of musicians more often, with 2008 producing a fanfare of run-ins.

Jackson Browne was so incensed that John McCain adopted “Running on Empty” as a presidential campaign theme that he sued before settling the case out of court. McCain also was asked by John Mellencamp, Van Halen, and the band Boston to drop their work. And the use of the Heart song “Barracuda” at the 2008 Republican National Convention, a reference to Sarah Palin’s high-school basketball nickname, brought howls of protest from group members Ann and Nancy Wilson.

“Sarah Palin’s views and values in no way represent us as American women,” the Wilsons said.

The law governing the use of music in campaigns can be complicated and difficult to apply, according to Nicole Rizzo Smith, a copyright and trademark lawyer with the Boston firm Sunstein Kann.

Many musicians do not own the copyrights to their work, which are often held by big record companies. Campaigns usually gain permission to use the music by obtaining a blanket license through performing-rights organizations such as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or Broadcast Music Inc., to whom they pay a fee for using music based on genre, artist, or other categories.

That’s the route the Romney campaign has used, according to a campaign aide who asked not to be named. But before adopting “Born Free” by Kid Rock as its 2012 theme, the aide said, the campaign approached the artist for his permission.

Often, such permission is not sought by candidates, some of whom might figure that linking the campaign with a particular song or artist is worth the effort, even if for a short time, before an offended band asks for an end to the encores.

“When that happens, the response usually is, ‘OK, we’ll stop,’ ” even if not required to do so by law, Smith said. Among other reasons, the candidate might want to avoid a public-relations fight, she added.

Willful copyright infringement can carry up to $150,000 in damages, but pursuing a claim of false endorsement might be more likely for an artist who does not own the copyright. Under this scenario, the musician could argue under trademark law that a candidate’s song incorrectly implies support for a campaign.

The rapper K’Naan, who was born in Somalia, expressed that concern when he asked Romney this year to stop using his song “Wavin’ Flag.”

“I got a flood of Twitter messages from people who assumed that it was all true, that I was now a supporter of Mitt Romney’s campaign,” K’Naan said in a New York Times report. “I’m for immigrants, I’m for poor people, and they don’t seem to be what he’s endorsing. My song being his victory song didn’t seem quite right.”

Although Romney agreed to stop using the K’Naan song, his campaign aide said a blanket license has been bought for all music being used. Similarly, an Obama campaign spokesman said that licenses have been purchased for its music.

The president often leaves the stage at campaign rallies to the blaring strains of a Bruce Springsteen song, “We Take Care of Our Own.” Other campaign songs used by Democrats over the years have included “Happy Days Are Here Again” by Franklin D. Roosevelt and “High Hopes” by John F. Kennedy, with the blessing of singer Frank Sinatra. In 1992, Bill Clinton famously used the Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).”

Springsteen’s work was appropriated to different results during President Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984. When Reagan extolled the “message of hope” in Springsteen’s songs during a speech in New Jersey, he apparently did not understand that songs such as “Born in the USA” were working-class laments.

The song made an unexpected appearance in the ongoing campaign. A reference by Romney that “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate” got a retort from the president’s Twitter account: ‘‘Song of the day: Born in the USA,’’ along with a link to the song.

Romney aides later denied that the remark was linked to discredited questions about whether Obama was born in the United States.

But if Democrats seem to have an easier time attracting support from artists, the Republicans plan to have an impressive roster of musicians for convention week. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Trace Adkins, Kid Rock, and Journey all are scheduled to perform.

Even recent rebuffs seem to be taken with a dose of humor. Asked about Twisted Sister’s objections to Ryan’s use of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” his spokesman, Brendan Buck, responded in a short, tart e-mail.

Well, Buck wrote, “We’re Not Gonna Play It anymore.”