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Candidates tune in to trouble over music

Politicizing songs irks some artists

  • BACHMANN-candidate-songs-07-03-2011

    Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann speaks with a supporter during a breakfast chat earlier this week


  • Tom-Petty-campaign-songs-07-03-2011

    Tom Petty has requested Michelle Bachmann stop playing his song "American Girl" at her campaign events.



Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann speaks with a supporter during a breakfast chat earlier this week


WASHINGTON -- You've heard this one before: A hopeful politician plays a song at a rally, and a rankled rock star slaps him with a cease-and-desist letter.

With the 2012 race for the White House officially under way, the first big sparks between a pol and a pop star flew in Waterloo, Iowa, on Monday when Michele Bachmann blasted the first 29 seconds of Tom Petty's "American Girl" before announcing her bid for the presidency. Petty's camp promptly sent a letter asking the Minnesota Republican to knock it off.

Prepare for 16 more months of this.

Although presidential campaigns have adopted theme songs since Abraham Lincoln was running for office, squabbles between candidates and musicians have become commonplace only since 1984, when President Ronald Reagan name-dropped Bruce Springsteen and his "message of hope" while stumping in New Jersey. (Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." was a rising hit at the time, and although Mr. Reagan never reportedly played the song on the trail, the singer complained that his image had been co-opted.)

This trope has since played out during every campaign season like a broken record. Sometimes the disputes go unresolved.

Artists can take legal action when a politician uses their music in a campaign advertisement without permission, but they have little recourse against candidates who pump the singers' hits at public appearances -- aside from shaming them in the pages of Rolling Stone.

Despite Petty's request, Ms. Bachmann played "American Girl" Tuesday after a speech in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but refrained Wednesday during four tour stops across South Carolina.

A representative for Petty declined to comment on the candidate's continued use of the tune, and her campaign did not return calls.

Is that 30-second burst of rock 'n' roll before every stump speech worth the blow back?

"This has been an age-old question, for Republicans in particular," said Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's an impediment to the extent that it diverts resources from the campaign."


Tom Petty has requested Michelle Bachmann stop playing his song "American Girl" at her campaign events.


But dust-ups over song choices didn't hurt George W. Bush's campaigns.

He was rebuffed by four artists during his winning presidential runs in 2000 and 2004. The tunes he was slapped on the wrist for using: Petty's "I Won't Back Down," John Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," Sting's "Brand New Day," and "Still the One" by Orleans.

John McCain had worse musical luck during his 2008 presidential run. Mellencamp and the Foo Fighters asked him to stop playing their hits.

He was chided by Heart after running mate Sarah Palin took the stage at the Republican National Convention to "Barracuda." And McCain eventually had to settle out of court after using Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" in a campaign ad without permission.

Charlie Crist must not have been paying close attention. After the Republican's failed 2010 run for U.S. Senate, the former Florida governor was sued by Talking Heads singer David Byrne for $1 million over the use of his song "Road to Nowhere" in an online campaign video. Mr. Crist settled out of court -- and apologized to Byrne on YouTube.

Democratic candidates don't seem to have such bad luck.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign funding, says that more than 8o percent of congressional campaign donations from political action committees and individual employees associated with the music industry went to Democrats last year.

To that point, Bill Clinton used Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" in his successful 1992 presidential campaign, John F. Kerry used Springsteen's "No Surrender" in his 2004 bid, Barack Obama used Springsteen's "The Rising" in 2008, and John Edwards used Mellencamp's "Our Country" in 2008 -- without any protest.

Republicans have found a haven in country music. Lee Greenwood doesn't allow "God Bless the U.S.A." to be used in political commercials, but it's been a reliable go-to at rallies and he has performed it at GOP conventions.

Mr. Reagan and George H.W. Bush used the song in their presidential campaigns, and numerous Republicans used it in 2008.

Recently R&Beyonce, who has aligned herself with First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" youth fitness campaign, covered the song for charity, making it safe turf for Democrats too.

Other country songs have been bipartisan. Louisiana duo Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" was used by George W. Bush's and Mr. Obama's presidential campaigns.

"Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans," singer Kix Brooks told the Washington Post in 2008.

Some campaign theme choices are just plain weird: Supporters of Republican Rick Perry used Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" in an online video, and Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) has played Rush's "Tom Sawyer" on the trail.

But most strike a safe balance between upbeat and unthreatening.

With the Republican nomination up for grabs, the tunes have played it pretty safe.

Tim Pawlenty has recently taken the stage to "Born Free" by Kid Rock. Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum are playing songs licensed especially for their campaigns. Mitt Romney's campaign hasn't decided on a tune; in 2008, it was a dance remix of Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation."

Petty's letter aside, Ms. Bachmann might want to rethink her campaign soundtrack. Things didn't go well for the last presidential hopeful to play "American Girl" on the campaign trail.

Her name was Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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