When Politicians Hit Wrong Notes

With the arrival of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, released 6 March, I was psyched to pen an article advocating we all bow down to the altar of Bruce as the mouthpiece for what ails the average American. However, after reading multiple reviews framing it as “the album for the Occupy Movement”, the idea felt as clichéd as describing early R.E.M. as “jangly” or double albums as “sprawling”.

It’s difficult to write about a musician so universally loved he rarely courts controversy. With few exceptions, Springsteen’s critical acclaim and public appeal throughout his career make a mockery of even the best politicians’ poll numbers. His celebration of the blue collar work ethic in the context of “the runaway American dream” make The Boss the unofficial leader of Every Man, everywhere.

Besides, there’s a more fascinating story than Bruce, à la the ghost of Woody Guthrie, reminding us that times are tough, again, because of greedy money-grubbing power brokers, again. Musicians are lining up left and right – well, lining up on the left and against the right – to make sure they aren’t associated with Wall Street and certain politicians.

The GOP isn’t unique in the art of foot-in-mouth disease, but 2012 is proving a banner year for the party with the pachyderm mascot to wade knee-deep in elephant dung. The Republicans just can’t stop picking campaign songs without first securing the rights. Candidates are supposed to get permission from ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) to use copyrighted music in any kind of public performance. However, the Grand Old Party seems to have developed a Grand Old Tradition of failing to do so – or at least, failing make sure the act they’re playing is actually on board with the politician.

This classic stumble can be traced back to 1984. When President Ronald Reagan was running for re-election, he cited Bruce Springsteen as representative of the American dream. What he failed to realize is that “Born in the U.S.A.”, Springsteen’s hit at the time, was not a flag-waving anthem but a seething attack on the poor treatment received by Vietnam veterans when they came home. Oops.

On the flip side, when running for President in 2004, John Kerry tapped Springsteen’s “No Surrender” and Barack Obama used “The Rising” in 2008 and neither suffered any fall out. Perhaps Republican candidates’ constant desire to align themselves with St. Reagan has inspired them to even repeat his gaffes. Newt Gingrich lost the “eye of the tiger” he had just weeks ago that would have allowed him to survive until November. While songwriter Jim Peterik okayed Newt using Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, co-writer Frank Sullivan filed suit for the song being used without permission.

Similarly, when Michele Bachman was still a candidate back in June, Tom Petty’s camp sent a nice little cease-and-desist letter regarding the use of “American Girl”. She should have taken a lesson from the other side of the aisle. Hillary Rodham Clinton did have permission to use the song when she sought the Presidential nomination in 2008.

Petty also took action when George W. Bush used “I Won’t Back Down” in the 2000 race. In an apparent attempt to lose the classic rock vote, Bush also miffed Sting and John Mellencamp when he used “Brand New Day” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”, respectively. In 2008, the rocker from Indiana also offered up a “nay” vote to the Senator from Arizona. In John McCain’s Presidential bid, he played Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” and “Our Country” without approval.

It isn’t that these artists object to their music being used for anything more than “artistic purposes”. Sting and Mellencamp both sold songs for commercials hawking cars and trucks. However, both artists made their political affiliations clear were when they authorized those same songs to Al Gore in 2000 and John Edwards in 2008.

In 2008, McCain seemed determined to align the GOP with AOR (album-oriented rock). However, he not only failed to get Mellencamp’s vote, but got the Foo Fighters and Jackson Browne squarely against him, as well. Ironically, McCain tried to use Browne’s “Running on Empty” as a commentary on Obama’s campaign, but we know who came up empty on that one.

McCain’s VP candidate, Sarah Palin, took the stage at the Republican National Convention to Heart’s “Barracuda”. It may have been her nickname as a basketball player in high school, but instead of cheering for her on the sidelines, Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson blew the whistle and called foul.

I don’t deny there are ample bone-headed errors from both sides of the political fence. When it comes to politicians associating themselves with music, though, the Republican party has a runaway lead on hitting sour notes.

Current events have shown a need to reign in their mouthpieces, as well. The recent fracas surrounding radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and his attack on Sandra Fluke demonstrates rock ‘n’ rollers will run away in droves from controversial pundits with equal speed as they will politicians. Peter Gabriel laid the hammer down on Rush for soundtracking his sludge with Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”.

The spirits of Canadian rock band Rush nosedived when they learned their song “The Spirit of Radio” provided the lead-in for commercial breaks on Limbaugh’s show. Anyone with the decency to find Rush the Man’s antics offensive has to chuckle when even Rush the Band doesn’t want to be associated with that name. At this point, “Slut” would be a more acceptable band name.

Artists like Springsteen and Mellencamp have made their political positions well known and have used their own music to make political statements. Musicians have a rich history of crafting music with social and political commentary. Entire genres, such as folk, punk, and rap have grown out of musicians railing against the destruction the establishment has wrought.

Detractors whine that music with a message oversteps the role these entertainers have earned with their public platforms. Frankly, I get excited when I see artists making bold statements that challenge the status quo. As for their qualifications, I was unaware one had to be authorized to express an opinion.

Similarly, politicians are certainly allowed their opinions – and can attempt to tie their images to any musicians they wish. Regardless of what political stance an artist may (or may not) take, all listeners are welcome. Young Republicans for Mellencamp have every right to like the music they like. I’m sure John is happy to sell records no matter who buys them.

However, here’s a memo to the GOP candidates from this year and years to come: Please, learn from your party’s past mistakes. Before you start blaring the latest pop ditty with a fighting spirit or patriotic bent from the speakers at your rally, ask permission.