Every Friday throughout the run of From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, we will publish dedicated content inspired by Bruce Springsteen and the First Amendment. “Freedom of Expression Fridays” will feature unique and original posts by staff writers, musicians, visual artists, and more, with a focus on a range of issues including protest, dissent, and the role of art in politics and political campaigns.
Music has been a part of political campaigns since the earliest days of the Republic. For many years, candidates or their supporters created their own songs or adapted popular standards. In recent times, politicians have co-opted pop songs to accompany their campaign. President Bill Clinton famously persuaded Fleetwood Mac to reunite for his inauguration to play “Don’t Stop,” a signature tune of his campaign.
The relationship between politician and performer has not always been so smooth. This year alone, Newt Gingrich received a cease and desist letter from the composer of the Rocky III theme “Eye of the Tiger” to prevent him using it on the campaign trail; Mitt Romney was asked by K’Naan to stop playing his song “Wavin’ Flag”; and Michele Bachmann had to stop playing “American Girl” when Tom Petty protested.
Here are five examples of a candidate getting into trouble for using a song in a presidential campaign without permission.
President George W. Bush: “I Won’t Back Down”
Michele Bachmann was not the first presidential candidate to rile Tom Petty by using one of his songs without permission. President George W. Bush was forced to stop using this defiant rock song at his campaign rallies when Petty’s publisher threatened legal action.
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Sarah Palin: “Barracuda”
Palin was called “Sarah Barracuda” on her high school basketball team, and the moniker followed her into politics. But Anne and Nancy Wilson of Heart did not take kindly to their song being blasted at the 2008 GOP convention, saying the candidate “in no way represents us as American women.” John McCain’s presidential ticket was also sued by Jackson Browne for using his song “Running on Empty.”
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Barack Obama: “Hold On, I’m Coming”
Sam Moore of “Sam & Dave” cautioned President Barack Obama for using the classic soul song while a 2008 Democratic presidential candidate. However, Obama had other musicians to turn to. Bruce Springsteen played at rallies for him in Philadelphia and Cleveland and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas recruited fellow celebrities to record a musical version of Obama’s campaign speech, “Yes We Can.”
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Bob Dole: “Soul Man”
Sam Moore did step into politics in the 1990s, however, approving Bob Dole’s reworking of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” with the lyrics “I’m a Dole Man” for his 1996 presidential campaign. However, the song’s publisher did not approve of its use and eventually stopped it.
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Ronald Reagan: “Born in the U.S.A.”
Bruce Springsteen’s song about a Vietnam veteran shunned by the country he fought for was the hottest song on the radio when political columnist George Will, who worked for Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign, was invited to one of his concerts. Thinking the singer represented American values, Will was impressed, and thought Springsteen might be willing to endorse Reagan. But when Reagan referenced the songwriter during a campaign rally in New Jersey, Springsteen was not amused and spoke out against the candidate before a concert in Pittsburgh.
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“Born in the U.S.A.” is one of Springsteen’s many songs with powerful political underpinnings. Explore the freedom of expression at the heart of the singer’s music in From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, on view through September 3 at the National Constitution Center.
Christopher Munden is a freelance writer and editor. His favorite campaign song is John Quincy Adams’ “Little Know Ye Who’s Comin’.”