Campaign Songs: Harmless Entrance Music or Threats to Artistic Intention?

During the 1960s, artists like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival used their music to speak out in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and others consistently criticized the US government throughout their careers. This convergence continues today, with such examples as Kendrick Lamar’s recent “Alright” music video, the Macklemore-penned gay rights anthem “Same Love,” or Lady Gaga’s rape-prevention PSA “Til It Happens to You.” Politics and art are inextricably intertwined, but sometimes, these socially-minded songs move into the political realm when used as campaign songs.

When choosing campaign songs, candidates often try to explain their visions and attitudes through music. Politicians have practiced this custom ever since the first American presidential election when “God Save Great Washington,” based on the British “God Save the Queen” and intended to elevate Washington’s reputation, helped drum up enthusiasm and support for the new nation’s first leader. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” famously carried William Henry Harrison to the White House in 1840. This particular song served to praise both the Whig party and Harrison’s heroics at Tippecanoe while also poking fun at Harrison’s opponent, Martin Van Buren. Many credit the piece with playing a large role in Harrison’s eventual victory. In the last quarter of the 20th Century, candidates began shifting away from campaign-specific songs and began using popular music as their themes. Bill Clinton employed Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Don’t Stop” and it’s “keep-on-moving-forward” message throughout his primary and presidential races in 1992 and even convinced the grudge-holding group to reunite and perform the track at his Inaugural Ball.

There lies an undeniable significance on the role campaign songs play in elections. In Harrison’s case, music swayed public opinion in favor of one candidate over the other. John F. Kennedy used popular music like Frank Sinatra’s to help construct his public image and give his voters a universal rallying cry. Dozens of candidates have used songs – and particularly single-line refrains – to give their campaign a theme, such George Bush utilizing Van Halen’s “Right Now” to say that Bush was the immediate answer to the issues stemming from Clinton’s presidency. Songs can also simply get voters excited about a candidate and increase voter turnout as a result.

However, campaign songs don’t always bring the band back together. Often, the artists will disapprove of a politician’s use of their art to advance a political platform, raising questions of both the legality and morality of campaign music. Typically, this has to do with the artists’ objections to their art being tied to political stances with which they disagree. For example, the McCain-Palin campaign used a 1994 Gretchen Peters song “Independence Day” at Sarah Palin’s rallies. Peters vehemently denied any sort of approval of the vice presidential candidate, writing, “The fact that the McCain/Palin campaign is using a song about an abused woman as a rallying cry for their vice presidential candidate, a woman who would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, is beyond irony. They are co-opting the song, completely overlooking the context and message, and using it to promote a candidate who would set women’s rights back decades.”

While there are legal avenues artists can use to prevent their music’s usage in campaigns, copyright law and publishing rights are arbitrary enough that a gray area exists.

Generally, artists succeed in separating their music from campaigns. Bruce Springsteen rejected Ronald Reagan’s request to adopt his “Born in the USA” – the campaign managers apparently not recognizing the song’s heavy criticism of blind patriotism and poor treatment of Vietnam War veterans – for his re-election campaign. Sometimes, the process is not quite as friendly; in 2000, Tom Petty issued George Bush’s campaign team a cease and desist letter over their use of “I Won’t Back Down.” Though not legally obligated to obey Petty’s wishes, the Bush campaign stopped playing the song at campaign events. Even more, sometimes campaigns continue to use songs at rallies after complaints from the artists, as John McCain’s team did in 2008 with the Foo Fighters single “My Hero.” This election cycle, more than any other, it seems, musicians are going out of their way to disassociate their music and themselves from political candidates; Neil Young, R.E.M., and Aerosmith have all done so this past year, and that’s just looking at Donald Trump’s campaign.

While there are legal avenues artists can use to prevent their music’s usage in campaigns, copyright law and publishing rights are arbitrary enough that a gray area exists. Copyright law states that if a song is protected, “you cannot play a recording of the music or lyrics in public.” However, campaigns only need a public performance license from the publishing group to legally use a song at any sort of public event. After that, artists can still fight against political usage of their music but have to do so through more nuanced regulation as opposed to general copyright laws. Artists essentially have three options. If a musician can demonstrate that a politician’s use of his or her music either dilutes the musician’s brand, falsely implies endorsement, or — and only in some states — unfairly uses the musician’s image, then the artist can legally compel a campaign to stop playing the music. But these violations aren’t cut-and-dry; it can be difficult—and often unfruitful—for musicians to try and reclaim their art as their own. However, these disputes usually don’t end up going to trial, because either the campaign drops the song in question or the artist doesn’t feel it is beneficial enough to go to court.

Beyond legality, campaigns’ use of songs without the artist’s permission raises questions about how we approach music as a medium. One could argue that by not getting a musician’s approval first, campaigns are implying that the original intentions of a piece of art don’t matter and that once a song is released to the world it no longer belongs solely to the person or people who created it. In an era where digital piracy is the norm and most artists rely on ticket sales for the vast majority of their profits, it’s imperative that the value of music be recognized and preserved. A politician’s unauthorized use of a song does just the opposite – and barring TV commercials, royalties are not given to musicians for campaign songs – and time and time again, the burden is placed upon musicians to retroactively appeal to candidates.

Generally speaking though, politicians will acquiesce if artists reach out to them and discontinue use of the song in question; such was the case with John McCain, George Bush, Barack Obama, and others. Typically, this is done to avoid a messy public dispute that would do more damage to the campaign than the song could have helped. But at that point, the campaign has already benefited somewhat from the song’s usage — as seen earlier with candidates like Harrison — and the artist is linked to a politician and their platform. Dozens of artists, including Kelly ClarksonTim McGraw, and most infamously The Dixie Chicks, have received backlash from their own fans after voicing support (or lack thereof) for politicians, and the same could happen to a musician who seems aligned with a candidate because of a campaign song. In order to remedy this problem, laws regarding public use of music must require campaigns to gain artists’ expressed permission before using their songs (or any art form) to advance their agenda. Until that happens, the legal gray area that surrounds campaign songs will continue to cause confusion and frustration for musicians everywhere.