With a basic understanding of the history of campaign songs and the impact they can have, it may come as some surprise to hear that Republicans have consistently gotten in trouble for their use of certain songs. Since Reagan’s run-in with “Born in the USA” artists have repeatedly spoken out against candidates whose political views they don’t share, or who misinterpret their music, and for some reason, those candidates are always Republicans.
Born in the USA
“Born in the USA” is actually the perfect example of a song being misused by a politician in that it was used a number of times and always by Republican candidates, who apparently don’t understand the meaning behind the song.
Time and time again, Republican presidential candidates have used Springsteen’s song as a declaration of patriotism, only to be shut down immediately. When Reagan originally used the song, he said in a speech: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” This statement was immediately met by criticism, as critics who understood the meaning behind the song spoke out. A week later, Springsteen responded during a concert by playing his song “Johnny 99” – a song about a man who is moved to murder after his plant closes down and hard times follow. Since then, he has declared his disappointment in the continued misinterpretations of his popular song and has spoken out every time a Republican used the song to promote themselves. An outspoken Democrat, Springsteen’s voice has influenced the political sphere whenever another politician incorrectly uses his songs. On the other hand, his more (actually) patriotic music has been used for the benefit of Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama, who used the song “We Take Care of Our Own” in the 2012 presidential election.
While one would think that the blowback following Reagan’s misuse of “Born in the USA” would be enough to show just how influential musicians voices can be within politics, Republicans continue to get in trouble for their campaign songs.
It’s important to state here that there are very few examples of candidates using songs that they didn’t procure the rights for. There is, however, a difference between getting the rights to play the song and getting permission from an artist. This is why, for example, Springsteen can tell a candidate that he doesn’t want his song played or make a statement about disagreeing with their political views, but cannot necessarily force a politician to stop playing their song.
In 2000, for example, George Bush used Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down”. Petty threatened to sue Bush for using his song and repeatedly publicized his dislike of Bush, but was unable to do anything about it. While he wasn’t able to make a difference legally, his voice was heard by many and that in and of itself had influence. What made his point even stronger was his decision to play the same song at Al Gore’s home immediately after Bush’s victory. Though musicians don’t always carry political clout, this is another example of an artist using their celebrity status to make a statement.
One particularly interesting case of this phenomenon was in 2008. Dubbed the Facebook Election, this year marked a significant increase in the number of campaign songs used. As mentioned before, this could be because of the increased emphasis on personality politics, and the variety of songs was potentially meant to bridge a gap between candidates and their constituency. While this generally meant more voters could relate to candidates, it caused some problems for John McCain.
During this one election, McCain was asked to stop using songs by Van Halen, Foo Fighters, Jackson Browne, Heart, Orleans, Frankie Valli, and ABBA. Despite his best efforts, McCain actually alienated voters by using music that people could relate to and then having it pulled from his campaign due to artists’ statements. In a campaign against a candidate like Barack Obama, who is the epitome of cool relatable guy, McCain only hurt his image by trying to present himself with what could be seen as non-Republican music.
The question that’s left, with all of these examples, is why? Why do Republicans continue to use music that gets them in trouble with artists?
One major point to consider is why they choose those songs in the first place. Assuming candidates pick music that voters will relate to, these Republicans seem to want the kinds of voters that won’t necessarily relate to them. It may have more to do with artists being generally left-leaning, but when it comes to songs like “Born in the USA”, one has to wonder what Republicans find appealing about this song and why they don’t think before using it again.
But think of it this way – campaigning is advertising. When a politician puts themselves out there for a presidential election, they are, in effect, selling themselves. They’re selling themselves to the general public and the background music needs to fit certain criteria. Sometimes it consists of lyrics, sound, patriotism, or any other number of factors. But when a republican candidate chooses “Born in the USA” or Bush tries to use “I Won’t Back Down”, they’re trying to make themselves a more appealing product to consumers. Because of the nature of the music business and politics, the way that an artist feels is now a factor and Republican candidates are going to have to learn to adjust.