In 2004, a group of artists organized by the liberal group MoveOn toured the country in support of John Kerry’s presidential race. In Cleveland, the headline was Bruce Springsteen, an outspoken liberal.
Cleveland loves the Boss: It was an early adopter to Springsteen fandom, and his tales of working-class desperation resonated in the Rust Belt. His politics? That was more complicated. The result was that amid a sea of Kerry supporters, there was a small but significant (and noisy) group of Bruce fans who cheered wildly during the songs and jeered with equal fervor when Springsteen talked about the election.
Most people don’t choose the artists they listen to based on their politics. They usually don’t even care what their favorite musicians’ politics are. The problem is that the musicians tend to care a great deal. This week alone, Survivor blasted Mike Huckabee and Kim Davis for using “Eye of the Tiger” at a rally. Then on Wednesday, R.E.M.’s “It's the End of the World of the World (As We Know It)” was played at the Donald Trump-Ted Cruz anti-Iran-deal rally in Washington, prompting a tart response from singer Michael Stipe: “Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you—you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.” (Bassist Mike Mills gamely passed along Stipe’s comments and an official band statement, but apparently disagreed with the strategy, tweeting, “Personally, I think the Orange Clown will do anything for attention. I hate giving it to him.”)
These things happen every campaign cycle. In July, Neil Young and Donald Trump squared off over Trump’s use of “Rockin’ in the Free World.” To a certain extent, one sympathizes with the artists, who don’t want their hard work to be associated with causes they oppose. But at a certain point, the sanctimony and outrage seems a little overwrought. (Survivor’s Frankie Sullivan wins points for humor, at least: Of Davis, he said, “I would not grant her the rights to use Charmin!”)
The first reason is basic and mechanical: Most uses to which these songs are put are completely legal. As the rules from the RIAA and ASCAP make clear, as long as there’s a general license in place for music at rallies, convention centers, and the like, it’s almost certainly above board. Musicians can still object and make a stir, but it’s part of their licensing deal. There are exceptions. It’s usually not OK to make a song a campaign theme without permission, nor to use one in a video. In 2010, then-Florida Governor Charlie Crist used Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” in a YouTube ad, drawing a suit from singer David Byrne. The two ultimately settled, with Crist recording an apology video. Byrne said at the time that he was surprised and dismayed to learn how frequently music was used in ads without permission.
A second reason is more post-modern: The author is dead. Once an artist releases a song, or a work of art, or a book, she surrenders the right of interpretation. That might be a sympathetic, incisive review by Ben Ratliff, or it might be George Will hearing “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem, not a bitter lament. Even then, there’s a difference between “It’s the End of the World,” a catchy dadaist litany that seems essentially apolitical, and “Rockin’ in the Free World,” an angry sneer at George H.W. Bush and American apathy about poverty and environmental degradation. That’s no complaint—the most explicit political songs are often pedantic and cringeworthy, while the best political music is generally more sociological in bent, from Springsteen’s best to Kendrick Lamar’s vivid rhymes.
One might get the impression from these spats that all rock stars are liberals, which of course is not true. But progressive candidates don’t seem to spin much Kid Rock or Ted Nugent. For a Republican candidate, playing those musicians’ songs is a cultural signifier that would fall on deaf Democratic ears. And sometimes even politically engaged musicians shrug at their songs being played. Even as the Boss spurns devoted-fan Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor has taken to playing songs by lesser Garden State rockers Bon Jovi. Frontman Jon Bon Jovi is a vocal Democrat, but he told Mother Jones, “My friendships are apolitical.”
Of course, most music is, too. In any case, when campaigns are called on to stop using songs, they generally do so, even if they’re legally in the clear, because it isn’t worth the fight. Besides, is this the best campaigns can do? “It’s the End of the World” was released in 1987. “Rockin’ in the Free World” came two years later. And “Eye of the Tiger,” surely one of the most overplayed songs of recent years, was released more than 30 years ago. The folks in charge of DJing for campaigns and rallies might be able to save the candidates a petty fight, the musicians some dyspepsia, and attendees some boredom by looking for new pump-up tunes.