Musical Missteps

Awkward: A History Of Politicians Picking The Wrong Campaign Songs


In case you haven’t noticed, Donald Trump is not a humble man. So it is not surprising that he would choose a song like “We Are The Champions” to walk out to at the Republican National Convention.

Unless, that is, you delve deeper than the lyrics and consider the context of an anti-LGBT candidate taking the stage behind an anti-LGBT platform to music written and performed by a gay man. A gay man who died from complications of AIDS, an epidemic the Ronald Reagan administration spent years laughing about before taking any meaningful action on whatsoever.

Queen had already expressed its displeasure at the Trump campaign to stop using their music prior to the RNC, with guitarist Brian May writing in a post to the band’s website that they have had a long standing policy to not allow their songs to be used for political purposes. He also stated a desire to distance themselves from the “unsavory” Trump campaign.

They are joined by several other artists who have requested Trump stop using their music, including The Rolling Stones, Adele, Neil Young and R.E.M.

“We Are The Champions” was also used in 1992, one year after Mercury’s death, by Pat Buchanan, who had served as the White House Communications Director from February 1985 to March 1987, during the Reagan administration. In 2012, Mitt Romney used the song as well.

This current flap fits into a history of politicians using songs that they really should have thought twice about, for one reason or another. Let’s take a look at some of the most awkward candidate and musical pairings.

“Born in the U.S.A.” – Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan 

When conservative columnist George Will attended a Bruce Springsteen concert in 1984, he was so impressed by what he saw in the musician that he wrote an article praising him. “He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!'” Will wrote.

Will thought Reagan and Springsteen would be a natural pairing, knowing nothing of the man’s politics. When Reagan staffers attempted to get an endorsement from Springsteen, he declined. That didn’t stop Reagan from namedropping Springsteen during a campaign stop in New Jersey.

“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,” Reagan said.

“The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album must’ve been,” Springsteen said at a concert shortly thereafter. “I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” He launched into “Johnny 99,” a song about a man who loses his job at an auto plant who can’t find work and resorts to murder.

Apparently this embarrassment didn’t get through to fellow Republicans Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan, who would later use the song in their campaigns, to which the artist objected.

“Soul Man” – Bob Dole

Safe to say no one has ever looked at Bob Dole and thought, “That man has SOUL!”

But a reworking of “Soul Man” by Sam Moore, of the group Sam & Dave who performed the song, rewrote the tune as “I’m a Dole Man.” The Dole campaign began using the reworked classic at campaign stops and at that year’s Republican National Convention.

Trouble is, the song was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who did not give permission and who held some of the rights to the song, along with Rondor Music, who sent a cease and desist to the Dole campaign, threatening a lawsuit. Hayes also expressed his concern, saying he worried that people might assume he and Porter endorsed the candidate, which he made clear they did not.

Dole stopped using the song and instead picked “Born in the U.S.A.” as their new song of choice, which Springsteen objected to via an open letter. “Just for the record, I’d like to make clear that it was used without my permission and I am not a supporter of the Republican ticket,” he wrote.

Dole finally settled on “American Boy,” by Eddie Rabbitt.

“How You Like Me Now?” – Newt Gingrich

Another example of the “Did they even listen to the lyrics?” phenomenon is Newt Gingrich’s use of the song “How You Like Me Now?” by The Heavy.

Now there was a time
When you loved me so
I couldn’t do wrong
And now you need to know

See, I been a bad bad bad bad man
And I’m in deep, yeah
I found a brand new love for this man
And can’t wait till you see
I can’t wait

Yeah, if you are running as a candidate for the party that at least pretends to be all about “family values,” and your history includes three marriages, affairs and “surprise” divorce announcements, maybe don’t pick a song that starts off like that, and then goes on to say:

If I was to cheat
Oh no, would you see right through me?

The band wasn’t thrilled about the use of the song, either, sending a cease and desist. They also posted on their Facebook page, saying, “If you heard ‘How You Like Me Now?’ being used by Republican, Newt Gingrich, in his campaign, we’d like you to know it had fuck all to do with us and we are trying to stop it being used. TWATS.”

Gingrich was later sued for his use of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” The year before he had been served with another cease and desist for his use of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

“Barracuda” – Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin’s nickname in high school was “Sarah Barracuda” for her tenacity on the basketball court. So it must have seemed like a cute idea to adopt the song “Barracuda” by Heart as her theme song out on the campaign trail. Unfortunately for her, the band was not her biggest fan. They served up a cease and desist and clarified the irony of her using the song.

When the campaign ignored it and played the song at the Republican National Convention, Heart members, and sisters, Ann and Nancy Wilson let their feelings be known publicly, releasing a statement.

“Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song ‘Barracuda’ no longer be used to promote her image,” it read.

“The song ‘Barracuda’ was written in the late ’70s as a scathing rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, particularly for women. (The ‘barracuda’ represented the business.) While Heart did not and would not authorize the use of their song at the RNC, there’s irony in Republican strategists’ choice to make use of it there,” it continued.

“Independence Day” – Sarah Palin

When Gretchen Peters discovered her song “Independence Day” was used to introduce Sarah Palin at a rally, she responded in no uncertain terms that she was less than pleased.

“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,” she said.

Peters donated the royalties she received from the song during the campaign cycle to Planned Parenthood, in Palin’s name.

“My Hero” – John McCain

Shocking as it may seem, Dave Grohl (along with Nate Mendel and Pat Smear) was not thinking of John McCain when he wrote, “There goes my hero/Watch him as he goes/There goes my hero/He’s ordinary.”

“It’s frustrating and infuriating that someone who claims to speak for the American people would repeatedly show such little respect for creativity and intellectual property…The saddest thing about this is that ‘My Hero’ was written as a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential. To have it appropriated without our knowledge and used in a manner that perverts the original sentiment of the lyric just tarnishes the song,” the band said in a statement.

The campaign shot back that they had permission to use the song, and paid proper royalties, under a blanket licensing agreement that does not require the artist’s permission.

Foo Fighters appeared at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and played an acoustic version of the song.

When George W. Bush used the band’s song “Times Like These” without their consent it prompted them to play a series of shows in support of his Democratic challenger John Kerry.

“Panic Switch” – Mitt Romney

The Republicans are often accused of fear mongering around issues such as terrorism, violent crime and immigrants. So Mitt Romney’s choice of the Silversun Pickups song “Panic Switch” struck many, including the band, as funny.

They served up a cease and desist and issued a statement drawing attention to the humor in his selecting a song with lyrics describing a paranoid state of mind.

“We don’t like people going behind our backs, using our music without asking, and we don’t like the Romney campaign,” singer and guitarist Brian Aubert said. “We’re nice, approachable people. We won’t bite. Unless you’re Mitt Romney! We were very close to just letting this go because the irony was too good. While he is inadvertently playing a song that describes his whole campaign, we doubt that ‘Panic Switch’ really sends the message he intends.”

“I’m Shipping Up to Boston” – Scott Walker

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made a name for himself by being the most anti-union politicians around, committing himself to bringing an end to collective bargaining. The band Dropkick Murphy’s recorded and released a song called “Take ‘Em Down” that criticized Walker and gave support to the union workers he was fighting against, with lyrics like:

When the boss comes callin’ they’ll put us down
When the boss comes callin’ gotta stand your ground
When the boss comes callin’ don’t believe their lies

When the boss comes callin’ his take his toll
When the boss comes callin’ don’t you sell your soul
When the boss comes callin’ we gotta organize

So when Walker came out to the Dropkick Murphy’s song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” during an Iowa campaign stop, the band described it as akin to “a white supremacist coming out to gangsta rap.”

They sent out a tweet that did not mince words: “@ScottWalker @GovWalker please stop using our music in any way…we literally hate you!!! Love, Dropkick Murphys.”