For a political candidate, finding a song to soundtrack your campaign is an important way to connect with your constituents. You want something recognizable, energetic, and representative of your message, something to rally behind. But if you’re a Republican candidate, you have to contend with an uncomfortable fact: Most of the people who write those songs hate you.
The most recent examples come from a pair of bloated gasbags, Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump. Huckabee co-opted Survivor’s Rocky theme song “Eye of the Tiger” for a publicity stunt intended to leverage the national attention being paid to a bigoted Kentucky clerk who refuses to do her job. And in a stroke of brilliant irony, Trump used R.E.M.’s 1987 classic “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” at a Tea Party rally at the U.S. Capitol.
Neither artist was pleased. Survivor is no stranger to such conflict — the band’s Frankie Sullivan, who co-wrote “Eye of the Tiger,” sued Newt Gingrich in 2012 for his use of the song at campaign events. Trump is a man without shame, but it’s strange that Huckabee would tempt fate with that particular song, given that Gingrich ultimately capitulated and settled with Sullivan. Why would he risk it?
The answer lies in the law. Generally, when politicians speak at events, the venue that hosts them typically pays for a blanket license from an organization like ASCAP or BMI, who manage the performance rights for thousands of songs, and pay royalties to rights holders. John McCain’s 2008 campaign was the proving ground for this strategy; he also holds the dubious distinction of having the most disputes with musicians over campaign music. After Jackson Browne sued him for his use of “Running on Empty,” McCain was forced to pay Browne an undisclosed sum and issue a public apology. Later in the campaign, McCain’s camp made sure they had licenses to play the songs they used, including the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero.” The fighters of foo objected, as did the band Heart, when McCain’s VP candidate Sarah Palin used their hit “Barracuda” to reference Palin’s high school nickname “Sarah Barracuda.” Both acts objected, but the campaign was legally protected, and all the objections served to do was generate yet more free publicity.
Pre-Trump, the most savvy use of this free-publicity strategy can be attributed to Mitt Romney, who used K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” at a rally in Florida, incensing the artist’s fans on Twitter and prompting him to speak out against Romney and his platform. The Romney camp was legally protected by licenses from ASCAP and BMI, but quickly bowed out, out of what they called respect for K’naan’s views. So not only did they squeeze even more coverage out of a ho-hum rally, but also postured as having taken the high road, “respecting” the artist whose song and message Romney co-opted. Evil genius.
Which brings us to Trump. He knows the value of the tactic, having gotten plenty of press after using Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” this July, and knows that even if you’re tweeting at Trump to go fuck himself, you’re still helping his name trend on Twitter. So when Mike Mills tweeted out the following missive on behalf of Stipe, one wonders who actually benefits:
Politicians have been co-opting pop music for some time, probably even before Franklin Delano Roosevelt used “Happy Days Are Here Again” at the 1932 Democratic National Convention. And since the McCain campaign, Republicans have wizened up, and turned the problem into a weapon for its PR machine. So what’s an artist to do? Bruce Springsteen used Republican candidates’ idiotic co-opting of his disillusionment anthem “Born in the U.S.A.” to clarify his politics and get more involved, but the smartest strategy might just be the one employed by Gretchen Peters, who wrote the Martina McBride song “Independence Day.” Her work was co-opted by Sarah Palin during that fateful McCain/Palin ’08 campaign. Instead of suing, she donated all of the royalties she collected during the election season to Planned Parenthood, of which Palin was a vocal opponent. The organization raised a million dollars during that period (though not necessarily only from Peters). So whaddaya say, Michael Stipe? Amnesty International could use the help.