When politicians fail to strike the right chord

After Tom Petty tells Michele Bachmann to stop using his song 'American Girl', Guy Adams on the perils of mixing pop and politics

It's started. With no less than 16 months until America goes to the polls, voters have been treated to that enduring staple of every modern presidential election season: a left-leaning musician trying to sue a Republican candidate for using one of their songs on the campaign trail.

At opposing sides of the latest musical showdown are Tom Petty, the blues-rock legend famous for bad haircuts and faded denim, and Michele Bachmann, the gaffe-prone Congresswoman from Minnesota who on Monday travelled to Iowa to launch a bid for the leadership of the free world.

Lawyers representing Mr Petty have fired a "cease-and-desist" letter to the ultra-conservative Bachmann after learning that she walked from the podium at the televised event to a 29-second clip from the opening of his 1977 hit, "American Girl".

The musician is understood to be upset that the track has been misappropriated without his permission, and concerned that fans may infer that he has somehow endorsed a candidate whose firmest political beliefs lie in direct opposition to his own social principles. Ms Bachmann is a vigorous opponent of gay rights, a lifelong campaigner against abortion, and a evangelical Christian who does not believe in the theory of evolution and argues that at the start of the 21st century, creationism ought to instead be taught in the nation's schools.

That plays well among the right-leaning demographic of Republican voters who subscribe to the Tea Party movement. Indeed, their star-spangled values are perhaps one reason why the Petty track was chosen for Monday's important event.

But her views sit rather less comfortably with Mr Petty, who has a long and very public history of filing lawsuits against Republicans who use his music without permission. In 2000, he succeeded in forcing George W Bush to stop using "Won't back down" as his campaign theme. "This use has not been approved," his lawyers informed "Dubya". "Any use made by you or your campaign creates, either intentionally or unintentionally, the impression that you and your campaign have been endorsed by Tom Petty, which is not true."

Although copyright law has always been unclear on the use of clips from famous songs at political rallies, the history of controversy starts with Ronald Reagan, who upset Bruce Springsteen by attempting to use the track "Born in the USA" as his election campaign theme.

Similar disputes have since emerged in every election season since. For obvious reasons, Democratic candidates generally find themselves given a freer pass by recording artists. Many Republican candidates, particularly at the conservative end of the spectrum, find it hard to get any popular musician to endorse them.

By way of an experiment, yesterday's Washington Post devoted hours to attempting to find a popular musician who would allow Bachmann to use their tunes. They found just one: the famously conservative rock star and gun-rights advocate, Ted Nugent.

"Michele Bachmann is clearly a Great American," Nugent wrote, in an email to the paper. "Her words have iron, her spirit is indefatigable and her beauty contagious. In a perfect world her ultimate campaign theme song would be [his 1977 hit] 'Wang Dang sweet poontang', just to fire up America and prove that political correctness is laughable."

Pop versus Politics

Angela Merkel and the Rolling Stones

The ageing rockers were not best pleased when German Chancellor Angela Merkel used their 1973 hit song "Angie" as the soundtrack to her 2005 leadership bid. Mick Jagger's crooning lyrics "Angie, you're beautiful" sang out across almost all of Merkel's campaign rallies and her supporters had even sported T-shirts and placards emblazoned with "Angie".

But an embarrassing row erupted when the Stones' agent later complained that the band had not granted its permission for the Christian Democratic party to use its song, and a spokesperson asserted that they "would probably have said 'no'" had they been asked. It may have come as a surprise to the Stones and their fans that the party had chosen it in the first place in view of its lyrics, which feature the lines: "All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke... You can't say we're satisfied."

A spokesperson for Merkel's party dismissed the accusations, insisting that the German music distribution rights agency Gema had allowed it to use the song. "We will continue playing the song," a party spokesperson said.

Nicolas Sarkozy and MGMT

American indie duo MGMT demanded compensation from French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 after his UMP party used one of the band's songs as its campaign soundtrack. The party overlooked Carla Bruni's pop songs in favour of MGMT's hit single "Kids". But despite the UMP's tough stance on illegal file-sharing, the party did not seek the band's permission to use the song as its anthem du jour.

"Normally MGMT steers clear of mixing music and politics," the band said. "But the fact that the UMP used our song without permission while simultaneously pushing anti-piracy legislation seemed a little wack." The UMP admitted it had used the song at its national congress meeting and in two online videos, but insisted a mistake had been made and offered compensation as a gesture of goodwill to the tune of €1. MGMT's French lawyer rejected the sum, calling it "insulting", and the UMP later agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to settle the dispute. The money was donated to charity.

Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen

When The Boss's hit "Born in the USA" flooded American airwaves in 1984, it might have appeared to be an obvious patriotic anthem to accompany Republican President Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign that year. But Reagan's aides had failed to look closely at its lyrics. The song was widely seen as a condemnation of American society from the viewpoint of a Vietnam war veteran, and Springsteen did not take kindly to Reagan trading on the song's popularity, or on Springsteen's kudos with America's youth. "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope so many young people admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen," Reagan declared at a rally in America's Garden State that year. In response, Springsteen vented his disapproval in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. "I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in. But what's happening, I think, is that that need is getting manipulated and exploited. You see that in the Reagan election ads on TV."

Charlie Crist and David Byrne

Talking Heads singer David Byrne began legal proceedings against the former governor of Florida Charlie Crist when the band's 1985 hit "Road to Nowhere" was used in a campaign video which attacked Crist's political rival Marco Rubio during their 2010 race for the US Senate. An outraged Byrne complained that Crist had not sought to obtain permission or licence to use the song in his video, which was uploaded to YouTube, and initially demanded $1m (£620,000) in damages. Byrne decided to settle out of court for an undisclosed sum in April after a face-to-face meeting with Crist, after which the ex-governor said his former adversary "couldn't have been a better guy".

Crist later released a YouTube video formally apologising to Byrne, in which he pledged: "Should there be any future election campaigns for me, I will respect and uphold the rights of artists and obtain permission or a licence for the use of any copyrighted work." Byrne said he had taken action against Crist because unlike other artists he had "the bucks and guts to challenge such usage".

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own