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
  • @guyadams

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".