John Schumann, singer of iconic Australian outfit Redgum, expressed his distaste during the Easter break when anti-Islam movement ‘Reclaim Australia’ used his 1983 anthem, “I Was Only 19″, to support their rally in Melbourne.
“I am very, very disappointed to see my work co-opted by what I, at my most charitable, consider to be a very confused ‘patriotic’ movement,” Schumann said in a public statement.
Schumann’s haunting folk tune, evoking the perils of war and turmoil post-Vietnam was (to anyone with a clue) thematically off point against Reclaim’s vague anti-sharia law, halal tax and Islamisation agenda. A wiser choice would probably have been Pauline Pantsdown’s “Backdoor Man”.
But then, music has always endured a strained and confused relationship with political movements. Between the two, an undeniable attraction exists—as Ron Eyerman, author of Music and Social Movements highlights, political movements use music not only as a basis for recruitment, but as “a way of creating and strengthening a sense of collective identity, a sense of, ‘we are in this together’.”
Regrettably, this result is usually attempted by hijacking songs without artists’ consent, songs that too often miss the mark altogether, just like Reclaim. However, it’s deep in the bloated arena of campaign politics that we see the most heinous of these musical misappropriations go down.
In 1984, US President Ronald Reagan infamously tried to leverage off the popularity of rising rocker Bruce Springsteen, by pumping out “Born in the USA”—an anti-war meditation on America’s darker side—as part of his campaign shtick. Philosophically polar, The Boss made him stop.
More recently, US Senator Newt Gingrich was sued for repeatedly abusing Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” at public appearances. In 2009, Congress whip Eric Cantor touted victory in a battle over stimulus legislation with a public video featuring Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle”, a song about hookers in a saloon town.
One might think a tune detailing the ins and outs of frontier prostitution would be an obvious dodge for any political campaign, conservative or otherwise. It seems that the appeal of a rousing chorus or mobilising hook remains so salacious a selling tool for the spin-hungry campaigner that any scrutiny over further lyrical content is neglected, regardless of the thinly veiled hypocrisy or sauciness that lurks within.
Sometimes meaning is lost in translation. In 2012, French President elect Francoise Hollande regularly bust out Jay-Z & Kanye West’s “N*ggas In Paris” to better sell his platform of labour, education and pension reform. The foreign element didn’t favour former French PM, Nikolas Sarkozy, his UMP party forced to fork out a 30,000 Euro piracy charge for flogging MGMT’s “Kids” at its 2009 national congress (they initially offered the band one Euro in damages).
Across the channel, funk soul brother Tony Blair not only bastardised U2’s “Beautiful Day” in 2005, but also Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now” the year prior. In 2010, David Cameron pissed Keane off royally when he spun “Everybody’s Changing”. Over in Deutschland, the Rolling Stones sneered when Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to sass up her act with a dose of “Angie in 2005″.
You’d think those who actually legislate on copyright issues might have the decency to request permission to use these songs, if not purchase a license, but as Intellectual Property lawyer Nicole Rizzo Smith says, it’s far easier not to:
A zealous campaign manager surely envisions the crowd cheering as the perfect song thumps through the speakers while the politician emerges from the wings…more appealing than haggling over a license that may not be granted.
As Rolling Stone further highlights it’s unclear whether politicians have the right to play music at a campaign event without an artist’s permission or not. Such a case is yet to appear in court; generally it’s in a politician’s interest to back down.
Chronic offender George W. Bush certainly did when Tom Petty sent him a cease and desist order after he kept thrashing “I Won’t Back Down” along his 2000 trail—Bush had to ditch a total of four tunes across consecutive campaigns when the complaints piled up, including from Sting, John Cougar Mellencamp and John Hall (he eventually went with a country song recorded by Billy Ray Cyrus).
“It must be a tough gig for the Dubyas and Bachmans of the world, trundling through in the far right desperate to secure a sweet tune for their cause.”
Petty’s energetic heartland anthems have been a magnet for political misappropriation—the rocker also sent Republican Michele Bachman a cease and desist letter for her use of “American Girl” in 2012.
It must be a tough gig for the Dubyas and Bachmans of the world, trundling through in the far right desperate to secure a sweet tune for their cause. After all, it’s traditionally the left that tends to mix more smoothly with the arts. The last thing most musos want (barring Meatloaf, Kid Rock, Gene Simmons and Alice Cooper, et al) is to have their hits affiliated with conservative policy, or worse, be seen to be endorsing a despised candidate.
No problem for someone like Obama, who gets to groove to his selection of motown soul and Springsteen ditties at every public engagement; nor for the Clintons, who were able to turn Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” into a lifelong political theme song, and sway the defunct boomers to reform for saxy Bill’s 1993 inauguration ceremony.
Conversely, all Republican John McCain could muster for his 2008 rallies was ABBA’s “Take A Chance On Me” (Jackson Browne sued him for using “Running on Empty”, which probably did the silver vet a favour). In 2012, Mitt Romney tried to show how street he was with a campaign ad featuring Canadian rapper K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag”. “If you don’t like the poor, don’t use their songs,” K’Naan responded.
Others on the right have attempted to shirk legality by altering pre-existing lyrics to suit their cause. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson famously revamped “Hello Dolly” into “Hello Lyndon“ and Bob Dole destroyed classic Sam & Dave tune “Soul Man” by creating “Dole Man”. Worse still: the forgotten joy of Richard Nixon’s bespoke anthem “Click with Dick” (actual lyrics: “Click with Dick… the one that no one can lick”).
Though generally at the receiving end of music’s political abuse, every now and then the public get their chance at revenge. In 2013, anti-Thatcher protestors staged an online campaign to propel “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” to the top of the BBC Radio 1 charts to get it played on the Sunday countdown show prior to Thatcher’s funeral (it reached #2; a short portion of the song was spun).
In exceptional circumstances an artist might actually revel at having their work called up for service. Things certainly got a lot better for Northern Irish outfit D-Ream in 1997 when the Labour Party slated “Things Can Only Get Better” to be the soundtrack for their ‘Cool Britannia’ revolution—it helped trounce the Tories and skyrocket the single back to number one.
Here on local turf, pollies have been relatively well behaved, preferring custom melodies to sonic fiddling. Gough Whitlam pioneered in ‘72 with iconic election-winning “It’s Time“. Hawke kept the groove with potent ‘87 jingle, “Let’s Stick Together“. Arguably, John Howard made it over the line against the opera-loving Keating in ’96 with the indelibly shiteful, “For All of Us”.
Unfortunately, like a lot of things in Australian society in recent years, home grown political soundtracks have gone the way of the pilfering yank. Tasmania’s Bob Cheek drew passionate ire from Mark Seymour in 2002 when he used “Holy Grail” in his state election campaign without asking. Queensland counterpart Lawrence Springboard got the juice flowing without legal repercussion to Van Halen’s “Right Now” during his 2004 effort.
As Myf Warhurst recently argued, it’s been too long between drinks for the good old-fashioned political singalong—perhaps for obvious reasons:
Imagine if next election we saw Tony Abbott sing with gung-ho enthusiasm about his love of coal or Bill Shorten belt out a moving ditty about how he stands by the government “on some issues”? This absence of song is indicative of an era where politics itself seems particularly artless – in more ways than one.
It looks increasingly doubtful that anyone on either Liberal or Labor sides will muster the gall to commission an original composition—lest it end up sounding like the Wobbies World commercial—so our era of political artlessness is destined to persist.
All we can hope for in the coming election is that leaders go out with something chipper and regaling, or at least vaguely apt. Recently outed Savage Garden devotee Tony Abbott might consider “Crash and Burn“, if not Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold“. Bill Shorten should bust out jazz hands to an LBJ-ified rendition of “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’“. And for Joe Hockey? Anything by Nickelback.