The Many, Many Musicians Who Have Told Politicians to Stop Using Their Songs
Prince, Rihanna and Pharrell Williams join a long lineage who've refused to let politicians rock in the free world to their tunes
The pop star is hardly the first musician to request such a thing. Below, a loosely chronological list of musicians who have told politicians to stop rocking (in the free world) to their hits. (It’s worth pointing out that we’re not discriminating between artists who have issued the terse-if-diplomatic “This candidate didn’t ask our permission” statement and artists who flat-out told a candidate to stop using their music.)
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’
The Boss has frequently gone to the mat for his music, having told Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan (in 1984, 1996 and 2000, respectively) to drop this song from their campaigns. What’s weird is that none of them have picked up on the fact that the song is a barely veiled critique of the U.S.’s lack of support for veterans.
John Mellencamp, ‘Pink Houses’ and ‘R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.’
Mellencamp also turned down Reagan in 1984; the Gipper wanted to use “Pink Houses.” And he told George W. Bush and John McCain they weren’t entitled to “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” in 2000 and 2008, respectively.
Bobby McFerrin, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’
George H.W. Bush’s attempts to get the country to stop worrying and be happy in 1988 were stymied by the song’s writer, Bobby McFerrin, who objected to Bush’s use of the song.
Sam & Dave, ‘Soul Man’
Quick, what’s the first thing that you think of when you envision Bob Dole: Is it “Soul Man?” Regardless, Dole was using the song during his 1996 campaign when Sam & Dave told him to cut it out.
Tom Petty, ‘I Won’t Back Down’
Bush the younger didn’t fare much better than his dad in his attempts to find a campaign soundtrack. Not only did Tom Petty tell him to stop using his music in 2000, but so did
Sting, ‘Brand New Day’
Though to be fair, Sting also discouraged Al Gore from using the song.
Orleans, ‘Still the One’
Bush was also dinged by John Hall, the author of soft-rockers Orleans’ hit “Still the One,” for using the tune while campaigning for reelection in 2004.
Boston, ‘More Than a Feeling’
Boston had more than a feeling that Mike Huckabee shouldn’t be using their song during his 2008 campaign. (They had a cease-and-desist letter.)
Many artists, to John McCain
John McCain had a hard time putting together a campaign mix tape in 2008. Not only did Mellencamp shoot him down for “Pink Houses” (and “Our Country”), but so did Heart (“Barracuda”), Jackson Browne (“Running on Empty”), Bon Jovi (“Who Says You Can’t Go Home”), Van Halen (“Right Now”), Tom Petty (“Won’t Back Down,” again) and Abba (“Take a Chance on Me”).
Sam & Dave, ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’
At least Sam & Dave are bipartisan: They told Barack Obama he wasn’t allowed to use “Hold On, I’m Coming” in 2008.
Rush, ‘Tom Sawyer’
Avowed Libertarian Rand Paul is also a big Rush fan, which comes as no surprise – the group used Libertarian icon Ayn Rand as early inspiration. But they’re not really fans of his, and have warned him off of using both “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio” during his campaigns.
Survivor, ‘Eye of the Tiger’
Survivor objected to Newt Gingrich using their iconic song in 2012, though Gingrich’s campaign manager also looked to
The Heavy, ‘How You Like Me Now’
who also turned him down.
Several artists, to Mitt Romney
Romney had about as hard a time as McCain trying to find suitable campaign music. He was shot down by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider (for “We’re Not Gonna Take It”), Silversun Pickups (“Panic Switch”), K’Naan (“Wavin’ Flag”) and also Survivor (“Eye of the Tiger,” natch).
Tom Petty, ‘American Girl’
Michele Bachmann (remember her?) got some mileage out of Petty’s “American Girl” in 2012 before he told her to stop.
Katrina and the Waves, ‘Walking on Sunshine’
Katrina and the Waves also emerged from obscurity to tell her to quit using “Walking on Sunshine.”
Dropkick Murphys, ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’
The Irish (and pro-union) punk group told Wisconsin Governor and (anti-union) presidential hopeful Scott Walker to stop using their song in the bluntest way possible: A tweet saying “We literally hate you.”
Axwell & Ingrosso, ‘Something New’
EDM superstars Axwell & Ingrosso came out against Marco Rubio using their song “Something New” in January 2015, though he’s also mentioned being a fan of David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia, so maybe there’s hope for a Rubio/EDM mashup yet.
Several artists, to Donald Trump
Finding Donald Trump a soundtrack has been troublesome. Adele’s team distanced themselves from his use of both “Rolling in the Deep” and “Skyfall” at rallies; Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler’s lawyers sent him cease-and-desist letters when he used “Dream On;” REM lead singer Michael Stipe responded with “Go f— yourself” when informed Trump used “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine);” and Neil Young refused to allow him to use “Rockin’ in the Free World,” as well.
Oh, and we forgot about the Rolling Stones (for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Brown Sugar”) and Elton John. John was diplomatic, saying, “I don’t want my music to be involved in anything to do with an American election campaign,” while it’s safe to say we know where the Stones would fall if Trump had sought their permission: “Can you imagine President Trump? The worst nightmare,” Keith Richards told Billboard last year.
Explosions in the Sky, ‘Your Hand in Mine’
Possibly because of the group’s musical placement in the Texas-centric Friday Night Lights soundtrack, someone in Ted Cruz’s campaign thought it might be okay to use the group’s “Your Hand in Mine” in a campaign video. The band disagreed.
Steven Tyler, ‘Livin’ on the Edge’
After Trump used Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge” at a campaign event in Charleston, West Virginia, in August 2018, frontman Steven Tyler sent the president a cease and desist letter ordering him to stop using the band’s music at his rallies.
According to CBS News, Tyler is a registered Republican. But the 70-year-old rocker says the issue “is not about Democrats vs. Republicans.”
“I do not let anyone use my songs without my permission,” Tyler said in a statement Wednesday. “My music is for causes not political campaigns or rallies. Protecting copyright and songwriters is what I’ve been fighting for even before this current administration took office. This is one of the reasons why [Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry] and I have been pushing the Senate to pass the Music Modernization Act. NO is a complete sentence,” he added.
This wasn’t the first time Trump has played the band’s music without its permission. Tyler referenced two previous cease and desist letters sent to Trump in 2015 amid his presidential campaign.
“As we have made clear numerous times, Mr. Trump is creating the false impression that our client has given his consent for the use of his music, and even that he endorses the presidency of Mr. Trump,” the letter reads. “By using ‘Livin’ On The Edge’ without our client’s permission, Mr. Trump is falsely implying that our client, once again, endorses his campaign and/or his presidency, as evidenced by actual confusion seen from the reactions of our client’s fans all over social media.”
Pharrell Williams, ‘Happy’
Pharrell Williams sent a cease-and-desist to the president after he played his upbeat hit “Happy” at a rally that took place in the wake of the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that killed 11 people and injured six others, USA Today reported.
“On the day of the mass murder of 11 human beings at the hands of a deranged ‘nationalist,’ you played his song ‘Happy’ to a crowd at a political event in Indiana,” wrote Howard King, Williams’ lawyer, according to USA Today.
“There was nothing ‘happy’ about the tragedy inflicted upon our country on Saturday and no permission was granted for your use of this song for this purpose,” the letter continued. “Demand is hereby made that you cease and desist from any further unauthorized use of Pharrell Williams’ music.”
Rihanna, ‘Don’t Stop the Music’
The “Wild Thoughts” singer discovered in November 2018 that President Trump has been playing her songs during his political rallies, and she’s less than pleased about making his playlist.
She responded to Washington Post White House bureau chief Philip Rucker’s tweet about the anomalous nature of Trump’s rallies, which he’s continued to hold long after his electoral college victory in November 2016.
“It’s been said a million times, but here’s a million and one — Trump’s rallies are unlike anything else in politics,” Rucker wrote on Twitter. “Currently, Rihanna’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ is blaring in Chattanooga as aides toss free Trump T-shirts into the crowd, like a ball game. Everyone’s loving it.”
Rihanna, however, was not loving it, and she made her displeasure known. “Not for much longer…me nor my people would ever be at or around one of those tragic rallies, so thanks for the heads up Philip!” the 30-year-old pop titan responded.
Prince, “Purple Rain”
The late singer’s estate was unhappy with the president when they found out that “Purple Rain” was played at Trump’s campaign event in the pop icon’s hometown of Minneapolis in October 2019. They alleged that the Trump campaign promised in October 2018 they would not to use any of the singer’s music at events.
“President Trump played Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ tonight at a campaign event in Minneapolis despite confirming a year ago that the campaign would not use Prince’s music,” Prince’s estate said in a tweet. They finished the tweet with: “The Prince Estate will never give permission to President Trump to use Prince’s songs.”
And they brought receipts! The estate attached a copy of a letter from the law firm that represented Trump’s campaign in 2018. The letter itself stated that the campaign would “refrain from using Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ or any other Prince music, in connection with campaign rallies or other campaign events.”