What do Dolly Parton, U2, and Woodie Guthrie have in common? Respectively, each artist has had a song used on the American Presidential campaign trail: Hillary Clinton played ‘9 to 5’ in her 2008 bid, Barack Obama bopped along to ‘City of Blinding Lights’, and George H. W. Bush used ‘This Land is Your Land’. The reasons their campaigns chose each song are clear: Clinton was playing with her ‘working woman’ and image, Bush wanted to evoke nostalgic American patriotism, and Obama was referencing a band famous for their counter-cultural – yet popular – message of change.
And of course, in Obama’s case, the U2 album title in question – How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb – could only aid an image of a candidate both in tune with pop culture and global politics.
Next question – what do Keane, Bruce Springsteen, and The Rolling Stones have in common? Each of these artists has had a song used in a political campaign. They have then publicly distanced themselves from the politics of the candidate or politician, and even attempted to refuse the rights to the music. In 2010, the British Conservative party used Keane’s song ‘Everybody’s Changing’ to launch their manifesto. The band’s drummer, Richard Hughes, said he was ‘horrified’. In 1984, Bruce Springsteen railed against Ronald Reagan using his anthem ‘Born in the USA’.
Most recently, The Rolling Stones have threatened legal action against Donald Trump for using their 1969 hit ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ in campaign rallies, including his rally at Tulsa last week. The band have been liaising with BMI, the performing rights organisation, and have released a statement that makes it clear that while the Trump campaign has a ‘political entities licence’, this licence does not permit the campaign to play a song if the artist ‘objects to its use’.
What is odd here is not that music is being made political – with lyrics like ‘War, children, it’s just a shot away’, The Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed was deeply engaged with politics. Nor is it that odd that music is becoming an arm of political machinery: Red Wedge – the Billy Bragg-led 1985 group of musicians that tried to bring left-wing policies to younger voters in the 1987 UK election – is an earlier example of politics co-opting music, and musicians willingly taking on a political role. Indeed, campaign songs date as far back as John Adams’ election. In 1800, he made use of a specially written song ‘Adams and Liberty’. Its lyrics were sung to the tune of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and featured lines like ‘Let our patriots destroy Anarch’s pestilent worm; /Lest our Liberty’s growth should be checked by corrosion’. History does not record if Adams sang along.
What is odd, however, is that many politicians are seemingly unable to grasp the meanings of the songs they choose. In the 2010 UK election, Keane’s ‘Everybodys Changing’ was played alongside David Bowie’s ‘Changes’, and banners were displayed saying ‘Vote for Change’. The political message was clear, but why the Conservative Party thought a song whose mournful refrain is a lament for how ‘everybody’s changing and I don’t feel the same’ was a good fit for the campaign is beyond all comprehension. The song even has the lyrics ‘I’m trying to make a move just to stay in the game’ which sounds like a remarkably honest reckoning with political skulduggery, not a value that the Conservative Party would likely want to advertise.
Reagan wanted to use Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’, he – and all his staffers – had no apparent awareness of its critique of Vietnam and America’s treatment of its working-class veterans. It’s unlikely that an angry paean to those ‘born in a dead man’s town’ with ‘nowhere to run’ was the message of patriotic hope Reagan wanted to present. And, with Trump’s recent run-in with The Rolling Stones, it’s difficult to believe that the current US president is au fait with the end of the 60s counter-cultural disillusionment. Perhaps the choice of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is just a candid attempt to appeal to the confused swing voter.
For a while, politics has been a performative game-show format with endless shouting, point scoring, and the perennial battle between red and blue. But when music (especially music which seems bizarrely incongruous with the political issue or message) is added on top, it’s all too easy to see the endless election cycle as a reprised musical with an aging, and only slightly varying, cast playing the same old tunes.