Campaigns adopting songs is nothing new, but squabbles with musicians are

You’ve heard this one before: A hopeful politician plays a song at a rally, and a rankled rock star slaps him with a cease-and-desist letter.

With the 2012 race for the White House officially underway, the first big sparks between a pol and a pop star flew in Waterloo, Iowa, on Monday when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) blasted the first 29 seconds of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” before announcing her bid for the presidency. Petty’s camp promptly sent a letter asking her to knock it off.

Prepare for 16 more months of this.

Although presidential campaigns have adopted theme songs since Abraham Lincoln was running for office, squabbles between candidates and musicians have only become commonplace since 1984, when President Ronald Reagan name-dropped Bruce Springsteen and his “message of hope” while stumping in New Jersey. (Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was a rising hit at the time, and although Reagan never reportedly played the song on the trail, the singer complained that his image had been co-opted.)

Since then, this trope has played out during every campaign season like a broken record. Sometimes the disputes go unresolved. Artists can take legal action when a politician uses their music in a campaign advertisement without permission, but they have little recourse against candidates who pump the singers’ hits at public appearances — aside from shaming them in the pages of Rolling Stone.

Despite Petty’s request, Bachmann played “American Girl” again Tuesday after a speech in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but refrained from playing it as she made four tour stops across South Carolina on Wednesday. (A representative for Petty declined to comment on the candidate’s continued use of the tune, and her campaign did not return calls.)

Is that 30-second burst of rock-and-roll before every stump speech worth the blow back?

“This has been an age-old question, for Republicans in particular,” said Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s an impediment to the extent that it diverts resources from the campaign.”

But dust-ups over song choices didn’t hurt George W. Bush’s campaigns. He was rebuffed by four artists during his winning presidential runs in 2000 and 2004. The tunes he was slapped on the wrist for using: Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” Sting’s “Brand New Day” and “Still the One” by Orleans.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had worse musical luck during his losing 2008 presidential run. Mellencamp and the Foo Fighters asked the candidate to stop playing their hits. McCain was chided by Heart after running mate Sarah Palin took the stage at the Republican National Convention to “Barracuda.” And McCain eventually had to settle out of court after using Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” in a campaign ad without permission.

Charlie Crist must not have been paying close attention to all of that. After the Republican’s failed 2010 run for U.S. Senate, the former Florida governor was sued by Talking Heads singer David Byrne for $1 million over the use of his song “Road to Nowhere” in an online campaign video. Crist settled out of court — and apologized to Byrne on YouTube.

Democratic candidates don’t seem to have such bad luck. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign funding, says that more than 8o percent of congressional campaign donations from political action committees and individual employees associated with the music industry went to Democrats last year.

To that point, Bill Clinton used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” in his successful 1992 presidential campaign, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) used Springsteen’s “No Surrender” in his 2004 bid, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) used Springsteen’s “The Rising” in 2008 and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) used Mellencamp’s “Our Country” in 2008 — without any protest from the artists.

Over the years, Republicans have found a haven in country music. Lee Greenwood doesn’t allow “God Bless the U.S.A.” to be used in political commercials. But the song has been a reliable go-to at rallies, and he has performed it at GOP conventions. Reagan and George H.W. Bush used the song in their presidential campaigns, and numerous Republicans used it in 2008. Recently, R&B superstar Beyonce covered it for charity, making it safe turf for Democrats, too. (Beyonce has recently aligned herself with first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” youth fitness campaign.)

Other country songs have been bipartisan. Louisiana duo Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America” was used by George W. Bush’s and Obama’s presidential campaigns. “Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans,” singer Kix Brooks told The Washington Post in 2008.

Although some campaign theme choices are just plain weird (supporters of Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry used Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” in an online video, and GOP Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky has played Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” on the trail), most strike a safe balance between upbeat and unthreatening.

With the Republican nomination up for grabs, the tunes have played it pretty safe. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has recently taken the stage to “Born Free” by Kid Rock. Former China ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) are playing a songs licensed especially for their campaigns. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s campaign hasn’t decided on a tune, but in 2008, it was a dance remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation.”

Regardless of Petty’s letter, Bachmann might want to think twice about her campaign soundtrack. Things didn’t go well for the last presidential hopeful to play “American Girl” on the campaign trail.

Her name was Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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