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Candidates' Tunes Hit A Few Sour Notes
Several Republicans this year have played Lee Greenwood's stirring and patriotic "God Bless the U.S.A.," which has practically become the official theme song of the Republican Party; it was a big hit in the campaigns of both Ronald Reagan (1984) and George H.W. Bush (1988), too. This year, however, it may have new resonance for Republicans, with its "proud-to-be-an-American" refrain echoing the party's immigration-reform sentiment.
Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be countering with John Mellencamp's equally stirring and patriotic "This Is Our Country," a song made inescapable by commercials for Chevy trucks.
But even seemingly "safe" choices can cause trouble.
The most famously misread song may have been Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." During his 1984 reelection campaign, President Reagan praised Springsteen's "message of hope" during a stop in New Jersey. It wasn't clear which song, or songs, Reagan meant (and there's no record of Reagan's campaign actually playing the song), but many assumed he was referring to "Born," the title track of Springsteen's best-selling album at the time. The song, of course, is about the opposite of hope; it's the anguished cry of a Vietnam veteran, returning home to bleak prospects ("I'm ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go"). Springsteen later expressed irritation at being made an implicit part of Reagan's morning-in-America reelection rhetoric.
For sheer musical lameness, the prize may go to Sen. Robert Dole's campaign, which adapted the classic Sam & Dave tune, "Soul Man," during his 1996 presidential run. It became "Dole Man." Then it disappeared, after the song's writers took issue with the alteration.
Although campaigns don't need permission to use a pop song, artists have objected to the unauthorized use of their work on political grounds. George W. Bush may have set the record for upsetting the most singers and songwriters: His campaigns have had to pull at least four songs over two election cycles amid complaints. During the 2000 campaign, Petty, Mellencamp and Sting complained about Bush's playing of, respectively, "I Won't Back Down," "R.O.C.K. in the USA" and "Brand New Day" (which was used by Al Gore's campaign without objection). Before Bush yanked the songs, Mellencamp told Rolling Stone magazine, "I don't think that anybody that knows me would think I have the same position as [Bush]."
Then, in 2004, Bush's reelection campaign had to stop playing "Still the One," the 1970s hit by the group Orleans, after co-writer and singer John Hall objected. Hall, a Democrat from New York, won his own race for Congress in 2006 after singing a duet of "Still" with Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report."
Another dust-up arose during Rudy Giuliani's aborted Senate campaign in 2000. Giuliani criticized his opponent -- one Hillary Clinton -- after one of her aides played Billy Joel's "Captain Jack" at a rally. Giuliani got some media mileage by calling a news conference and reading the song's lyrics, which mention drug use and masturbation. But Clinton's people pleaded innocent. They said the selection was an accident -- the intended song was "New York State of Mind" but someone mistakenly left Joel's "Greatest Hits" album on too long.
Giuliani himself has shown up at public events, including at least once last year, accompanied by "Rudie Can't Fail," a song about shiftless young people by legendary British rockers the Clash. Its chorus refers to "drinking brew for breakfast."
Lately, Giuliani has retreated to safer musical territory -- a little Alan Jackson, a little Rascal Flatts . . . and even some opera.