Neil Young (AP/Jason Decrow)

A brief history of liberal musicians who were horrified when conservatives appropriated their songs

Neil Young suing the Donald is just the latest reason why right-wingers should just stop using music at rallies


Scott Eric Kaufman
June 17, 2015 6:05PM (UTC)

When Donald Trump announced his presidential bid yesterday, he did so to the tune of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" -- and according to Young's manager, the veteran rocker wasn't amused.

In a statement to Mother Jones, Elliot Roberts said "Donald Trump's use of 'Rockin' in the Free World' was not authorized. Mr. Young is a longtime supporter of Bernie Sanders."

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The song was an odd choice to begin with -- though not out of line with the Republican tradition of only listening to the chorus of their campaign songs. As with Ronald Reagan's appropriation of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," someone on Trump's staff neglected to listen to all of the other words in Young's lyric, which chronicles the lives of the homeless and the drug-addicted living on the streets of America.

The Trump Tower-dwelling real estate tycoon could hardly have chosen a more inappropriate song. "We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man," Young sings. "We got a kinder, gentler, machine gun hand."

If the consistent use of unlicensed music in their campaigns is any indication, Republicans must be secretly annoyed that the only people who will allow them to use their music at this point are Ted Nugent and Pitbull. Earlier this year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was asked by the Dropkick Murphys to "stop using our music" because "we literally hate you."

In 2012, Survivor sued Newt Gingrinch for walking onstage to their song "Eye of the Tiger."

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Tom Petty had to send another 2012 Republican hopeful, Michele Bachmann, a cease and desist letter to stop her from using "American Girl" at her campaign rallies.

Petty had to send George W. Bush's people a similar letter in 2000, as the future president insisted on playing "I Won't Back Down" on the trail.

But Petty wasn't the only band that sued Bachmann to get her to stop playing their songs at her rallies. Katrina & The Waves instructed their attorneys to stop the former Minnesota Congresswoman from using their hit "Walking on Sunshine."

Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart were similarly unamused upon learning in 2008 that Sarah Palin was using "Barracuda" as her vice presidential theme. In a statment, they said that "the Republican campaign did not ask for permission to use the song, nor would they have been granted that permission. We have asked the Republican campaign publicly not to use our music. We hope our wishes will be honored."

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Palin's running mate, John McCain, also found himself at the wrong end of a lawsuit after Jackson Browne discovered that he had used portions of "Running on Empty" in a campaign spot. "In light of Jackson Browne's lifelong commitment to Democratic ideals and political candidates, the misappropriation of Jackson Browne's endorsement is entirely reprehensible, and I have no doubt that a jury will agree," a statement by his lawyer read.

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McCain also angered the Foo Fighters over his use of "My Hero." In a statement, leader singer Dave Grohl said that "[t]o have it appropriated without our knowledge and used in a manner that perverts the original sentiment of the lyric just tarnishes the song. We hope that the McCain campaign will do the right thing and stop using our song — and start asking artists' permission in general."

But McCain did not stop. The GOP candidate started playing Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home" at his events. In their statement, the band said that "[t]he song has since become a banner for our home state of New Jersey and the de facto theme song for our partnerships around the country to build homes and rebuild communities. Although we were not asked, we do not approve of their use of 'Home.'"

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At this point you may be wondering what songs conservatives can use at their rallies. Luckily for them, we were kind enough to make them a list.


Scott Eric Kaufman

Scott Eric Kaufman is an assistant editor at Salon. He taught at a university, but then thought better of it. Follow him at @scottekaufman or email him at skaufman@salon.com.

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