Over the years I have read a ridiculous number of stories about musicians suing and otherwise shaming politicians for using their songs despite significant policy and partisan disconnects with the artists. It happens almost every cycle (often repeatedly). There have already been several such events this cycle.
When Jackson Browne filed suit against John McCain and the RNC in 2008 for using his song Running on Empty in an ad without a proper license, the defendants claimed fair use and a court disagreed. While the suit was over licensing, it was still partially a political ploy on Browne’s part. A long-time Social Justice Warrior, Browne was unhappy that the right-of-center McCain was disparaging Obama’s comments on fuel consumption and tire pressure. The suit specifically claimed McCain had violated the Lanham Act
for suggesting that Browne supports or had endorsed him. It’s not uncommon for lawyers to include a litany of arguments in a suit hoping one will stick. However, Browne’s team claimed at the time that it was not about their political differences.
Getting proper licensing for use in paid media is something campaigns have trouble with. I have seen a LOT of campaigns fail in that front because licensing costs money. But licensing issues aside, there should be a significant difference between media use and entertaining people with music while waiting for an event. Artists who get bent out of shape that their music was played for the crowd are just being a pain for the sake of doing so. I have never heard anyone at a rally (and I have been to A LOT of ralles) saying, “Oh, they played Jackson Browne, he must support my guy!”
Perennial whiner John Cougar Melonhead has sent more cease and desist letters regarding his music than perhaps any other musician in the recorded history of music. Most recently, he sent Scott Walker a cease and desist letter demanding that he stop playing the song Small Town for crowds waiting at campaign stops. Small Town, for those who have been living under a rock between 1985 and today, is about growing up in a small town. There is NO political message to be taken from it other than “I grew up in a small town.” As evidence:
Got nothing against a big town
Still hayseed enough to say
Look who’s in the big town
But my bed is in a small town
Oh, and that’s good enough for me
Well, I was born in a small town
And I can breathe in a small town
Gonna die in this small town
And that’s prob’ly where they’ll bury me
Yep, I can totally see how Melonhead would not want to have Walker supporters celebrating their small town, rural Wisconsin upbringing by listening to his song. If anything, Melonhead should be kissing Walker’s (and others’) hairy beanbags for introducing a generation of kids growing up in politically active homes to an artist they might someday align with. Not to mention the fact that Melonhead hasn’t a song in the Top 100 for a decade and the Top 20 for two decades. It’s possible he might actually move some units and collect a royalty check.
All of this is why I found it so refreshing to see 80s glam-rocker Dee Snyder with perhaps the most rational and adult reaction of any artist to the use of their song.
“He called and he asked, which I appreciated. I said, ‘Look, we don’t see eye to eye on everything—there are definitely issues that we’re far apart on.’ But thinking back to when I wrote the song and what the song is about, it’s about rebellion, speaking your mind and fighting the system. If anybody’s doing that, he sure is.” – Dee Snyder
Dee Snyder is the first musician I have seen that responded in a reasonable manner. There is no claim that Trump’s use of the song somehow implies the musician’s support. He clearly acknowledges that the song is about rebellion and therefore Trump’s use reflects the intent of what he wrote. Trump – for better or worse – personifies what he wanted to convey with the song. Yet, Snyder also acknowledged publicly that he disagrees with Trump’s views. More artists should put on their manpants when a politician plays a song simply to entertain an anxious crowd and react as Dee did.