The Curse of the Boss
Music, Elections and the Promise of the American Uprising
It happens every four years. Almost as surely as the dog-and-pony show of the GOP presidential primary gains steam, we’re sure to get news of artists upset that these knuckle-dragging candidates are using their music. And, as if to prove just how low conservative standards of music are, half of the time it’s not even good songs that are being fought over.
This time around it’s “Eye Of the Tiger,” which puts progressives in an odd position of having to side with manufactured one-hit-wonders Survivor against Newt Gingrich (note: given their penchant for irony, the hipsters among us will probably find this task easier than the rest of us). Band member Frankie Sullivan, who filed the cease-and-desist order against Gingrich’s campaign, is insisting that the decision has nothing to do with politics, but rather that “it is strictly an artist protecting their copyright.”
If Survivor are one of the few artists who actually do own the copyright to their music, then more power to them. It nonetheless remains hard to separate this latest episode from the long line of Republicans who have had their hands slapped back from would-be campaign anthems by the artists who penned them. What’s more, a closer look at any of these songs will likely leave those of us living in the real world wondering exactly what these candidates were thinking. Not that it’s the first time we would do so.
This past June, it was Michele Bachmann, who had the temerity to use Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on the campaign trail. Not only is Petty rather well-known to be a liberal, but the speculations surrounding the song’s content are hardly the kind that a politician wants to connect to themselves.
Years ago, Petty himself dismissed rumors that the song referred to a woman who committed suicide at Gainesville’s University of Florida (Petty is originally from Gainesville), but not before the legend took on a life of its own. In fact, he’s never exactly come clean about the motivations behind the lyrics of “American Girl.” Still, the imagery of a disillusioned girl “raised on promises” looking to escape her upbringing into the “great big world” doesn’t exactly line up with conservatives’ exaltations of “small town values” against the attacks of “big city liberals.”
John McCain had one hell of a time back in ‘08 trying to find his groove--politically or musically. Not for lack of trying. The McCain-Palin campaign, during its months on the trail, was served rebukes from Jackson Browne and Jon Bon Jovi (both of whom had already endorsed Obama publicly). After Anne and Nancy Wilson got wind that Sarah Palin was using their song “Barracuda” at the Republican National Convention, they promptly delivered up their own cease-and-desist order; Nancy Wilson also told Entertainment Weekly that "Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women."
Not even Abba would allow McCain to use their music on the campaign trail. But the coup de grace had to be when the senator’s camp attempted to use a song from the World War II video game Medal of Honor in one of their ads. Even in this case, the composer balked. Christopher Lennertz, who wrote much of Medal of Honor’s soundtrack, turned out to be an ardent supporter of the Obama campaign. And while he admitted that he didn’t own the rights to his own music, he also released a public statement expressing his own dismay.
Chalk it up to what could be easily be termed “the curse of the Boss.” Ever since the famed attempt by Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA,” American conservatives just can’t seem to find their soundtrack. More to the point, they seem to have little concern for the song’s content (why, in the name of all that is logical, would the war-mongering Reagan look to bandy about the story of a vet cast to the wolves by the country he served?), the singer’s politics, or even whether they have legal permission to use the song in the first place.
Perhaps, that is, until now. Word is that front-runner Mitt Romney is using Kid Rock’s “Born Free” on the trail. Kid Rock is, of course, one of music’s most well-known conservatives; he supported McCain in ‘08, was a staunch backer of Dubya and the war in Iraq. At the same time, Romney’s embrace of the artist puts to lie the idea that the former is some sort of closet moderate. Kid Rock unapologetically flies the Confederate Flag onstage.
Running alongside all of this is the not-so-shocking revelation that Mitt Romney, to be blunt, can’t sing worth a crap. His attempt at singing a few bars of “America the Beautiful” was a rather transparent attempt at one-upping Barack Obama’s surprising success at carrying a tune at the Apollo Theater a couple weeks prior. All it really did was prove to the world that the former Massachusetts Governor really does lack any kind of genuine charisma.
To be sure, Obama is going to need a great deal more than a few bars of Al Green to win November’s election. Four years ago, voters felt that he was a much better option than your run-of-the-mill lesser evil. Now, on the other side of the Arab revolutions, the Occupy movement, and his endless caving to business and empire, he’s in the position of having to prove what actually distinguishes him from the obvious evil of the Republicans.
Four years ago, the amount of musicians who were excited about an Obama nomination was through the roof: Modest Mouse, Nas, Sharon Jones, Michael Stipe, the Roots, and the list goes on. Now, the experience of an Obama presidency is what has turned voters to activists.
Four years ago, Pete Seeger tapped these high hopes when he sang “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Obama’s inaugural week. Now, he’s singing it at Occupy Wall Street. So are many other young unemployed and super-exploited workers who have been driven to take their message to this country’s public parks.
The recent rhetorical shift of his State of the Union address notwithstanding, Obama’s hopey-changiness has become little more than a distant memory. His maneuvers since taking office can only be described as Clintonian: promise the people jobs, rights and restored liberties, then continue what the Republican predecessor started once their votes are firmly in the Democrats’ back pocket.
Three years of hindsight have proven the Clinton-Obama parallel to be more than a little eerie. Both even went out of their way to quietly placate the culture warriors on the campaign trail by pointing a finger at hip-hop culture. With Clinton it was lambasting Sister Souljah, with Obama it was parroting Don Imus.
All this may add up to the president’s own “curse of the Boss” to come November. The musician who joined Seeger to sing at the Lincoln Memorial? Bruce Springsteen. It was indeed a powerful moment, but as with many other progressives, Bruce’s present disillusionment is hard to miss. “We Take Care of Our Own,” the lead single from his upcoming album Wrecking Ball, has already stirred quite the controversy for its obvious tip of the hat to Occupy and focus on American inequality. Even some liberals have been flummoxed by the song, which can be understandably blamed on perennial election anxiety.
In 1968, as Chicago cops swung their billy clubs at anti-war protesters and broke up an MC5 performance, the Democrats dithered inside their convention. Many progressive musicians who had thrown their lot in with the Dems for fear of a Nixon presidency had their final break at this moment. Obama not only has the obstacle of a potential repeat in Charlotte this year, but the protests--illegal or not--against the mid-May G8-NATO summit, once again in his hometown of Chicago. With a heap of musicians already planning to be present for the demonstrations (and perhaps performing), both parties may be struggling to find their own soundtrack this election season.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, TheNation.com, New Politics, the International Socialist Review and others. He is a founding member of Punks Against Apartheid and also organizes for the Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective. Contact him at email@example.com.