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Playlist: Campaign Songs That Made Musicians Mad

Bruce Springsteen has complained that his song "Born in the USA" has been played or quoted by Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan. Springsteen performed at campaign events for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
Bruce Springsteen has complained that his song "Born in the USA" has been played or quoted by Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan. Springsteen performed at campaign events for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

This campaign season, it was Donald Trump playing "Rockin' in the Free World" at his presidential announcement. Singer Neil Young was not happy.

But before Trump, there was "Dole Man," "Sarah Barracuda" and many other attempts by candidates to use popular songs, only to make musicians mad.

There's a trend here. Most of the politicians running afoul of musicians are Republicans — and most of the unhappy performers are on the liberal end of the political spectrum. And, as it turns out, politicians skirting copyright laws makes for a pretty rockin' playlist. Here's a selected list (Rolling Stone has compiled a fuller list here):

1. "Dole Man"

Bob Dole's 1996 campaign modified the lyrics to "Soul Man" and it became "Dole Man." One of the original performers even sang the new version. But there was a problem. The original writers of the song and the copyright holder didn't want to be seen as endorsing Dole and threatened to sue the campaign. Dole stopped using it.

2. I will back down

In 2000, George W. Bush used Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" in his campaign. Awesome song. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers sent a cease and desist letter and Bush did, in fact, back down.

3. American Girl

Michele Bachmann, who ran for president in 2011/2012, apparently didn't get the message about Petty and his feelings about Republican politicians using his songs. She took the stage at a rally to the tune of "American Girl." The cease and desist letter came almost immediately.

4. "Sarah Barracuda"

Sarah Palin came onstage at the GOP convention in 2008 with Heart's "Barracuda" blasting. Her nickname was Sarah Barracuda. Heart wasn't amused. Heart put out a statement saying: "Sarah Palin's views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women."

5. "Born in the USA," again, and again

Many people believe Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" as a theme song in his campaign. That's not actually the case. Reagan simply quoted from and praised the song and the musician. Springsteen didn't like his name being used to make a political point and complained.

And it wouldn't be the last time for Springsteen. He's had run-ins with Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan, who also tried to use "Born in the USA." Fans of Springsteen's music, and people who listen to the verse and not just the chorus, will note "Born in the USA" is not really the best choice for a politician trying to inspire.

6 & 7. "Our Country" and "Pink Houses"

John McCain had a couple of John Mellencamp numbers in his campaign playlist: "Our Country" and "Pink Houses." After Mellencamp asked McCain to stop using the songs, the senator complied.

8. Neil Young "is a supporter of Bernie Sanders"

And, of course, there's Donald Trump's use of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" at his campaign announcement last month. Young's label put out a statement: "Donald Trump was not authorized to use 'Rockin' in the Free World' in his presidential candidacy announcement," read the statement. "Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America."

Bernie Sanders is now walking out on stage at his massive rallies to "Rockin' in the Free World." The song was originally written as a critique of President George H.W. Bush.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.