Politicians Love Their Music. The Musicians Don’t Always


GOP presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy courted trouble with the rapper Eminem when he spit an offbeat rendition of “Lose Yourself” in Iowa last month. Like other outraged musicians, Eminem through his representatives sent the campaign a cease-and-desist letter.

Candidates have a long tradition of playing songs at events in an attempt to look cool or to offer hints about their approach or platform. Artists, however, don’t always want to be pulled into campaigns—especially when their politics don’t align. The result can be embarrassing or even lead to a legal spat.

In a 1984 speech during his re-election campaign, Ronald Reagan name-checked Bruce Springsteen, whose working-class anthems had struck a chord. Reagan said the music offered a hopeful message about the American dream.

Springsteen pushed back against that characterization. One of his most famous songs, “Born in the U.S.A.,” released that year, carries a dour message about suffering Vietnam War veterans that belies its cheerful sound.

Political hopefuls typically get a music license for a catalog of songs they can play at campaign events. Similarly, radio station owners, grocery stores and others pay for blanket licenses to use certain songs. Songwriters and music publishers who own copyrights can remove their tracks from a license agreement. Politicians often, but don’t always, listen to those requests. They can invite lawsuits by continuing to use excluded songs.

“This all gets very complicated,” said Marc D. Ostrow, a senior counsel at Romano Law in New York who focuses on the music industry.

The pop-rock band Orleans has been pulled into campaigns that its founder, John Hall, didn’t care for. He said he found out by watching CNN in 2004 that the Bush campaign selected as an anthem “Still the One,” a song he co-wrote for the band.

“The first thing that crossed my mind is, ‘Why didn’t I know about this?’ ” said Hall, who is also a former Democratic congressman from New York.

Hall said Bush’s team complied with a cease-and-desist letter to stop using the song. Bush’s office didn’t return requests for comment.

Hall said people shouldn’t assume they can just take an artist’s music.

“A number of people could have asked and we might’ve said yes, but President George W. was not at that time one of those people,” Hall said.

This summer’s hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which enthralled many on the right with its lines about selfish politicians and overweight people on welfare, showed up in a question at last month’s Republican presidential debate. Afterward, the musician, Oliver Anthony, posted a video saying his song was being weaponized and that the track was about political figures such as the candidates.

Most of the high-profile music conflicts have involved GOP candidates. In one instance involving a Democrat, Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign agreed to stop playing a song by the R&B duo Sam & Dave at singer Sam Moore’s request. Moore later performed for the Obamas.

Democratic candidates have generally had more support from the music industry. Stevie Wonder, for example, appeared at Obama campaign events. The singer-songwriter Rachel Platten gave her blessing for Hillary Clinton to adopt “Fight Song” as her 2016 anthem.

Platten said, “For a song that I wrote to mean so much to so many men and women of all ages, nationalities and faith is a blessing that is not lost on me.”

Ramaswamy, 38, won’t get another chance on the campaign trail to flex his youthful bona fides with a song by Eminem, born Marshall Mathers, one of the best-known rappers of his generation. Eminem asked Broadcast Music Inc., a performance-rights company representing him, to remove his music from its list of songs approved for Ramaswamy’s campaign. BMI is one of the two main U.S. companies handling music-licensing disputes. The company declined to comment.

“Vivek just got on the stage and cut loose. To the American people’s chagrin, we will have to leave the rapping to the real Slim Shady,” said Tricia McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Ramaswamy, referring to a nickname for Eminem.

A spokesman for Eminem said, “The letter speaks for itself.”

Former President Donald Trump has received a truckful of similar letters from music stars including Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. Trump played Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” at rallies even after the British singer publicly objected.

Neil Young, the “Rockin’ in the Free World” singer, sued Trump’s campaign in 2020 for playing his songs at political rallies, years after protesting that Trump used his music without permission. The lawsuit was dismissed later that year.

George W. Bush, John McCain and Mike Huckabee also received cease-and-desist letters during their presidential campaigns.

“You have taken something of mine and used it to promote ideas to which I am opposed,” Tom Scholz of the rock band Boston wrote in a 2008 letter to Huckabee. Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, ended his GOP presidential campaign soon after, resolving the dispute.

If candidates use unlicensed songs at political events, they would be violating copyright law. They may do it anyway.

Like Young, artists on occasion sue politicians for using their music. Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne won a settlement in 2009 from McCain. Charlie Crist settled with David Byrne of the Talking Heads and posted a video in 2011 apologizing to him for using his song without permission during his Senate campaign.

Representatives for the artists and politicians in this article either declined to comment or didn’t return requests for comment.

Hall, of the group Orleans, said he learned four years after the Bush episode that the McCain campaign also used his song at an event. At Hall’s request, the Republican didn’t use the song again.

“Some people go, ‘Cool, you’re getting more publicity,’ ” Hall said. “They don’t understand how hard you worked on the song, how hard you worked on the record and how precious it is to an artist.”

Write to Alyssa Lukpat at

Politicians Love Their Music. The Musicians Don’t Always Love Them Back.

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Politicians Love Their Music. The Musicians Don’t Always Love Them Back.

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