Pop music and politics, more cooptation than cooperation

Jul 28, 2011

Political figures have frequently used pop music for an image boost. Bill Clinton played Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” and President Obama used the Allen Toussaint song “Yes We Can Can” to great effect.

But the musicians aren’t always so keen on the idea ...

Heart had to ask Sarah Palin to stop using “Barracuda,” and more recently Tom Petty had to tell Michelle Bachmann to quit playing his song “American Girl” at her rallies. Just a couple of elections back, Petty told George W. Bush to quit playing “I Won’t Back Down."

Bruce Springsteen really threw the pols a curve ball with his 1984 anthem “Born in the USA.” It sounds like a pro-America rallying cry, but the lyrics are about a shell-shocked, unemployed Vietnam war vet. In a classic case of ironic misrepresentation, Ronald Reagan thought it sounded just fine at his campaign rallies, and he won by a landslide.

Perhaps our favorite is the clash between Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and radio host Rush Limbaugh, who’d been using the distinctive riff of “My City Was Gone” as his theme song since 1984.

“It was icing on the cake that it was [written by] an environmentalist, animal rights wacko and was an anti-conservative song," Limbaugh said. "It is anti-development, anti-capitalist, and here I am going to take a liberal song and make fun of [liberals] at the same time."

This led Hynde to demand that Limbaugh stop using the song, which he did. However, Hynde did an about-face and offered Limbaugh the use of her song in exchange for his donating of $100,000 to PETA.

She later wrote to the organization saying, "In light of Rush Limbaugh's vocal support of PETA's campaign against the Environmental Protection Agency's foolish plan to test some 3,000 chemicals on animals, I have decided to allow him to keep my song, 'My City Was Gone,' as his signature tune ..."

Dang. We always thought she was a Born in the USA American Girl Barracuda who Won’t Back Down.

Every week on “Record bin Roulette,” KPLU’s John Kessler and John Maynard put an insightful and fun spin on a century's worth of discarded vinyl. The feature is published here and airs on KPLU 88.5 every Thursday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.