Presidential Soundtracks: “Walk Up” Tracks and the Power of Campaign Music

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, Joseph Biden will stand on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., place his hand on the bible, and will be officially sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America. The world will be tuned in to see Biden and Kamala Harris assume their new roles after a very contentious election cycle.

This article isn’t about politics or even about the inauguration. Rather, it’s about music, and the role music has played for politicians during their campaigns and will continue to play in the of politicians keen to bond with their constituents.

Music has long been an important component of a politician’s image. Think Clinton with his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show, and Obama “Slow Jams the News” on the Tonight Show. Truly iconic moments that connected these leaders with their constituents in a way that only music can.

As music has become an important component of a candidate’s image, politicians and artists (and labels) find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. First, artists have little say over who can use their music, as they rarely own the rights themselves. As a result, artists are sometimes associated with politicians whose politics they abhor. (Trump chose the Village People’s “Macho Man” as a campaign song, for example). Next, politicians often play songs at their rally’s without bothering to get the proper licenses or clearing the song’s use with the artists or the publishers/labels. Some will honor cease and desist letters; others are fined, or simply ignore the pleas of the artists and labels. The labels, who often wish to remain apolitical for obvious reasons, find themselves torn between the artists they support and politicians who can have a positive (or negative) impact on their bottom line.

According to USA Today, campaigns can obtain blanket licenses from performing rights organizations such as the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers and Broadcast Music, Inc. While artists may not always have any legal recourse, public attacks on the politicians using their music – Neil Young’s onstage denunciation of Trump over the latter’s legally cleared use of “Rockin’ in the Free World” as an example– can lead to the song being dropped.

Politician’s Signature Songs

Of late, “Walk Up” songs have become an integral part of the political landscape. Similar to a baseball player coming to bat or the drama-filled announcement of the line-up at a basketball game, this new trend has made it’s way into popular culture and sometimes helps catapult the candidate into public life.

Beginning with political rallies in their hometowns, candidates carefully select the songs that they use when they address their audience, because they understand the impact that the association with a popular song (and artist) can have.

Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ first rally in Oakland, California featured “Work That” by Mary J. Blige. If you know anything about Ms. Blige’s history and oeuvre, Ms. Harris’ selection was perfect—both for the crowd and for the occasion.

The same can be said for Elizabeth Warren. She chose country queen Dolly Parton’s anthem for working women: “9 to 5.” Again. Makes sense.

Brooklyn’s own Bernie Sanders kicked off a rally in Brooklyn, blasting (Brooklyn) born Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard.” Try saying that fast three times.

Finally, President-elect Joe Biden chose “We Take Care of our Own” by none other than Bruce Springsteen.

In each of these examples, the artists themselves welcomed the association with the politician.

However as noted earlier, all artists don’t welcome the association. Sometimes, politicians will use a song without the artists’ permission, leading to Twitter feuds, fines and cease and desist letters.

Bruce Springsteen famously disapproved of Ronald Reagan using “Born in the U.S.A.” Following a cease and desist letter, the licensing company pulled Aerosmith’s songs from the Trump campaign’s blanket license, forcing their removal of Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”

Barracuda was one of Heart’s biggest hits and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose nickname was “Sarah Barracuda” in high school, used the song at campaign rallies in 2008. She claimed she had the right to use it because she had a blanket license from ASCAP.

Mike Huckabee’s campaign was forced to pay a $25,000 settlement for unlicensed use of “Eye of the Tiger.” Newt Gingrich also paid a settlement over use of the song in 2012.

It’s not just the Republications being asked to stand down. In 2008, Sam Moore of Sam & Dave asked Obama to refrain from playing his “Hold on, I’m Coming,” for fear it would look like the singer had endorsed the candidate. The Obama campaign agreed to stop.

Thankfully, we will get a reprieve from political campaigns (and rallies) for a while. In the meantime, lawyers, labels, publishers and artists continue to struggle with finding a solution that works for all.

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