When it comes to music, the Mitt Romney campaign has had a rough go of it. Artists like Silversun Pickups, Twisted Sister, K’Naan, and Al Green have already prohibited the Republican ticket from using their songs based on various reasons, mostly ideological. But Romney isn’t the only musical pariah in politics. Over the course of his two successful campaigns, George W. Bush faced lawsuits from artists such as Tom Petty, John Hall, and Sting while John McCain received backlash from the likes of John Cougar Mellenkamp, ABBA, Jackson Browne, and The Foo Fighters. In fact, the only Democrat to ever be asked not to use a song was Barrack Obama in 2008 when Sam Moore asked him to not use his song “Hold On, I’m Coming,” but even in that instance, Moore insisted he was excited about Obama’s campaign. The recent request made by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider to Paul Ryan had me asking a simple question: why do musicians hate the GOP?
I wanted to approach this question from an unbiased perspective, and although I consider myself an independent, I can’t deny the fact that I’ve voted Democrat in every election since I was of legal age. Despite my habit of leaning left, I tried to look at this one-sided refutation of music in politics with an open mind. As far as I’m concerned, popular music and politics should never mix. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago when politicians had original songs written for their campaigns, whether it be “Lincoln and Liberty,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry Truman,” or “Nixon’s the One.” But in 1972 George McGovern threw the tradition for a loop when he used Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” (um, not a depressing outlook at all Mr. McGovern), igniting four decades of popular music taking the place of those original toe-tappers. And in the last decade, the denial of artistic property has been on the rise, at least for Republicans.
After some thought about my question “Why do musicians hate the GOP?” here are some hypotheses I came up with.
1. “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”
Research has shown that the brain is comprised of four different sections that control four different thought processes and behaviors. In a strange twist of irony, the two quadrants of the left brain fit within the mindset of “the Right” in politics. Left brained individuals are described as structured, practical, obedient, disciplined, critical, and results-oriented. Basically, your average Reagan era conservative.
To find the part of the brain that deals with creativity you wouldn’t need to go any further than the frontal right lobe where imagination and expression take shape. I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb by saying most musicians are probably right-brained. The basal right brain is where our mind works out feelings of empathy, compassion, and harmony. The result of the two right lobes in combination would lead one to believe that creative minded people are more likely to be caring, compassionate individuals.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that to be conservative is to be compassionless, but many of the issues that Democrat’s advocate for most, such as health care, welfare, and education, all are more sympathetic to the less fortunate than, say, gun control, the death penalty, or military spending. While Democrats more often than not take the empathetic stance that tax money should be used to help the down trodden, Republicans seek out the logical approach that discipline and hard work lead to success (no hand-outs necessary). Regardless of where you stand, brain research suggests that creative types (musicians) are more likely to be Democrats. And really, beyond Ted Nugent and Dave Mustaine, can you even name another prominent Republican musician (country music doesn’t count; notice I said “musician”)?
2. “Working Class Heroes”
Stories of musicians and their hardships have become the stuff of legends: Elvis Presley’s poverty stricken childhood with a father in jail, Jimi Hendrix having to steal food as a child in order to survive, and Kurt Cobain sleeping under a bridge. I wouldn’t dare go as far as to say that all musicians come from the low-to-middle class bracket (you don’t see many harp players playing on street corners), but I think that a majority of the artists within the vein of rock, rap, and pop have been forced to make sacrifices in order to make their dreams come to fruition.
While the idea of being a self-made man is one of the main tenets of conservatism, I believe this struggle often leads to a more compassionate view of humanity, not to mention that a carreer in music doesn’t guarantee a paycheck or health insurance for that matter. It’s no coincidence that guys like Mellenkamp, Springsteen, and Billy Joel sing about the blue-collar worker and his woes. Whether or not they are just pandering to the consumer is up for debate, but I think that much of their inspiration is drawn from their own life experiences amidst the middle class.
3. “Words (Between the Lines of Ages)”
In some instances Republicans have been prohibited to use songs not due solely to a difference of opinions but due to their complete misunderstanding of the song’s message. It all started back in 1984 when Ronald Reagan, while campaigning in New Jersey, quoted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” While the chorus to the hit song plays as a patriotic anthem, the lyrics speak directly to the plight caused by the politician misquoting them – a song about a system that beats down its citizens and provides “No job, no hope, no respect.” As you can imagine, Springsteen was not at all pleased by the misappropriation of his words.
This misunderstanding of song lyrics is not limited to just Reagan. In 1988 George Bush Sr. used Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a protest song that ends with the lyrics, “I see my people / And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’ / If this land’s still made for you and me.” Probably not the best choice of words amidst the poverty that ran amuck in the 80s. In 2008 John McCain was asked to quit using John Mellenkamp’s “Pink Houses,” another pseudo patriotic song with a chorus of “Ain’t that America / for you and me?” when the song actually illuminates the loss of the American dream for the middle class. When your opponent is promoting hope, it’s in bad taste to inadvertently promote despair.
But this past year, Romney has taken the cake in terms of misreading lyrics. First K’naan asked him to quit using the song “Wavin’ Flag,” a song that says “So many wars, settling scores / Bringing us promises, leaving us poor,” then the Silversun Pickups threatened a lawsuit for the use of their song “Panic Switch,” the band’s statement being, ““We were very close to just letting this go because the irony was too good. While (Romney) is inadvertently playing a song that describes his whole campaign, we doubt that ‘Panic Switch’ really sends the message he intends.”
And even when the GOP isn’t using unauthorized songs they have been receiving flack for not understanding the lyrical content of music. When Paul Ryan was cited as a fan of the political rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine, it didn’t take long for guitarist Tom Morello to lambast the vice presidential candidate for being completely oblivious to the messages found in the band’s songs and pondered, “Perhaps Paul Ryan was moshing when he should have been listening.”
4. “Don’t Pass Me By”
Or maybe I’m over analyzing everything and the answer is simple: Republicans have a history of not supporting the arts. Plain and simple. If Romney becomes president, programs like the National Endowments for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are likely to be left on the cutting board floor. Attempts to abolish the NEA date back to 1981. Reagan pushed for congress to drop the program for three straight years until giving up when he said he finally saw “the needs involved and benefits of past assistance.” Despite Reagan’s concession, Conservatives still see these programs as unnecessary spending. For outspoken members of the NEA such as Thurston Moore, Jackson Browne, and Michael Stipe, an opportunity to deny the GOP use of their music might simply be an opportunity to take a shot at a political party that hasn’t shown the arts much love over the past three decades.
Whatever the reason behind this pattern of rejection, it doesn’t really matter in the end who our rock stars support. In a perfect world, candidates would avoid all the embarrassing news stories of being denied yet another song and hearken back to the tradition of original campaign songs. Because really, who wouldn’t want to hear Kid Rock’s version of “Mitt is Da Shit?”