Music on the Campaign Trail

In the Fall of 1977, just weeks before gay rights activist Harvey Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the English rock band Queen released the album News of the World. The LP included a short, heavily-rhythmic single called “We Will Rock You”, which typically segues into the anthemic “We Are the Champions”.  Written by Queen’s lead guitarist Brian May, “We Will Rock You” was recorded in an abandoned church in north London because the band liked the acoustics. And as Seth Wickersham, writing for ESPN reports, “For weeks, Mercury and May took turns stomping on old pews and clapping, until they got the right sound.”

Nearly four decades later, “We Will Rock You” remains the number-one track played at American sporting events—a fact that has intrigued me as much as I imagine it’s made a few structural engineers nervous since the trend began.  Forgive the generalized stereotype implicit in this observation, but to watch, for instance, forty thousand Dallas Cowboys fans sing along with gay Freddie Mercury in virile support of their football team is the exactly the kind of cultural counterpoint I appreciate when it happens.  The song was literally born in a church; it was sung by an incredible artist whose identity was at least somewhat restrained by the semi-tolerant limbo of homosexuality through the 1980s and the AIDS crisis; and then it became the Sunday hymnal of some of the most mainstream and socially conservative Americans, all rallied into chorus by and May’s thump-thump-clap rhythm.

The fact that the verses of “We Will Rock You” are about loss and futility only adds another layer of irony to its role in sports fandom; but this is generally what we make of music anyway.  The chorus and the rhythm fit our moods of triumph, sorrow, defiance, momentum, heartbreak, and so on, even if the lyrics and melody tell a very different story. And this particular relationship to music often comes into sharp relief when political candidates use a popular song—almost always because of the chorus—at campaign events.

In particular, when candidates represent or evangelize a point of view that is anathema to the authors’ beliefs—or even in direct opposition to what a song itself might be about—it has lately become a regular feature of our politics to hear of artists either asking or demanding that politicians not use their works.  These stories, of course, lead to all manner of confusion about copyright, fair use, and the control an artist may or may not exert in these contexts.  In most cases, people seem to side with artists, which is certainly encouraging, though hatred of a political candidate and love of a musician isn’t necessarily the clearest lens through which one might view these conflicts.

When Neil Young demanded that Donald Trump stop using his song “Rockin’ in the Free World” at campaign events, fans praised Young, though it’s not clear that he was on solid legal ground at the time. In general, a campaign is covered as long as the venue or the campaign itself has paid fees to Performing Rights Organization (PRO) like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC (or all three) to license the use of nearly any song for public performance. The campaign has a responsibility to ensure the venue has these licenses (or to get its own), but as long as the PROs are covered, the artists and songwriters generally have no say, from a legal perspective, about the context in which their songs may be used at live events.

Artists may certainly ask a political candidate not to use a song, and they are free to publicly criticize the use as much as they want, but they can’t rely on copyright to stop a politician from making this kind of use if the licenses are up to date. In another context, however, if a candidate makes repeated use of a song to the extent that it starts to become his/her theme music, the artist may see this as unlicensed endorsement and seek to enforce the right of publicity in order to stop the use. I’m not sure what the legal facts were in the Trump/Young kerfuffle; I’m guessing the campaign was most likely in the clear but decided to let the song go rather than allow a public fight with Neil Young to distract from its core message at the time of hating on Mexicans. One must prioritize.

In a different—and slightly bizarre—circumstance, the organization Huckabee for President, Inc. is facing a lawsuit by publisher Rude Music for copyright infringement stemming from a public performance of the song “Eye of the Tiger”, co-authored by Rude Music’s owner Frank Sullivan for the 1982 motion picture Rocky III.  Approximately one quarter of the four-minute song was played outdoors at a rally in Grayson, KY on September 8, 2015 immediately after candidate Huckabee introduced Kim Davis to the podium following her release from the Carter County Detention Center, where she had been jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  It’s a safe bet the county jail hadn’t paid any PRO licenses as they probably don’t host a lot of parties or other events requiring music. Ostensibly, this suggests the Huckabee campaign messed up in one way or another, and the defense presented in their case seems a little odd.

The attorney for Huckabee has presented affirmative fair use defenses addressing all four factors, including a less-frequently-cited exception for use of music at a religious assembly. In fact, the defense states that the candidate was only in attendance as an evangelical Christian in support of a rally called the “We Stand With God Pro Family Rally”, organized by a religious group and not the Huckabee campaign. What seems odd to me, though—and speaking as a layman of course—is that the foundation of Huckabee’s defense would appear to be that the Grayson event simply was not his show—that their operatives did not publicly perform “Eye of the Tiger” as part of the Huckabee for President campaign.  And the reason I say this is odd is that if this fact can be proven—or cannot be disproven—then the fair use defenses presented would be moot.  If Huckabee for President, Inc. did not publicly perform the song, then it cannot have infringed, which begs the question of offering any fair use defenses at all. If a use by a defendant does not exist, then there is no question of fairness to be judged.

So, the defense of religious assembly is irrelevant if it was not Huckabee’s assembly; and if it was in any way his assembly, he will have to prove that it was a purely religious gathering having nothing to do with the campaign.  How he might hope to make that distinction, particularly when Mike Huckabee barely recognizes a separation between church and state, would appear to require a rather fine legal scalpel.

In particular, as mentioned, the candidate introduced Kim Davis to the stage and then somebody pushed Play on “Eye of the Tiger”; so even if this coordinated bit of theater came together impromptu, it looks an awful lot like the event became a Huckabee for President moment, regardless of whether or not it began as a religious assembly. One way or another—whether professionally planned or divinely arranged—candidate Huckabee certainly ended up with a neatly choreographed moment—shared via amateur video online—in which Davis joins him at the podium to the beat and triumphant lyrics of Sullivan’s famous comeback song. The fact that this particular visual is just one of many reasons Mike Huckabee will never be president has of course no bearing on the infringement case.

As our politics have become more divisive, and side-show happenings can gain wider exposure than in pre-Internet years, politicians’ use of popular music is likely to produce more frequent points of contention for both artists and their fans.  And, as I say, while the particulars of these cases often sow confusion about copyright and its limitations, the emotional response is anything but irrelevant.  That bile-in-the-throat feeling one might get if Donald Trump played Bowie’s “Heroes” at a campaign rally is neither petty nor dismissible. Because music is more powerful than either the smartest or the dumbest thing any political figure has ever said.  It is simultaneously more primal and more enlightened. It’s why Brian May’s rhythm can induce Pavlovian harmony among millions of sports fans, who in another context might have righteously trampled Freddie Mercury’s civil rights.  Maybe music for politicians should come with a label:  WARNING. CONTENTS MAY ROCK YOU. USE WITH CAUTION.

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