When dozens of television, film and music celebrities debuted an a cappella version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” renamed “Our Fight Song,” during last week’s 2016 Democratic National Convention, they announced their endorsement of the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president of the United States. But these endorsements represent the short-term effect. The longer-term impact is in the marriage of the brand of each celebrity with the brand of the candidate.
When Elizabeth Banks, Julie Bowen, Connie Britton, Alan Cumming, America Ferrera, Jane Fonda, Eva Longoria, Idina Menzel, Billy Porter, Sia, Aisha Tyler and many others contributed to the song, they made a conscious effort to directly associate themselves with Clinton in a brand sense. So when you think of Elizabeth Banks, for example, Banks herself wants you to think “Democrat/Hillary/progressive” in addition to just “actress/celebrity.”
In the case of “Fight Song,” it’s a happy branding marriage all around. Platten, the original artist, has been on board with Clinton’s campaign from the beginning, giving permission for her hit tune to become the official theme song of the campaign.
But such branding synergy is not always the result when politicians and their advisers select a song. Cyndi Lauper objected to the use of her 1986 hit “True Colors” at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. During Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for president, Sam Moore similarly objected to the use of “Hold On, I’m Comin’.”
The potential conflict between musical brands and politics is not limited to a particular party.
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Take Bruce Springsteen’s vehement objection to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign using “Born in the U.S.A.” The Boss had worked hard to cultivate a brand that included being a pro-union, blue-collar Democrat. Springsteen’s refusal to allow his song to be used by Reagan further enhanced this image and the artist’s brand.
Sometimes these brand usage rejections come in the form of a simple cease-and-desist order, as in the case of Tom Petty telling George W. Bush to stop using “I Won’t Back Down” as part of his presidential campaign, and John Mellencamp discouraging John McCain from using “Pink Houses” at rallies in 2008. Mellencamp had also objected to Ronald Reagan using the same song at political events 24 years earlier.
In other instances, the artists express their displeasure in an official statement. The surviving members of Queen lashed out against Donald Trump for using “We Are the Champions” at the 2016 Republican National Convention, citing their objection to elements of the Republican platform they consider to be anti-gay and not a positive reflection of Freddie Mercury’s life and memory.
An unauthorised use at the Republican Convention against our wishes – Queen
— Queen (@QueenWillRock) July 19, 2016
And of course there are lawsuits, especially if a song is used not only on the campaign trail but in commercials as well. Jackson Browne, a die-hard Democrat, sued McCain’s campaign for using Browne’s “Running on Empty” in a 2008 TV ad against Barack Obama. Also of note, David Byrne won a lawsuit against Charlie Crist for Crist’s use of The Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” in a 2010 Web ad.
In the age of social media there are smackdown rejections as well. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker used “I’m Shipping up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys in 2015, the band responded with a blunt and clear branding message to Walker by tweeting, “Please stop using our music in any way … we literally hate you!!!”
@ScottWalker @GovWalker please stop using our music in any way…we literally hate you !!!
Love, Dropkick Murphys
— Dropkick Murphys (@DropkickMurphys) January 25, 2015
Even when a candidate doesn’t use a particular artist’s song, merely expressing that he or she is a fan of the artist is an attempt at co-branding, and this can also result in rejection by the musician. Take Paul Ryan who, as a candidate for vice president in 2012, said that Rage Against the Machine is one of his favorite bands. Tom Morello, the band’s guitarist, not only distanced his band from Ryan but also went so far as to write an op-ed piece in Rolling Stone magazine, calling Ryan “the embodiment of the machine our music rages against.” Ryan’s attempt at associating himself with a certain brand was quickly undone while the brand of the band was solidified and enhanced.
The battle between musical brands and politics is also not a uniquely American phenomenon.
For example, Eminem sued the New Zealand National Party over Prime Minister John Key’s unauthorized use of “Lose Yourself” during his re-election campaign, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy had to cease and desist from using indie band MGMT’s song “Kids.”
Politicians and their campaigns are drawn to musical brands because of their emotional power, and a symbiotic relationship between musical brands and political brands can occur if the artist/owner of the music authorizes the use of their music for a given political purpose. But politicians and their campaigns should think twice before using a musical brand that seems to align with their messaging without obtaining the artist/owner’s permission. As brands, they have emotional as well as legal clout that can burn those candidates who think that such a use is free and unrestricted.
Musical brands 1, political brands 0.