On politics, music, dissent, and being an “American Girl”
The other day, Jonathan Sanders made a solid statement regarding politicians using songs as their campaign theme music without getting the artist’s permission. You can read his thoughts here. I disagree, and as I started typing out a response, I realized what I have to say on the matter is really more of a separate blog post than a comment specifically to Sanders.
He has a solid point, and I agree with much of it.
I can’t pretend my personal politics have nothing to do with what I’m about to say.
But here’s where I just have a problem with a politician using music for a campaign, without licensing it directly from the artist or label. Unlike using a song at a bar to get people to buy drinks, including it in a karaoke list, or playing it in the far background of a television show of some kind, playing a song prominently during a political rally is much more like an advertisement. The politician in question is using some part of the song’s message to underscore their own message – their product – the thing they’re seeking to sell to the public.
When Hillary Clinton used Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” she was seeking to convey a message that she was down with average working class people, she supported labor, and she wanted to be clear that she put the concerns of working class Americans central to her campaign promise.
When Bill Clinton used “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” it was in conjunction with his whole “bridge to the 21st Century” spiel. He was underscoring his campaign promise/product, that he would focus not on the mistakes of the past, but on the possibilities ahead, on getting us to a better place. He wouldn’t stop thinking about tomorrow. He used the song as an advertisement.
(I use the Clintons as an example because Bill was the first person I voted for for president when I turned 18 and Hillary was the first candidate for whom I became a delegate. In both cases, the songs they used stuck with me. I honestly don’t remember what song(s) Barack Obama used, for example, although I do remember everyone rushing to write one about change and hope and all that jazz.)
Similarly, when Michelle Bachmann plays “American Girl” at her rallies, she’s not seeking to simply entertain the crowd or get people riled up. She’s using the song to underscore her belief that she is quintessentially American, that her beliefs and intentions are part of what makes her American. I suspect, too, based on her assertions, there’s an implication that what she stands for is “what’s good about” America (as opposed to her opponent).
Of course, if Michelle Bachmann listened to the lyrics, she’d recognize it’s a song about romanticizing a sort of escapism. It’s about running away, about being an American girl but wanting out anyway. Besides, the “make it last all night” line is well, let’s just say, not a line about what a politician may wish about their influence.
More or less, it strikes me, it’s a song about hooking up with some dude and wanting to run away from home. Not so much a political statement which speaks to me about an intelligent, capable woman who is unafraid and determined to make things better for her common man.
But of course, it doesn’t seem Bachmann wants her audience to listen closely to the lyrics, just as she doesn’t want the urban archipelago (or anyone, really) to listen too closely to what she’s saying. Because if you hone in – if you really dig in to the message implicit there, it’s not one about freedom and justice for all. It’s not an American message. But, if you play a song over and over again to which people have a sentimental attachment, a fun little message gets across. That song is something they’d crank while driving a long rural two-laner, when their mind is wandering far enough that they don’t pay attention to what they’re listening to, until the one line they always remember because it’s got a great hook and a great rhythm, and a great intuitive melody: “She was…an American girl.”
You see, Michelle Bachmann is using this song to sell something to people.
Yes, I absolutely disagree with most of what comes out of her mouth. As I mentioned above, my personal politics completely enter into this. And I reckon Tom Petty’s do, too. If Michelle Bachmann were to pull a quote from a story I wrote about the American Movement, about folk music or labor struggles or civil rights, or anything on this site, and used it in her speech to make a point about how women shouldn’t have a choice regarding their own healthcare, or about how I shouldn’t have the right to the same civil rights with my partner that she has with hers, I would be angry.
And I don’t really get angry. For all that Michelle Bachmann has done her damnedest to raise interest in impeding women’s healthcare options and destroying the progress the LGBT civil rights movement has made, I’m not angry with her. She believes as much in what she’s saying as I do in what I’m saying, and holy cow the right we both have to open our mouths is the most American thing about this whole mess. Disagree with her ideology as I do, I don’t begrudge her one bit. I’m entertained by her. I’m informed by the response people have to her. And I’m inspired and empowered by her, to work my ass off to preserve the things I most love and cherish about this country – the freedom I have to make choices, to love who I love, and to freely dissent about the decisions politicians make – openly, in public, via blog posts or poetry or songs or whatever strikes me.
On one hand, when I sit at a computer to type something out, that is mine. It belongs to me. Of course, then it belongs to you too, because I share it with you. It’s ours together. To that point, I think Sanders was absolutely correct. On the other hand, if I were to give you a bat as a gift and you used that bat to knock someone upside the head, I reserve the right to ask for the bat back, or to do whatever is in my power to have that bat removed from your possession. I reserve the right to say “No, that is not why I gave you that bat. You may not have it anymore.”
What I’m trying to say is, we simply cannot keep pushing artists further from their work. We want them to give us free downloads and all that. We want to post them on YouTube without their consent. We want to reprint people’s words under our own name (as recently happened to Easy Ed, and I shudder to think if/when/how often it’s happened to me; I kind of don’t want to know). Fine. But we musn’t get caught in the trap of claiming that once an artist releases a piece of their work into the world, it’s not theirs anymore, they no longer have any say in how it’s used.
Sure, folk music is one thing. It’s created to give to people, that they might do with it what they will. It’smade for people to re-write and repurpose to fit their situation. It’s also brilliant and impenetrable (just try to make “We Shall Overcome” support anything other than collective liberty and the pursuit of peace and freedom for all). Any politician spouting anything other than collective liberty and the pursuit of peace and freedom, who may be seeking to use “We Shall Overcome” at their rallies, would have to think long and hard about what that song is saying. There’s no walking away from those verses. There’s no zoning out of it. That’s the whole point.
Pop music, though.
Tom Petty wrote this song so that people could hang out with it, relax with it, party with it, connect with it on some level. He didn’t write it to talk about gay marriage or abortion or the economy or anyone’s 23 foster children (which, seriously, she didn’t raise – a foster child can be with you for a matter of weeks at a time). That’s his song. You know how I know that’s his song? Because his name is on it.
I would have applauded Dolly Parton if she disagreed with Hillary’s message enough to ask her to stop using “9 to 5,” though I would have been kind of surprised. After all, Hillary’s message was pretty much in line with every lyric in that song. But, is anyone really surprised that Tom Petty doesn’t feel Michelle Bachmann’s message is at all in line with what he was trying to say with that song? To presume Michelle Bachmann or Ron Paul or even Barack Obama have any right to use that song without Petty’s blessing somehow makes it look like they’re more important than the person who spent a good amount of time writing the song, arranging it, rehearsing it with the band, selling it to their bosses, getting a marketing team behind it, doing numerous takes in the studio, arguing with the producer, choosing the album art, getting exhausted on the road, playing it until they hated the song, until they liked the song again, singing it with any level of passion and emotion so as to make it convincing to their audience, to get to a point where it might connect. Where it might make a teenage girl who feels lost and misunderstood believe there is a bigger world out there and she’s not alone.
Michelle Bachmann does not get to claim all of that for her own. Tom Petty does. And if he says “please stop,” Bachmann should admit – with all the music in the world, certainly she can find a song by an artist who might agree with her; a song which more appropriately says what she’s trying to say. And if she can’t find that song, if she can’t find that artist, maybe the more important question is “Is what I’m saying what other people believe, too?”