The Politicization of Music

Trump's musical choices part of long tradition

What artist wouldn’t want their music to be heard by millions, possibly way more, over a few months?

The producer of the hit 1960s musical “Hello Dolly,” that’s who.

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Long before rockers like Aerosmith and Neil Young demanded Donald Trump stop using their music, another GOP politician ran into a disgruntled artist. Republican Barry Goldwater’s presidential team adapted a song from the now-classic musical in 1964 to play before his campaign appearances.

Instead of “Hello Dolly” the song went, “Hello Barry,” according to William Hochberg, a lawyer in the Los Angeles firm Greenberg Glusker. Only that didn’t sit well with one of the musical’s producers, a Democrat named David Merrick. The producer asked the Goldwater campaign to pull the song, and they did.

But the song’s political life didn’t end there. A few years later, the song was revived on behalf of Lyndon Johnson. “Hello Lyndon” hit the airwaves, sung by none other that Broadway star Carol Channing, but that was OK: The song became politicized for the appropriate party, according to those who held the song’s rights.

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“The country indeed welcomed (Johnson) into the White House,” Hochberg said.

Songs have been part of presidential campaigns long before Trump or Goldwater sought the highest office in the land. The album “Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996” on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings captures tunes dating back to the earliest days of the republic. Every president, including George Washington, incorporated music into his election strategy.

The producer asked the Goldwater campaign to pull the song, and they did as told.

These titles are self-explanatory: “Follow Washington,” “Jefferson and Liberty,” “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” “Lincoln and Liberty,” “Grant, Grant, Grant,” “Roosevelt the Cry,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” and “Buckle Down With Nixon.”

In recent years, as pop music became entrenched in our lives, candidates began choosing Billboard hits to boost their electoral chances. Emily Campbell, an attorney with Dunlap Codding, said in most situations the candidates in question backed down if they were challenged with legal action by the corresponding artists.

Politicians would stand on firmer ground if they didn’t play the songs in question repeatedly, and obtained the proper license in the first place, Campbell said. But campaign songs are like jingles, she said, and to work best they need to resonate and be remembered by potential voters. That demands repetition.

“I don’t want to alienate 30,000 Steven Tyler fans in Ohio, so I’m gonna stop.”

Laurence Pulgram, a lawyer who covers copyright litigation with Fenwick & West, said today’s candidates face a more serious problem than mere potential legal woes. They could potentially anger the die-hard fans of a particular artist.

“I don’t want to alienate 30,000 Steven Tyler fans in Ohio, so I’m gonna stop,” Pulgram said, above and beyond any possible legal woes.

Given our current obsession with all things pop culture, “it’s all the more critical not to run afoul of an angry artist,” he said.

No matter the political scrum, Hochberg said songwriters aren’t able to truly cash in when a candidate embraces his or her work.

“The royalty for the song’s use in a public place is a paltry sum. If the song is used in a commercial or campaign video, there is more money because of the additional licensing involved when music is synched with a movie,” he said. “But the amount of money paid as a license fee for such a use could be outweighed by the negative backlash from fans of the song on the other side of the aisle.”

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