Look what they’ve done to your songs, Ed, Mick, Bruce and Adele
No track is safe from appropriation by political campaigns
Mick Jagger during the Rolling Stones gig at Croke Park: Musicians can’t always get what they want when it comes to political use of their songs. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
As inevitable as chorus follows bridge follows verse, politicians and political campaigners in need of a soundtrack will attract the ire of the musicians whose songs they appropriate without permission.
Ed Sheeran’s terse statement about the use of his song Small Bump to promote an anti-abortion message is the latest in a long line of incidents that have prompted musicians to distance themselves from unexpected political associations.
Only a few days before Sheeran’s Instagram post, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger had been recalling how it was “kind of weird” that the playout music for Donald Trump’s victory speech was the band’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want, “a drowsy ballad about drugs in Chelsea”.
The Trump campaign had repeatedly deployed Stones classics to bombastic but incoherent effect at various rallies, prompting the band to clarify that they had never given their approval. Their request for him to cease and desist went down like the support act at an arena gig – it was largely ignored. There was nothing the band could do, legally, to stop it happening, and as a battle-weary Jagger put it, “he couldn’t be persuaded to use something else”.
The current occupant of the White House has similarly annoyed Adele (Rolling in the Deep), Aerosmith (Dream On), R.E.M. (It’s the End of the World, naturally), the family of the late Luciano Pavarotti (Nessun Dorma) and Elton John (Tiny Dancer and Rocket Man).
He still has work to do, however, to beat the irony of Ronald Reagan commandeering Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA for his 1984 re-election campaign, a choice that merrily glossed over the fact that the song is a blunt indictment of American society from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran who “ain’t got nowhere to go”.
Typically, politicians get away with playing whatever music they like by pointing to the public performance licence held by the venue. When it comes to the more “official” use of music in political ads, the rules are more clear cut: permission and payment must be negotiated with the record label. And the public play or performance of music without a licence is a copyright infringement.
One song that became more famous through its political use in my lifetime was Things Can Only Get Better by Northern Ireland dance band D:Ream, which in 1997 became the anthem for Tony Blair’s New Labour as it beamed its way to a euphoric landslide.
Permission was secured for its use in a party political broadcast and the message (optimism combined with witty reminder that the other lot were dreadful) resonated enough for everyone, including D:Ream singer Peter Cunnah, to soon grow sick of the song. To this day, members of D:Ream are periodically asked by journalists for their thoughts on Labour.
Things Can Only Get Better proved once more that the right track at the right time can be more than a shameless attempt at borrowing unearned cool; it can actually be a critical, emotional component in the selling of the political brand.
But proceed without permission with caution, as the backlash from aggrieved musicians isn’t always meaningless. Fatboy Slim’s horror at the UK Labour party’s use of Right Here, Right Now in 2004 reflected fatal disillusionment with the Blair project, while a year later, Labour’s use of Beautiful Day didn’t exactly have U2 ecstatic. Labour’s much-reduced majority after that election suggested the day was far cloudier and uglier than expected.
Occasionally, there is dark enjoyment to be had in pointing out the incongruities between the actual lyrics of the song and the message campaigners or party organisers pretend their choice conveys.
That is not the case with Small Bump. Here there is nothing funny about the misinterpretation at all. Ed Sheeran left much unsaid when he told his followers he felt it was important that they should know that he had not approved its use by anti-abortion campaigners in Ireland, “and it does not reflect what the song is about”. We know from previous interviews he has given, however, that he wrote the 2011 song about his friend’s miscarriage at five months and the grief and unfairness of this loss.
The lyrics make no comment on unwanted or unviable pregnancies, or women’s right to bodily autonomy or what the Eighth Amendment means for women. And yet spelling out what the song isn’t won’t stop it being exploited by anti-abortion campaigners anymore than Springsteen could stop Reagan or the Rolling Stones can stop Trump.
To find an example of artists who did manage to stamp out errant political usage, say hello to Abba. Their copyright Waterloo came in 2010 when the youth wing of Denmark’s far-right Danish People’s Party created their own legally unsound version of Mamma Mia. In honour of the party’s then leader Pia Kjaersgaard, the lyrics were changed to Mamma Pia. Big mistake. For Abba, it was less a question of “thank you for the music” as “you can’t have it, now wash out your mouths”.