Commentary: Don't know much about music? Try politics

Jackson Browne latest musician to face campaign co-opting

Remember back in the 1980s when Bruce Springsteen just about snapped his headband when Ronald Reagan began playing the Boss' anthemic "Born in the USA" at campaign rallies?

It was easy to understand Bruce's dismay: Sure, the song features a repetitive chorus that bristles with stone-washed, fist-pumping simplicity, but in true Bruce tradition it is -- if you bother to listen to the lyrics -- also an unabashedly angry portrait of a frustrated Vietnam veteran questioning a country he feels abandoned by. Reagan's failure to grasp that the song's seemingly upbeat refrain was really an ironic shout into the void infuriated and bewildered rock 'n' rollers everywhere, but ultimately it didn't matter -- it sounded uplifting and patriotic as long as you weren't paying attention.

In this sense maybe we should have seen coming John McCain's use of the classic rock mainstay "Runnin' on Empty" in a recent campaign ad. That the GOP presidential candidate's camp would attempt to appropriate a beloved post-'60s lament about lost ideals by notorious lefty and laid-back California sensitive guy Jackson Browne almost trumps Reagan for pure pop culture illiteracy. Isn't it common knowledge that Browne's politics fall somewhere between Al Gore and, say, Leon Trotsky? What's next, an ad about McCain's unfair treatment in the press set to Joan Baez's "The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti"? A commitment to fighting big oil set to the dulcet tones of Rage Against the Machine's "Take the Power Back"?

The fact that McCain used the song without permission continues a Republican tradition of tapping the Majestic Power of Rock in all the wrong ways. After all, Tom Petty threatened to sue George W. Bush in 2000 for turning his defiant hit "I Won't Back Down" into, we can only assume, a musical refusal to raise taxes or stop butchering the English language.

Then there's John Mellencamp, whose "Our Country" -- when not being used to sell Chevy SUVs -- has turned up on the campaign trail for McCain (who, again, was asked to stop using it) and John Edwards (who, in light of recent events, might be better served with something from Mellencamp's "American Fool" album).

Republican strategists would be wise to concede a point that has become abundantly clear over the years: By and large -- with the notable exceptions of Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper -- rock stars don't like you. Why they don't like you should be plenty obvious: You're the Man. We know you don't like to think of yourselves that way, but when you own seven houses, golf, wear $500 loafers or travel by a private jet, that pretty much makes you the Man by default. You're better off just accepting this fact and abandoning attempts to show us how cool you are because you like Springsteen.

Lest this turn into a partisan rant, it should be noted that just this week Barack Obama's campaign came under fire for reworking Sam Cooke's "(What a) Wonderful World" -- "Don't know much about history/Don't know much biology ..." -- in an ad that characterizes McCain as, well, not knowing much. Iris W. Keitel of ABKCO Music, the publisher of the song, even issued a statement: "The video conveys a partisan political message that does not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or ABKCO management and its employees." Thank god we now have a better idea of what the views of ABKCO management are.

While it's impossible to say who actually makes these decisions, there is a chance McCain's musical miscues have come from the man himself. It was the Arizona senator, after all, who, when asked to name his favorite song of all time, went with ABBA's "Dancing Queen." Just for the record, there's nothing wrong with ABBA, or dancing, or queens. But for legendary tough guy McCain, the choice of ABBA's ode to dancing the night away with strangers is truly a stunner.

But at least he was being honest, which you have to give him credit for. In fact, in this day and age, wouldn't it be refreshing to hear some music on the campaign trail that doesn't have a clear partisan agenda, isn't divisive and simply extols the virtues of seeing that girl, watching that scene and digging the dancing queen? That, my friends, is change we can all believe in.
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