Monday, June 09, 2008

Send More Chuck Berry: Music and Politics

This is far too rich not to comment upon. John McCain had been using Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Good as a campaign song. But now that Berry has come out as a strong Obama proponent, he's switched to...wait for it..."Take a Chance on Me" by ABBA.

I was sure that was a joke when I first read it. So we've got a candidate with an age problem, a relevance problem, and an excitement problem and the theme song his marketing people believe will help do the trick is a 1970s disco snoozer by a group of Swedes...Swedes who would not give him the rights to play it at his rallies without paying stiff fees.

Turns out he's a big fan:

"The intriguing - some might say disturbing - revelation occurred during the Johnjay and Rich show at 104.7 FM (KZZP). The presidential candidate called in at 6 a.m. as part of the duo's Who Do You Know contest, in which famous people phone in and stump for everyday folks to win a car. "He said that a lot of people won't admit that they love ABBA, but he would," radio jock Rich Berra says. "Then he asked us if it was old-fashioned to like ABBA, and we said that it wasn't old-fashioned at all.''
So McCain is a fan of ABBA, but ABBA and Chuck Berry are not fans of McCain.

This is actually an interesting side note to contemporary politics. Campaigns are treated by those running them as they would go about marketing any product. A good ad campaign has a theme song and to rally the supporters, generate excitement, seem contemporary, and appeal to fans of the musicians, campaigns have followed the 92 Clinton/Gore example which used Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" quite effectively. It appealed to boomers, signaling a change of generation and provided a sense of the campaign.

As such, classic rock has been the call for campaigns, but the rockers then get a say...and often it is "NO!" John Cougar and/or Mellencamp has refused to allow McCain to play "Little Pink Houses" or "Our Country." Tom Scholtz, who pretty much was Boston, smacked Mike Huckabee for using "More Than a Feeling."

Is there a problem here? On the one hand, it is certainly their intellectual property and their work, and it seems that they should be able to keep it from being used to support that which they find objectionable. Further, using the song would give a false sense of endorsement. At the same time, these songs are out there for public consumption, they are part of the broader cultural landscape. The political reinterpretation seems one that the free and open marketplace of ideas would want to encourage, especially when it comes to political speech.

Should artists have veto power over the political use of their songs or should the political arena have primacy even when it comes to mere packaging and not policy proposals? If they are willing to pay the fair market royalty rate, should they have the right to play whatever they deem most desirable?