Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Song Sung Blue

By Shawn Healy
During the immigration marches that blanketed American cities in 2006 and 2007, singer-songwriter Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" was co-opted by protesters who demanded expanded rights for immigrants, legal and illegal. When asked how he felt about his work serving as the emblem for a controversial cause, Diamond was agnostic, suggesting that this was the very nature of creative ventures. Artists place their work before the public and allow it to be interpreted and used by people and groups as they see fit.

However, other recording artists have not followed his lead in this polarizing election season. Candidates enter and leave the stage as rock stars, but the songs they play are the subject of intense controversy and in some cases, vehement protest. For instance, Heart's 1977 song "Barracuda" echoed through the Xcel Center during the Republican National Convention as Sarah "Barracuda" Palin (her nickname as a high school basketball player) claimed the vice presidential nomination.

Since taking to the campaign trail in the intervening weeks, the song has continually greeted Palin at successive stops, and Ann and Nancy Wilson, Heart's songwriters, in coordination with Sony BMG, issued a cease-and-desist letter to the McCain-Palin campaign. They suggested that Palin does not represent them as "American women."

Van Halen has voiced similar objections, asking McCain-Palin to pull "Right Now" from its play list, and it did the same in 2004 when President Bush warmed up crowds in his re-election bid. Van Halen wants to disassociate itself from politics altogether, ideological considerations aside.

As early as 1984, John Mellancamp (then Cougar) refused to allow Ronald Reagan to use the ditty "Pink Houses" as his election theme song, and he protested once more this year when McCain blasted the timeless hit. You might remember that Mellancamp campaigned this year for Senator John Edwards.

The list goes on and on, including Foo Fighters ("My Hero"), Jackson Browne ("Running on Empty"), and Warner Music Group for McCain's use of Franki Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

I know of no similar protests among recording artists directed at the Democratic ticket, though I did find it ironic that shortly after Senator Obama's convention speech ended, Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America" blared throughout Investco Field. President Bush played the song repeatedly at campaign performances in 2004, and the band even performed at the Republican National Convention that year in New York City.

The McCain-Palin campaign has found an end-around for this dilemma, purchasing a so-called "blanket license" through the American Society of Composers, Authors and Performers (ASCAP), and thus continuing to play "Barracuda" and "My Hero" to the delight of fawning crowds.

As Sprigman and Vaidhyanathan argued in an op-ed piece that ran in yesterday's Washington Post, these conflicts pinpoint the tensions between copyright laws and the First Amendment. They clearly side with the latter protections, arguing that candidates should be allowed to use popular songs to make a point, for these actions constitute nothing less than political speech, the original basis for the First Amendment. They also seek to enable critics to raise their voices, writing "...if the Wilson sisters (from Heart) want to mock Republican misuse of a feminist anthem, them let them sing from the mountaintops."

John Rich, of the band "Big and Rich," took matters into his own hands. A devoted supporter of the Republican ticket, he penned a song for Senator McCain, titled "Raising McCain." Perhaps in this era of polarized politics, pop culture is but an extension of these battles. Thankfully, the First Amendment stands strong and the marketplace of ideas, not censors, dictate our discourse through music.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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