Republicans’ music gap puts them between rock and a hard place

For a party that defends private property so fervidly that “castle doctrine” has evolved from obscure legalese to a full-blown media buzzword, the GOP sure loves to poach others’ copyrighted material.

The latest offender is Scott Walker, who recently received a rebuke from John Mellencamp after using the hit song “Small Town” on the campaign trail without permission.

Mellencamp didn’t send the Walker campaign a cease and desist, but the singer’s publicist, Bob Merlis, did send Walker an email telling the governor where Mellencamp stood.

“He’s a very liberal person,” Merlis told the Associated Press. “He appeared at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. His wife at the time was a delegate at large. He’s very pro-collective bargaining and the fight for a living wage.”

Actually, all you’d have to do is spend 15 minutes listening to John Mellencamp’s songs to realize that he’s probably not a Walker supporter, but Walker is from a small town himself (Delavan), and so, with apologies to Carly Simon, he probably thought the song was about him.

Truth is, very few contemporary artists are Republicans, which puts most GOP hopefuls in an untenable position. If they don’t want to have Carman rap old Barry Goldwater speeches or play Ride of the Valkyries at every campaign rally, they pretty much have three choices: 1) go to the Toby Keith well one last time, 2) buy a trowel and a wheelbarrow full of foundation makeup and take Anita Bryant out of cryogenic storage, or 3) steal.

Guess which route they usually take?

The GOP actually has a fairly long and mildly ignoble history of pilfering copyrighted material for propaganda purposes.

I remember a story from way back in 1990, when Bart Simpson was still 10 years old, recounting how Republicans in California quoted Bart at length in a press release, presumably exceeding fair use allowances. Fox Broadcasting hadn’t given the GOP permission to use the character (a little irony there, perhaps), but series creator Matt Groening was philosophical about the dustup:

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “Republicans think they own everything anyway.”

More recently, Newt Gingrich was forced to stop using Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” after a member of the band sued, Mitt Romney was forced to stop using K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag,” and Michele Bachmann was forced to stop using Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl.”

(You have to wonder sometimes if some of these candidates do any research at all on these songs beyond just reading the titles. For one thing, “American Girl” is forever associated in the American collective unconscious with Silence of the Lambs. It was played, and zealously sung, by one of Buffalo Bill’s would-be victims just before she was kidnapped and thrown down a well. In addition, the lyrics are not exactly pro-American: “She couldn’t help thinkin’/That there was a little more to life/Somewhere else/After all it was a great big world/With lots of places to run to.” So if Bachmann meant to send the message that you are certain to be abducted by a serial killer if she’s elected president unless you flee the country first, mission accomplished. Her campaign slogan might as well have been “Bachmann 2012: It Puts the Lotion in the Basket.”)

The pop-rock tone deafness doesn’t stop there, of course.

In 2008, John McCain heard from Jackson Browne over the use of “Running on Empty.” And while Ronald Reagan never actually used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” during his 1984 campaign, he did attempt to leverage its message for political purposes, completely missing the song’s irony and drawing a rebuke from Springsteen himself.

Now, I’m not one to talk. I’m like a cool person’s kryptonite. My presence at a nightclub is the functional equivalent of removing the DJ booth and installing a glass curio full of Precious Moments dolls. I listen to Cole Porter and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. In other words, if there’s a cool gene anywhere in my body, it’s long since switched itself off.

Such is my lot. If I were running for president, I’d make Mitt Romney look like Jack Kerouac. (See how terribly old my references are?)

But I probably wouldn’t steal, either. Scott Walker, you owe the ’80s an apology. Somehow, I don’t think you’ll oblige.

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