I’ve been sort of disappointed by the various music artists who have protested the use of their songs by the John McCain presidential campaign in recent weeks. The latest is the rock band Heart, led by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson. The Wilsons are upset that the McCain/Palin campaign played their classic song “Barracuda” following McCain’s Thursday-night acceptance speech.
“Sarah Barracuda,” of course, is the nickname that was given to Sarah Palin when she was a basketball star in high school. When I first heard that tidbit, I said to myself, They’ve got to use that Heart song when she does her RNC speech. “Barracuda” is renowned as a kick-butt song by female rockers, and Palin was portrayed from the start as a sort of kick-butt politician. So it was the perfect theme song for her. Well, they didn’t use the song after Palin’s speech, but they did crank it up when she strode on stage after John McCain’s.
So here’s my ambivalence about this matter of musicians (presumably for partisan reasons) objecting to the use of their songs by political campaigns. On the one hand, I respect the right of an artist to not want her art used for a purpose or cause with which she disagrees. I certainly wouldn’t want someone taking something I’ve written out of context to, for instance, promote racism or something that runs counter to my faith.
But isn’t popular music in another category? Music is a universal force; it transcends our differences. Regardless of what the composer was thinking when she wrote it, music’s going to do what it’s going to do. It speaks to each of us in different ways. Songs can take on meanings that have absolutely nothing to do with their lyrics, because of the memories we attach to them (e.g., senior prom, summer vacation, wedding reception, etc). It’s impossible for the musician to control the way his or her music will ultimately be felt or experienced by the listener.
According to the Wilson sisters, “Barracuda” actually refers to the forces of corporate greed and not a hard-nosed heroine. But I would submit that it doesn’t matter. If most folks hear the song as a “tough chick” anthem, there’s no reversing that.
In fact, in some ways isn’t it unfair for an artist to come out years later and tell you you’re supposed to be thinking about the meaning of his art in a different way than pop culture has understood it over the years? For instance, after author J.K. Rowling completed her mega-popular Harry Potter series she decided to announce that Dumbledore was gay. The fact that this revelation came after the author not saying anything about the character’s sexuality for seven books struck me as unfair to faithful readers who had already formed their own image of who that character is. (I also think of filmmaker George Lucas using digital effects to alter scenes in his original Star Wars movies, years after fans had grown accustom to seeing them as they were.)
Similarly, to me it seems unfair for a popular musician to, in effect, tell certain listeners, “No, this song was not meant for you!” Instead, I think it would be better to adopt the attitude of the country-music duo Brooks & Dunn, whose song “Only in America” was used both by George W. Bush in 2000 and, more recently, Barack Obama at the DNC. In a statement, Kix Brooks wrote:
Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at The Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now. Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.
So, I guess the point of this rambling post is to get your opinion on the matter. Are Heart, and the other musicians before them, being spoiled sports? Are they letting personal politics get in the way of the power of their music—not to mention the extra royalties they can earn?
And then there’s this bigger question: Once the art is created, should the artist retain the right to tell people how to think about it and how to experience it?