Last week I interviewed the iconic folk singer-songwriter Paul Simon at the Sundance Film Festival, where he was promoting the new documentary Under African Skies. It commemorates the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking and controversial album Graceland – groundbreaking because it fused American and South African folk pop; controversial because Simon broke the international cultural embargo against the South African apartheid regime to record the album. At Sundance, Simon talked about how he still bristles when politicians attempt to co-opt mainstream music for their own gain without giving any consideration or deference to the musicians who created that music. (You can watch our interview at EW’s Sundance hub.) His point is a compelling one: Politicians are happy to vilify pop music, until they need that music to make themselves seem hip and culturally relevant.
Which brings me to to the news this week that one of the co-writers of “Eye of the Tiger” is suing Newt Gingrich for using the song as part of his presidential campaign.
Clearly, the Newtster is hoping the song’s association with Rocky III (it was nominated for Best Original Song) will evoke the kind of hardscrabble, blue collar, I’ll-keep-fighting-to-win-no-matter-how-many-seemingly-needless-sequels-it-takes attitude he’s hoping to project with the electorate. And, as EW pointed out last summer, he’s far from the first politician who’s run afoul of a famous musician for using her or his music: Tom Petty rebuked Michele Bachmann for using “American Girl,” John McCain was sued by Jackson Browne for playing “Running on Empty” in a campaign ad, and Sarah Palin drew some sharp words from Heart’s Nancy Wilson for using “Barracuda.”
Take note that all of these are or were Republican candidates. The natural affinity between liberal and progressive politicians and the entertainment world at large is no secret, but maybe the G.O.P. and the artists involved in these musical kerfluffles could take a cue on how to handle all this from their colleagues across the aisle. After all, when Barack Obama used the Brooks & Dunn hit “Only in America” — a G.O.P. campaign mainstay — at the 2008 Democratic convention, Kix Brooks released a statement saying it was “very flattering” to know his song could cross party lines.
But if Newt would rather not use valuable campaign time to fight a copyright vs. free speech battle in the courts, might I suggest another Oscar nominated song from 1982, a song that evokes a man who, when facing impossible odds, transforms himself from a hard-to-love pain in the neck into a virtually unrecognizable — and utterly beloved — cause célèbre: “It Might Be You,” from Tootsie.