No, they didn't ask. "I have not been asked for permission by Mitt Romney's campaign for the use of my song," said Somali-Canadian musician K'naan on Wednesday, after the politician celebrated his victory in the U.S. Republican Florida primary to the sound of the global hit Wavin' Flag.
"If I had been asked, I would certainly not have granted it. I would happily grant the Obama campaign use of my song without prejudice," said the musician in a statement, adding that he is currently looking into legal action to prevent any further use of the song.
K'naan's initial response, on Twitter – "Yo @mittromney I am K'naan Warsame and I do not endorse this message" – was an embarrassment for the Romney campaign, but the situation isn't unique: Earlier this week, Frankie Sullivan of the group Survivor and co-writer of Eye of the Tiger filed a lawsuit against Republican Newt Gingrich for using the power ballad at rallies as far back as 2009.
And the list goes on: Rocker Tom Petty ordered former GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann to "cease and desist" from using his song American Girl; Heart issued a similar letter barring the use of Barracuda for Sarah Palin's vice-presidential run in 2008. Back in 1984, Bruce Springsteen criticized attempts by Ronald Regan's campaign to adopt his anthemic Born in the USA.
In this campaign, Kid Rock is one musician who has given support to the GOP: He's allowed Romney to use Born Free as his anthem.
Representatives from musicians' publishing rights groups such as SOCAN in Canada and BMI in the States explain that it's up to the venue holding a political rally to purchase a blanket license to play any of the music they administer. That's standard practice, and there's no recourse through these publishing groups to prevent a song from being played for ideological reasons.
Yet that's the fear, that a song will become irrevocably appropriated in a way a musician doesn't want. For instance, David Byrne settled a 2010, $1-million (U.S.) suit against then Florida governor Charlie Crist and the use of Byrne's song Road to Nowhere in campaign ads without permission. With campaign ads and televised events, permission is more complicated; it involves so-called synchronization licenses and other agreements that require the permission of the songwriter or music publisher.
Particularly in the United States, where presidential campaigns drag on for eons, pop songs and political rallies are tradition. John F. Kennedy used Frank Sinatra's High Hopes; Franklin D. Roosevelt used Happy Days Are Here Again. Often the association sticks: Happy Days Are Here Again has become such a standard for the Democratic Party it's difficult to hear the song today and not picture happy-clappy delegates on the convention floor.
Bill Clinton was adept at turning Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop into his own, while Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential bid turned the search for a campaign theme into a month-long publicity event in itself, by allowing the public to help her pick the song. The decision, for better or worse, was Celine Dion's You and I.
Not everyone is concerned about a song's political use. Fox News reported Tuesday that Eye of the Tiger's other co-writer Jim Peterik is ambivalent and notes that if the venues have a license, Gingrich can use it. "This is not for any one political candidate. This is for the world," he said.