How do you know when the election season is truly under way? No, not with the initial drizzle of negative ads that will soon turn into a storm. Not with the first gavel of the conventions, the first of which (the Republican one) begins Monday. And certainly not with the debates.
It's when a Republican candidate, by design or by accident, gets aligned with a song and then the song's authors get bent out of shape, responding with a thanks-but-no-thanks in the form of cease-and-desist. It's as predictable as nudity on HBO - and only slightly less entertaining.
So, we can now declare campaign 2012 officially open because it has happened twice within the past couple of weeks. First it was Mitt Romney, whose campaign played the track "Panic Switch," from L.A. Alt-rockers Silversun Pickups, at a stop in North Carolina. After hearing about it in a tweet, the band's attorney rushed off the legal equivalent of, "Hey! Stop that!" Romney's people say the song was inadvertently played during stage setup and they have no plans to use it again.
Then there's the Rage Against Paul Ryan dust-up. The Republican vice-presidential candidate reportedly listed the leftist agit-prop band Rage Against the Machine on his Facebook page as one of his favorite groups. (Check his page now; any Rage references have been scrubbed.) Guitarist Tom Morello responded on Rolling Stone's website, saying, " Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades." These incidents are nothing new. In 1964, Barry Goldwater was blocked from using "Hello Dolly" by Broadway producer David Merrick. This was followed by Ronald Reagan's embrace of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" in 1984, George H.W. Bush's appropriation of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" in 1988, George W. Bush extolling the virtues of John Cougar Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the USA" in 2000, John McCain rockin' out to Foo Fighters' "My Hero" and Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" in 2008, and apparent Tom Petty fan Michelle Bachman positioning herself as the "American Girl" in 2011.
That's just a sampling of Republican efforts at musical branding that have been met with showers of legal paperwork. Democrats have had their musical wings clipped, too - Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave, famously told the Obama campaign to stop using the R&B classic "Hold On (I'm Coming)" in 2008. But this seems to be a problem that particularly bedevils Republicans.
The pop-culture site papermag.com quoted an anonymous source saying, "You can only use country music or dead people's music if you're a Republican." But there are options for conservative candidates who love to rock but don't love getting legal slapdowns. Here are a few suggestions: Rush: Yes, the Canadian prog-rock trio did ask that then Senate candidate Rand Paul stop playing its songs "The Spirit of Radio" and "Tom Sawyer" in 2010 but that was chalked up to a copyright issue, so it's not necessarily a philosophical divide. Every junior libertarian and budding headbanger knows that Rush main man Neil Peart, like Paul Ryan, was influenced by Ayn Rand, so maybe if the would-be VP asked really, really nicely, Rush might let him use "Free Will."
Megadeth: Dave Mustaine, lead singer/guitarist for this long-running metal band, is so anti-Obama that he makes Rush Limbaugh look like Bono. He'd probably love the exposure if Romney and Paul bounded onto the convention stage in Tampa to "Angry Again." But they might want to take a pass on "Killing Is My Business ... And Business Is Good." Kid Rock: That he's conservative is a plus for the Romney-Ryan ticket.
But, really, it's just an excuse to pump fists to his "American Bad Ass." Jeff "Skunk" Baxter: The Steely Dan guitarist is an acknowledged expert on national defense - he once chaired the Congressional Advisory Board on Missile Defense - and is pals with California Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. If elected, maybe Mitt and Paul can bust out "Do It Again" in 2016.
Ted Nugent: Of course, they've got to play something from everyone's favorite guitar-wielding, Obama-loathing bow hunter. Now that archery is trendy, why not? Besides, what better way to sum up the entire political season than with a raging version of "Dog Eat Dog"?