By the 1990s, SarahPalin was on her way up in Alaska politics. After she took down a three-term incumbent in a local race there, some of her opponents revived the “Sarah barracuda” nickname. That was 1996 when she became mayor of her hometown, Wasilla.
By 2008, the Republicans liked the barracuda moniker so much they decided to use the popular 1977 song “Barracuda” by rock group Heart to promote their new political star.
“Barracuda” was played at the 2008 Republican National Convention in early September 2008 on two occasions – when Palin gave her own speech at the convention when nominated to the VP slot, and a second time, when Palin came on stage after John McCain had given his speech, as friends and family joined them on stage. It was also used a time or two following the convention.
The song proved a lively addition to the McCain-Palin campaign, but not everybody was happy about it – including two of the song’s principal authors, Ann and Nancy Wilson.Politicians for decades have used music to help win voters and burnish their images with the general public. In recent years, political campaigns have scoured the pop, country, rap and hip hop charts for tunes they think appropriate for their candidate or will somehow strike a chord with their would-be supporters. They often “borrow” these tunes and use them as theme music during political rallies, playing them before and after speeches on the campaign trail. Sometimes, however, they don’t bother asking the artist’s permission to use the songs or acquire all the requisite legal rights. In the case of the McCain-Palin campaign’s use of “Barracuda,” Heart group musicians and singers Ann and Nancy Wilson were not happy with the use of their song. More on that and Sarah Palin in a moment. First, a little background on Heart, the Wilson sisters, and the history of the “Baracuda” song.
Heart HistoryThe roots of the Heart band began in the Pacific Northwest area of Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia. The band had started in that area under varying names in the 1960s. It was initially formed as an all-male group by bassist Steve Fossen and brothers Roger and Mike Fisher, both guitarists. The group also had a lineup of other male musicians in those years. However, by 1974, when singer Ann Wilson joined the group, the band was then using the name Heart. The group would become one of the first rock bands to be led by female performers and songwriters – Ann and Nancy Wilson.
The Wilson sisters, born in the early 1950s, grew up in Southern California and Taiwan before the family settled in Seattle. As young girls, both became interested in folk and pop music. Ann never took formal music lessons as a child, though she later learned to play several instruments. Nancy took up guitar and flute. After both sisters spent time at college, they decided to try their hand as professional musicians. Nancy began performing as a folksinger, while Ann joined the Heart group, later followed by Nancy.Initial success for Heart came in Canada, but soon spread to the U.S. Their first album, Dreamboat Annie of 1975, was produced by Canadian label, Mushroom Records. After it sold more than 30,000 copies in Canada, and thousands more in Seattle, a full release followed throughout in the U.S. Two 1976 hit singles from Dreamboat Annie were also successful – “Crazy on You” (No. 35) and “Magic Man” ( No.9) – which helped the album sell more than 1 million copies. By 1977, Heart was with the CBS-affiliate label, Portrait, and produced a follow-up album, Little Queen, also a million-seller. “Barracuda” was released as a single from this album and it also became a massive hit, becoming Heart’s second Top-20 hit, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Barracuda” is an aggressive, hard-rock tune, distinguished by its galloping guitar riff, leaving some to describe it as a kind of “a rocked-up William Tell Overture…” There are novel sounds in the song’s introduction, described by some as “bent” harmonics with the help of the guitar’s tremolo arm. Ann Wilson’s vocals throughout the song’s performance are driving and powerful. The Wilson sisters were admirers of Led Zeppelin’s music and this tune has Led Zeppelin influence.
Ann Wilson had written “Barracuda” partly in angry reaction to a promoter who made disparaging remarks backstage about she and her sister Nancy being lesbians, a situation charged by an advertisement run by their Canadian music label at the time. The ad used a photo of the two sisters bare-shouldered, back-to-back with the caption “This is our first time.” Wilson was enraged by her label’s use of the advertisement and the promoter’s remark. She wrote ‘Barracuda’ as a rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, especially for women – ‘barracuda’ being her intentionally disparaging term for the music business. Some of the song’s lyrics, include, for example:
…No right no wrong, selling a song-
A name, whisper game.
If the real thing don’t do the trick
You better make up something quick
You gonna burn, burn, burn it to the wick
Sell me sell you the porpoise said
Dive down deep down to save my head
You…I think you got the blues too.
All that night and all the next
Swam without looking back
Made for the western pools – silly fools!
If the real thing don’t do the trick
No, you better make up something quick
You gonna burn, burn, burn, burn, it to the wick
Ooooooohhhh, barra barracuda.
Although Ann wrote the lyrics, Nancy helped set it to music along with guitarist Roger Fisher and drummer Michael DeRosier. “Barracuda” soon became one of the band’s signature tunes and is still heard on American classic rock radio stations. In subsequent years, the song also appeared on several “best” lists – ranked 34th, for example, among VH-1’s “best hard rock songs” in 2009.Heart, meanwhile, had continued success over a four-decade career, charting songs in hard rock, heavy metal, and folk rock. In addition to its hard-rock hits, Heart was also successful with acoustic songs such as “These Dreams,” “Dog & Butterfly,” and “Dreamboat Annie.” In recent years they have turned out albums including Jupiter’s Darling in 2004 and Red Velvet Car in 2010, returning to their hard rock/acoustic roots of the late 1970s. To date, Heart has sold over 35 million albums worldwide.
McCain-PalinIn early September 2008, the Republican National Convention convened at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The convention began on Labor Day, September 1st, and ran through September 4th. Limited activity occurred on the first day given national concern over the arrival of Hurricane Gustav in the Gulf of Mexico. Planned appearances by President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were cancelled. Republican governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas remained in their states as the storm made landfall. The hurricane eventually weakened and the RNC proceeded. One of the highlights of the convention was the Vice Presidential candidacy of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who only weeks earlier had been the surprise running-mate pick of Senator John McCain. Palin’s speech at the convention was a much anticipated event, as she was unknown to most of the nation,
On September 3rd, 2008, the night of her speech, Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City, was one of those who spoke prior to Palin, generally attacking the Democrats and warming up the crowd. The former mayor also praised Sarah Palin in his remarks as “one of the most successful governors in America—and the most popular… She already has more executive experience than the entire Democratic ticket.” And before Palin came on to give her acceptance speech, Heart’s classic song, “Barracuda,” was played to help energize the crowd.
In Palin’s speech, she introduced her family and described her life in Alaska, saying she was just “an average hockey mom.” However, she also portrayed herself as a reformer and a fighter for change, and commented on some negative publicity that had already come her way: “Here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this great country” – a line that drew great crowd reaction, as did others.Palin’s speech, in fact, was well received by convention delegates and the media. Mark Halperin, reporting on the speech for Time magazine, wrote, in part: “…The Alaska Governor was poised, stirring, charming, confident, snarky, cozy, well-rehearsed, biting, utterly fearless, unflappable, and self-assured. She read the teleprompter like a champ, with fine, varied pacing and conversational projection. Touched on her family story and then veered into a forceful political presentation, going hard after Barack Obama and selling John McCain with flowing admiration. She rocked the hall (and likely the country) with a tough, conservative message, steely offense, glowing optimism, and boundless charisma. The start of something truly big — or the best night of her candidacy.” Then on the next night, the closing night of the convention, John McCain gave his speech accepting the GOP’s presidential nomination. It was September 4th. According to Nielsen Media Research, 38.9 million Americans watched McCain deliver his acceptance speech—a half million more than tuned in the previous week to watch Barack Obama and the Democrats at their convention.
After McCain finished his speech, Palin joined him on stage. (see video below). As the two candidates and their families and core supporters gathered on stage as is customary, the red white and blue confetti and balloons began falling. And after about a minute-and-a-half or so into the closing event, during which some patriotic-sounding music had played, the unmistakable guitar riff of Heart’s “Barracuda” could be heard, and the song continued to play in its entirety as the TV cameras panned the candidates, their families, and the crowd.
The lively song energized the crowd. Boston Globe writer David Beard later observed: “The song seemed a much better fit than several played during the Democratic convention in Denver.” A week earlier, the house band at the Democratic convention had played “Still The One,” the 1970s hit from Orleans, as tribute to U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy after his pro-Obama speech, and also the 1985 song, “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer, after former President Bill Clinton’s speech. The video of the RNC gathering at left captures the convention’s closing moments as “Barracuda” played, with some delegates on the convention floor bouncing up and down to the Heart song. Palin and McCain strolled out on the end of the cat walk together at one point while the song played. Other music followed toward the end of this session, as McCain and Palin fanned out into the audience in different directions shaking hands.
Wilsons ObjectAfter watching Sarah Palin’s speech on September 3rd at the Republican National Convention on television, and first hearing “Barracuda” played, the Wilson sisters sent out a statement the following day, Thursday, September 4th regarding the use of their song: “The Republican campaign did not ask for permission to use the song, nor would they have been granted that permission,” the statement read. “We have asked the Republican campaign publicly not to use our music. We hope our wishes will be honored.” But then that evening came the second use of the song following John McCain’s speech on Thursday night, September 4th when Palin joined him on stage as “Barracuda” played in its entirety amid a blizzard of balloons.
An angry Nancy Wilson went to the media to respond. “I think it’s completely unfair to be so misrepresented,” she said in a phone call to Entertainment Weekly after McCain’s speech and the second use of “Barracuda.” Wilson was clearly bothered by the association of the Heart song with Sarah Palin and said so in a statement she e-mailed to EW.com:
“Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women. We ask that our song ‘Barracuda’ no longer be used to promote her image. The song ‘Barracuda’ was written in the late 70s as a scathing rant against the soulless, corporate nature of the music business, particularly for women. While Heart did not and would not authorize the use of their song at the RNC, there’s irony in Republican strategists’ choice to make use of it there.”The Wilson sisters, who generally disagreed with Palin’s politics, sent a cease-and-desist letter to McCain-Palin campaign. McCain’s people, however, claimed that they had purchased the rights to use the song. “Prior to using Barracuda at any events, we paid for and obtained all necessary licences,” spokesman Brian Rogers told Reuters.
Meanwhile, other former members of the Heart group did not appear to be that concerned over the McCain-Palin use of the song. In an appearance on a Seattle talk show, song co-writer and lead guitarist Roger Fisher announced he was thrilled with the RNC’s use of the song because it resulted in royalties for the band and gave him an opportunity to publicly point out that he was a “staunch” supporter of Barack Obama. Michael DeRosier, lead drummer on the recording and song co-writer, also supported the use of the song by the RNC.The McCain-Palin campaign, in any case, ignored Heart’s request to stop using “Barracuda.” CNN reported that on Tuesday morning, September 9th, 2008, Heart’s 1977 hit song was blaring across the town square of Lebanon, Ohio as throngs of supporters gathered to hear McCain and Palin at a large outdoor rally. In reporting on this use of the song, the New York Times quoted Brian Rogers, spokesman for the campaign, who explained: “The McCain campaign respects intellectual property rights. Accordingly, prior to using ‘Barracuda’ at any events, we paid for and obtained all necessary licenses.”
Apparently, the McCain-Palin campaign did have the correct license. Like thousands of other songs, “Barracuda” is distributed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Any entity licensed with the ASCAP can play a song without getting the artist’s explicit permission. The McCain- Palin campaign paid a blanket fee to the ASCAP in order to obtain licensing to use the song. That being the case, the Wilson sisters didn’t have much legal recourse.But if the campaign had used the song in an ad or a promotional video, that would be a different situation, as a separate “synchronization license” would be needed to put the song in an ad. Additionally, if “Barracuda” had been played so much by the campaign that it became identified with Palin, the Wilsons might then have had a legal claim as a privacy violation in that their identity would be appropriated for marketing purposes. However, this avenue is generally used for commercial products and not political messages, and the proviso varies from state to state. Former Heart band member, Roger Fisher, meanwhile, told Reuters that he planned to contribute part of the royalties he received from the McCain-Palin’s campaign use of the song to Barack Obama’s campaign. “With my contribution to Obama’s campaign,” Fisher told Reuters, “the Republicans are now supporting Obama.”
Heart’s Nancy Wilson later reported in a 2010 interview with Classic Rock magazine that there were some tense times on the road with fans following the controversy over the McCain-Palin use of the Barracuda song. “Some of the fans decided they didn’t like us and didn’t like our music anymore. At least for a while. We were out on the road, and the next show that we played after that was somewhere in Florida — which is not where you wanna be if you’re a Democrat. “Some of the fans decided they didn’t like us and didn’t like our music anymore. At least for a while….We were kinda nervous, but we upped our security…” We were kinda nervous, but we upped our security and kept a close watch on people walking in. Luckily — knock on wood — of all the crazies who have threatened to take us down, nobody so far has done that.”
The Heart-Palin incident with “Barracuda,” however, wasn’t the only example of music-related controversy during the 2008 presidential campaign. Right before McCain introduced Palin in Dayton, Ohio in late August 2008, the campaign played the song “Right Now” by Van Halen. A few hours later, Van Halen’s publicist told MTV News that McCain was never granted permission to use the track, and had permission been sought, it would never have been granted. Earlier that year, in February 2008, John Mellencamp requested that McCain stop using his songs, “Our Country” and “Pink Houses,” on the campaign trail. The Foo Fighters, Frankie Valli, ABBA, and Bon Jovi had also lodged objections with the McCain-Palin campaign over the use of their music. Jackson Browne brought legal action against the Ohio Republican Party for using “Running on Empty” during an attack ad on Obama. Nor were the Democrats free of music-use controversy in the 2008, as Barack Obama’s campaign caught some criticism for its use of Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America” after his nomination-acceptance speech. The Obama campaigns also had a rowel with Sam Moore, of the former Motown group Sam & Dave, when the Obama campaign used “Hold On, I’m Comin’” at rallies, which they voluntarily quite playing.
Other stories at this website dealing with music and politics include, for example: “I’m A Dole Man,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Ray Sings America.” Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 10 March 2012
Last Update: 18 June 2015
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “Barracuda Politics, 2008,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 10, 2012.
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