”Running on Empty” Lawsuit Full of Life

John McCain and Jackson Browne spar over use of song

The 2008 presidential campaign, remember that barrel of laughs? Oh, it was good times, back before the economy died.

One of the many themes of the 2008 campaign was, "How many musicians' works can the McCain campaign appropriate, only to have the musicians ask McCain to quit using their stuff?" Perhaps once a month, right as things were getting boring and even Chris Matthews was running out of compliments for Barack Obama, you'd get some news flash that John Mellencamp or Heart or some other formerly famous musical star was terribly offended that John McCain had played one of their songs at a rally.

It got so bad that by the end of the campaign, Chuck Berry was the only "rocker" whose music McCain could play at his rallies or in TV commercials -- and even then, only because Chuck Berry was too old and feeble to complain.

Perhaps the most laughable complaint came from Jackson Browne, a man from the '70s, who did not want John McCain to play "Running on Empty." Like many of the songs McCain favored -- see Mellencamp's "This Is Our Country" -- this was a piece of music best suited for promoting pickup trucks and not political candidates, but no matter. McCain gave Jackson Browne more exposure in a single campaign commercial than the musician had enjoyed in years, and how did Browne repay him? By suing him for copyright infringement.

McCain and the RNC filed a motion to halt the lawsuit, but a California judge just ruled that Browne's suit still stands. A hearing will be held in late April to set a schedule for a jury trial.

The trial will seek to resolve the pressing question of whether it is ever OK to use music by an artist from the '70s in a political context. The answer is: Never, unless that artist is Stevie Wonder.

The noted rock historian Sara K. Smith writes for NBC and Wonkette.

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