10 Gross Musical Misappropriations

From singing ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ in the schoolyard to humming murder ballads in the shower, we’re all guilty of musical misappropriation now and again. But some are more guilty than others, namely those pop stars who take it out of the shower and into the studio, smudging out the originators intent with their own nonsense. And then there are those pesky politicians co-opting pop songs as a resource for their own ends regardless of the artist’s personal agenda. Here are ten examples where the original message of the music got seriously lost:

Kanye Nick It?
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” sang Billie Holiday back in the late 30s, “blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze…” As you can probably tell, X Factor it ain’t. The poetry combined with Holiday’s devastating vocal paralyses you when you realise she’s singing about lynching, and it gets no less powerful with repeat listens. ‘Strange Fruit’ has been described as one of the first protest songs and among the most powerful tracks of the 20th century. No surprises, then, that Kanye West equated it with his own lady problems then. “These bitches surroundin’ me,” says a put-upon Kanye on ‘Blood On The Leaves, “all want somethin’ out me.” Regarding the sample, Jody Rosen writing in Vulture, said the hip hop superstar was only too aware of how audacious he was being by taking a sacred song and turning it into a “monstrously self-pitying melodrama about what a drag it is when your side-piece won’t abort your love child.”



Not Keane On The Tories
It was surely the surreal moment this summer when Tom Watson MP resigned from the shadow cabinet and told Ed Miliband he should go see Denge that we knew once and for all that music and politics just don’t mix. Political endorsement from any side of the house is every artist’s nightmare, and that very thing happened to Keane when the Conservative Party unveiled a new manifesto to the sound of ‘Everything Changes’ in 2010. The band themselves made overtures they weren’t happy (Richard Hughes tweeted he was “horrified” when he found out) while Thom Yorke – fearing something similar – said he’d “sue the living shit” out of David Cameron if he ever tried that with Radiohead. Morrissey and Marr have been no less brutally emphatic when broached on the subject, separately of course.

Nick It Griffin
Nigel Farage will always look like a reasonable sort of a chap to some sections of the general public as long as there’s a British National Party in existence. Why? Because they’re the sort of lunkheads who use the Manic’s ‘If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next’ – an anti-fascist song about the Spanish Civil War no less – in their promotional videos. Artists are forever trying to disassociate themselves from the BNP, with the likes of Blur and Pink Floyd launching a campaign in 2009 to attempt to stop the party selling their songs on its website. Even Dame Vera Lynn consulted lawyers about them using ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, and there you were thinking she was already dead.

Bruce All Fighty
When Bruce Springsteen wrote ‘Born In The USA’ about a Vietnam veteran who’d lost his way, he probably wasn’t expecting the President of the USA at the time, Ronald Reagan, to mention him by name in a speech as a songwriter who bore “messages of hope” for young Americans to aspire to. Springsteen, a politicised liberal, strongly refuted the 1984 endorsement though the irony of his best known anthem is still often lost on many.

Jagger Bagger
The Rolling Stones no doubt had a right good laugh when they sold their song ‘Brown Sugar’ – about colonial white masters raping black slaves with maybe an added cheeky wink to heroin – to the Pepsi Corporation, bagging themselves a load of lolly in the process. The US drinks giant were launching a new look can, and ‘boy, does that brown sugar inside still taste good’ was presumably the message they were hoping to convey. Hell, they should probably put a weird fly in the commercial too, that’ll win the war with Coke.


Wait Until I Get My Hands On You
Put on a growly voice and start howling like a lovelorn hobo and don’t be surprised if Tom Waits comes down on you like a tonne of bricks. The artist has sued a number of advertisers for impersonating him, and what’s more he usually wins handsomely too. Where some artists have problems proving their song has been plagiarised, Waits’ sound is so indelible that he can score millions in damages just by looking at a company funny. When Opel tried to mimic him in an ad hidden away in Scandinavia, Waits tracked them down and sued. Post win verdict, the San Diego warbler said being used in an ad was like “having a cow’s udder sewn to my face. Painful and humiliating.”

Skrew Loose
It’s the sort of mistake that could prompt an artist to kill their stylist, though apparently Plan B had nobody to blame but himself when he appeared on the cover of Shortlist last year wearing a t-shirt featuring extreme right wing skinhead outfit Skrewdriver. Ben Drew apologised for the mistake and said he was angry with himself for not double checking whether or not they were a bunch of fuggin’ nazis. Nobody seemed to mind too much, they were all too busy chastising Kristen Stewart for wearing a Black Flag t-shirt.

Serve-a Rosa
Rosa Parks was not a woman to be messed with. Not only was she not prone to budging from her seat on the bus for anyone, she also wasn’t prepared to let Outkast use her name as the title of a song that ‘misappropriated her image and used vulgar language’. The legendary civil rights activist served up a lawsuit in 1999 and the band finally settled out of court in 2005 for an undisclosed amount while also agreeing to work with the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in creating educational programmes. Sadly Parks died later that year.

Hit Me Guantanamo Baby One More Time
In 2009, under the Freedom of Information act, it was revealed that a number of songs had been used in “psychological operations” against detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The songs in question were played over and over again as means of torture against prisoners, and the list disclosed includes the theme tune from the kid’s telly programme Barney, ‘Killing In The Name’ by Rage Against the Machine and Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time’. Tom Morello of RATM said, “the fact that music I helped create was used in crimes against humanity sickens me.” Even more sickening is the fact ‘Babylon’ by David Gray was also on that list.

MGMT get the UMP with Sarkozy
It’s not just the UK or America where politicos might take your well meaning song and twist it for their own purposes, it can happen anywhere in the world. Take President Sarkozy for instance. You remember him: Monsieur Bling-Bling, married to supermodel Carla Bruni, kicked out of power after just one term across the channel. Anyway, the then French president’s ruling party, the UMP, rather bafflingly snatched MGMT’s neo-ravetastic earworm ‘Kids’ for their national conference in January 2009, much to the US duo’s chagrin when they found out. It was considerably ironic that Sarkozy, a man so down on piracy, would plunder a track without seeking permission, and even worse the group were offered one euro in symbolic damages for copyright infringement, a figure they declared “insulting”. It’s believed they settled on a sum nearer to €30,000 eventually.