Tag Archives: pop music & politics

“I Won’t Back Down”

Cover of Paul Zollo’s 2005 book, “Conversations With Tom Petty,” Omnibus Press, 284pp. Click for Amazon link.
Cover of Paul Zollo’s 2005 book, “Conversations With Tom Petty,” Omnibus Press, 284pp. Click for Amazon link.
     “I Won’t Back Down” is the first single from Tom Petty’s first solo album, Full Moon Fever, released in 1989. The song was written by Petty and his writing partner at the time, Jeff Lynne. It rose to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 single’s chart. It also rose to No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, which ranks radio play. The song’s popularity helped send Full Moon Fever to the multi-million-selling sales club. By October 2000, the album had sold more than five million copies.

Music Player
“I Won’t Back Down”

     “I Won’t Back Down” says it all in its title; it’s a fighter’s song — Petty is standing his ground and he won’t back down. The lyrics — shown later below in a separate sidebar at the bottom of this story — suggest a struggle against the odds, whatever they might be; and a determined stand against the powers that be, whoever they are. And Petty’s defiant tone in the performance provides just the right touch of attitude.

     The song will resonate with those who have been wronged, as well as those who might be out to prove a point. It has a kind of universal and personal appeal. Plus, it’s good rock ‘n roll. It’s also a perfect song for a political campaign. And not surprisingly, more than a few politicians — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents — have all used it, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Politics & Music

     Politicians, especially in recent years, have begun scouring the pop, country, rap and hip hop music charts for tunes that strike a chord with their would-be supporters.  They “borrow” these tunes and use them as theme music during their campaigns, playing them before speeches and at rally locations 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 blessings.  Such “oversight” can sometimes lead to embarrassing situations — for both candidate and artist.

     Happily, for most of those using Tom Petty’s song in various campaigns over the last decade or so, there have only been only one or two of those awkward situations.  Notably in this category, however, was the year 2000 presidential campaign of then Texas Governor W. Bush.  Bush had used “I Won’t Back Down” at campaign events during the 2000 race, becoming practically “a fixture” at those events, according to one report.  Tom Petty wasn’t happy about that. In early 2000, Tom Petty’s publisher sent George Bush a “cease and desist” letter to stop his campaign from using the song. So, he had his publisher send Bush a “cease and desist” letter.  That meant Bush was compelled to stop using the song at his campaign events.  Petty did not want the use of his song to be construed as an endorsement of candidate Bush.

Young Tom Petty.
Young Tom Petty.
     Petty’s publisher, Randall Wixen of Wixen Music, wrote to Bush in early February 2000 telling him to “immediately cease and desist all uses of the song in connection with your campaign.”  Wixen said in his letter to Bush that the use of the song “creates, either intentionally or unintentionally, the impression that you and your campaign have been endorsed by Tom Petty, which is not true.” 

     About a week later, Michael Toner, a lawyer for Bush’s campaign, wrote back to Wixen, saying:  “We do not agree that the mere playing or use of a particular song at a campaign event connotes any impression, either intentionally or unintentionally, of endorsement.” 

Nevertheless, Toner confirmed that the Bush campaign would not use the song at any future campaign events. “So we backed down,” said Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett, jokingly, to reporter Jake Tapper, then covering the issue for Salon.com.


Dems Like Tune

U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb at an October 2006 campaign stop in Annandale, Virginia. Photo-Brendan Smialowski/Getty. Click for Webb book.
U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb at an October 2006 campaign stop in Annandale, Virginia. Photo-Brendan Smialowski/Getty. Click for Webb book.
     On the Democratic side of the aisle, a number of candidates had used Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in their political campaigns. Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, a Vietnam Vet and former Secretary of the Navy who mounted a pugnacious, reform-minded run to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2006, used the Petty song in his campaign. On November 3rd, 2006, right before the election, Webb’s campaign staged a lively outdoor rally with prominent Democrats at Virginia Union University in Richmond. At that rally, Webb took to the stage to the beat of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”  Webb won the race over  Republican incumbent George Allen.

     Another U.S. Senator in 2006, Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, during his re-election bid, made “I Wont’ Back Down” his campaign’s theme song.  It could be heard playing on sound systems from schools to senior centers all across the state.  It was played wherever Menendez appeared, usually as he entered the room or took the stage.  In some cases, the song was played live by a local band rather than the pre-recorded Tom Petty version.

Senator Menendez campaigning in Trenton, NJ, October 2006. Photo, Sylwia Kapuscinski/Getty. Click for Menendez book.
Senator Menendez campaigning in Trenton, NJ, October 2006. Photo, Sylwia Kapuscinski/Getty. Click for Menendez book.
     In West Deptford, NJ that fall, a local group of senior musicians called The Entertainers was used — four guys that had been playing local gigs for seven years.  When the Menendez campaign told the band the Petty song was the song they would be using, the band leader had never heard of it.  He then ran out and bought the CD, found the lyrics online, and had The Entertainers rehearse it briefly before Menendez’s appearance.  Later that same day, as Menendez was joined by former President Bill Clinton at Essex County College in Newark, the Tom Petty version was back on the sound system.  Menendez was 52 at the time of his re-election bid.  He was being challenged by Republican  Thomas Keane, Jr., a state senator and son of former governor and 9-11 Commission member Thomas Keane.  Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, had previously served as a school board member, mayor and state legislator before being elected to Congress in 1992.  In January 2006, he was appointed by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine to fill the Senate seat vacated by Corzine to serve as Governor.  Menendez then won the seat in the general election that fall, becoming New Jersey’s first elected Hispanic senator.  In 2006, he prevailed over Keane and was re-elected to a second term.  Tom Petty’s tune, no doubt, played at his victory party.
Cover of Brooke Masters’ 2006 book on Eliot Spitzer.
Cover of Brooke Masters’ 2006 book on Eliot Spitzer.

Some “Backing Down”

     Sometimes, however, the political candidates using a particular song come to bad end — certainly, no fault of the song’s artist.  In two cases where the Petty song was used prominently in campaigns there came a bit of irony, as the candidates in these instances — both fighters in the populist mold — would unfortunately, “back down.” 

One of these fighters was the promising New York Democrat and progressive, Eliot Spitzer, who had used “I Won’t Back Down” in launching his 2006 New York gubernatorial bid and throughout that campaign. The song had played prominently in Buffalo as Spitzer launched his bid, and it was frequently heard on the campaign trail as well.

 Other Venues

     “I Won’t Back Down” has also been heard in other prominent venues, some political. During the 2000 presidential election pitting former Texas Governor George W. Bush against then Vice President Al Gore, Tom Petty and other musicians attended an election-eve gathering of supporters at Al Gore’s Vice Presidential home in Washington, where Petty performed the song for Gore and his supporters.

     Petty also played the song as part of the September 21, 2001 benefit telethon for the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Nearly 60 million people in the U.S. watched that televised special, which included celebrities such as Julia Roberts, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise. The song became something of a patriotic anthem after the 9-11 attacks.

“I Won’t Back Down” was also one of four songs Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers performed during the 2008 Super Bowl halftime show.

Spitzer, as New York Attorney General, had come on like gangbusters, taking on the powerful at every turn, even on Wall Street. And if ever there was a guy who wasn’t going to “back down,” it was Spitzer through and through, with his sights set on Washington and bigger things ahead. In November 2006, Spitzer was elected governor of New York with 69 percent of the vote, the largest margin of victory ever in a New York gubernatorial race. But alas, it was Spitzer’s personal peccadilloes and call-girl revelations that forced him to resign from office in March 2008.

John Edwards

     A somewhat similar case was that of the formerly, much-admired Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards, who also cultivated the image of a fighter.  Edwards speeches were filled with references to fighting corporations and American revolutionaries, often urging his listeners to rise up against special interests.  Through 2007 and 2008, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” could be heard in a repertoire of Edwards campaign songs that fit his themes and underlined his message.  In gearing up for the New Hampshire primary in August 2007, for example, Edwards spoke in the town of Hookset.  After the event, the campaign played “I Won’t Back Down” as Edwards shook hands of supporters on the way to boarding his “Fighting for One America” campaign bus. However, many months later, after the primaries had ended, Edwards’ revelations about a campaign relationship outside of his marriage helped take him out of the national political arena.

Hillary Clinton celebrates her April 2008 win in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary with Governor Ed Rendell.
Hillary Clinton celebrates her April 2008 win in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary with Governor Ed Rendell.

“Defiance” Music?

     Then comes Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton during her hard-fought 2007-08 Democratic presidential primary campaign. In late April 2008, after she had won the Pennsylvania primary, but was nevertheless being urged to drop out of the race given an uphill delegate climb, she emerged at her victory party to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”

And again in June, after a Hillary speech in New York that was not a formal concession speech, “I Won’t Back Down” was piped out over the sound system. Was the candidate sending out a little message of defiance here? Certainly it appeared that way to a few reporters. Nothing wrong with that, of course. At least she kept them guessing for a time.

"I Won't Back Down" is also played over the ending credits of the 2008 Bush v. Gore  film, "Recount". Click for DVD.
"I Won't Back Down" is also played over the ending credits of the 2008 Bush v. Gore film, "Recount". Click for DVD.
Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” is also played, appropriately, during the ending credits for the 2008 HBO TV film, Recount, which focuses on the contentious battle at the end of the “too-close-to-call” U.S. presidential election of November 2000 between former Vice President Al Gore (D) and then former Texas Governor George W. Bush (R). That docu-drama, with Hollywood stars Kevin Spacey, Laura Dern, Denis Leary and others, revisits the bitter battle of the two sides over Florida’s determining 25 electoral votes. The film covers the messy Florida voting system and recount effort, the resulting parade of lawsuits, and the “never-give-up” efforts of the Gore camp to have all votes counted. However, the final disposition of the case came with controversial U.S. Supreme Court actions stopping a statewide recount and allowing a previous Florida vote certification to stand, giving the Bush camp Florida’s 25 electoral votes for a 271 national total, one more than the 270 required to be elected president.

Trump’s Try

On June 20th, 2020, at President Donald Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma campaign event – coming in the middle of the corona virus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests – Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” song was played during the event, bringing a quick objection from the Petty family. Tom Petty had passed away in October 2017, and so his estate and family members sent a “cease and desist” order to the Trump campaign that same day to stop him from further use of the song.

2020. Donald Trump’s use of “I Won’t Back Down” brought “cease & desist” order from Petty family.
2020. Donald Trump’s use of “I Won’t Back Down” brought “cease & desist” order from Petty family.

“Trump was in no way authorized to use this song to further a campaign that leaves too many Americans and common sense behind,” said a statement issued by the Petty family the day of the event. The statement, which appeared on Twitter, and was signed by Petty’s ex-wife Jane, his widow Dana, and his daughters Adria and Annakim, continued as follows:

…Both the late Tom Petty and his family firmly stand against racism and discrimination of any kind. Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate. He liked to bring people together.

Tom wrote this song for the underdog, for the common man and for EVERYONE. We want to make it clear that we believe everyone is free to vote as they like, think as they like, but the Petty family doesn’t stand for this. We believe in America, we believe in democracy. But Donald Trump isn’t representing the noble ideals of either. We would hate for fans that are marginalized by this administration to think we were complicit in this usage, Concurrently, we have issued an official cease and desist notice to the Trump campaign.

In addition to the Petty family, Benmont Tench III, a founding member of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers group, agreed with the family’s statement on Twitter, and also issued an Instagram post, stating: “I in no way approve of Trump even whistling any piece of music associated with our band…” Other artists have also asked Trump not to use their music, including: Neil Young, Adele, Guns N’ Roses, Pharrell, Earth, Wind & Fire, Queen, REM’s Michael Stipe, The Rolling Stones, Rihanna, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

“Tom Petty: An American Treasure,” career-spanning 4-CD box set, featuring 60 tracks. Click for CD.
“Tom Petty: An American Treasure,” career-spanning 4-CD box set, featuring 60 tracks. Click for CD.

     Political candidates come and go, of course, but the music lives on to play in many other battles. Doubtless, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” will be heard in other campaigns to come. And that’s not a bad thing, when approved, as the nation needs inspired political participation and determined candidates — or at the very least, those who want to try. Music and politics can be a healthy mix, especially if it helps bring more folks into the political process.

     See also at this website, “Rhino Skin,” another story featuring a Tom Petty song, as well as other “music & politics” stories, including: “I’m A Dole Man” (Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole’s use of a Sam and Dave song); “Four Dead in O-hi-o” (music about the 1970 Kent State shootings); and “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (civil rights music from Bob Dylan). See also the “Politics & Culture” category page. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle.


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Date Posted:    7 March 2009
Last Update:   22 June 2020
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “I Won’t Back Down, 1989-2008,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 7, 2009.




Sources, Links & Additional Information

Cover of Tom Petty’s 1989 album that includes  ‘I Won’t Back Down’ track. Click for CD.
Cover of Tom Petty’s 1989 album that includes ‘I Won’t Back Down’ track. Click for CD.
Frank Bruni, “The 2000 Campaign: Campaign Notebook; A Wistful Bush Reflects On Hearth and Home,” New York Times, Friday, January 28, 2000.

Randall D. Wixen, Wixen Music Publishing, Inc., Calabasas, CA, Letter to Governor George W. Bush, Austin, TX, Re: Tom Petty/”I Won’t Back Down”, February 4, 2000.

Michael E. Toner, General Counsel, George W. Bush for President, Austin, TX, Letter to Randall D. Wixen, Wixen Music Publishing, Inc., Calabasas, CA, Re: Tom Petty/”I Won’t Back Down”, February 11, 2000.

Jake Tapper, “Don’t Do Me Like That: Tom Petty Tells George W. Bush to ‘Back Down’ From Using one of Petty’s Songs at his Events,” Salon.com, September 16, 2000.

Patrick Healy, “Democracy in Action,” New York Times, May 30, 2006.

Andrea Bernstein, “Spitzer Bus Tour Is Unofficial Campaign Kick-Off,” WNYC.org, Radio & print report, June 3, 2006.

David W. Chen, with reporting by Jonathan Miller & Nate Schweber, “As Expected, New Jersey Primaries Create Senate Race Between Kean and Menendez,” New York Times, June 7, 2006.

Cynthia Burton, “Menendez: He Has Risen Despite Defying Alliances,”Philadelphia Inquirer October 15, 2006.

“I Won’t Back Down”
Tom Petty & Jeff Lynne

Well I won’t back down,
no I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

Gonna stand my ground,
won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from
draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground,
and I won’t back down

Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won’t back down.

Well I know what’s right,
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on
pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground,
and I won’t back down

Hey baby there ain’t no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
Note: song is longer than appears when full
chorus & recurring refrains are added.

Todd Jackson and Michael Sluss, “Senate Hopefuls Still Pounding the Pavement; George Allen Gets an Endorsement and James Webb Trots out Some Democrat Heavyweights,” Roanoke.com, of The Roanoke Times, November 3, 2006.

David W. Chen, “A Fight Song Comes Alive,” New York Times, November 5, 2006.

Peter Nicholas, Edwards Levels Attack on Clinton-era White House,” Los Angeles Times, August 24, 2007, p. A-12.

Adam Nagourney, “Do You Know the Words to the Edwards Fight Song?,” The Caucus Blog, New York Times, December 19, 2007.

Adam Nagourney, “On the Trail: The Edwards Playlist,”New York Times, December 20, 2007.

Sarah Wheaton, “Accompaniments; Theme Songs and Others,” New York Times, February 16, 2008

Imprint ipod Gail Collins, “Hillary’s Smackdown,” New York Times, April 24, 2008.

 Kleinheider, “That Ain’t Any Kind Of Concession Speech I Ever Heard Of,” NashvillePost.com, June 3, 2008.

“I Won’t Back Down,” SongFacts.com.

“I Won’t Back Down,”Wikipedia.org.

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, United States Senate.

U.S. Senator Jim Webb, United States Senate.

“Eliot Spitzer,” Times Topics, New York Times.

“John Edwards,” Times Topics, New York Times.