Ronald Reagan in music
The appearance of Ronald Reagan in music includes mentions and depictions of the actor-turned-politician in songs, albums, music videos, and band names, particularly during his two terms as President of the United States. Reagan first appeared on a few album covers during his time as a Hollywood actor, well before his political career. During the 1960s, folk, rock, and satirical musicians critiqued Reagan in his early years as Governor of California for his red-baiting and attacks on Berkeley's Free Speech Movement. In the 1980s songs critiquing Reagan became more widespread and numerous once he ascended to national office and involved himself in the renewal of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, social conservatism, right-wing evangelicalism, and his economic policies in relation to low-income people. While references to Reagan during his presidency appear in pop music, his presence in song lyrics and on album covers is often associated with the hardcore punk counter-culture of the 1980s.
The 1980s' surge in political songs about a current president marked a shift in the culture and helped define the soundscape of the decade, partly fueled by Reagan's attack on aspects of culture associated with rock and roll, namely sex, drugs, and left-leaning politics. While presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon had been the subject of protest songs and politically satirical music during both the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were largely passed over by songwriters in the 1970s. That changed with Reagan's presidency, which brought on echoes of his prior campaign against counter-cultural activists a generation earlier during his terms as governor of California. The arrival of music television added a visual component to many of these songs, as did numerous album covers that used the president's likeness in their artwork. Artists' access to digital technology and the rise of hip hop also made Reagan the first political figure whose voice was widely sampled in music.
With regards to musical taste, Reagan himself was a proponent of standards from Hollywood musicals and the Great American Songbook, running three campaigns to the tune of "California Here I Come". As a social conservative he and his administration were sometimes at odds with the lifestyles and politics of popular musicians, and Reagan's time as president was marked by various miscommunications involving The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, and others. Reagan's longevity as a public figure, and the legacy of music written about him, has driven musicians to continue making comment on Reagan well after his political career.
While Ronald Reagan began involving himself in politics in the late 1950s and early 1960s, other cultural and political shifts in the United States coalesced to create a surge in protest music. Waves of African-Americans moving from the Southern United States to urban centers in the North, Midwest, and West during and after World War II helped to electrify the blues and hastened the evolution of rock and roll. A post-war baby boom meant that a large segment of the population was entering their teens at the start of 1960s and became the de facto audience for this new music. Simultaneously the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War fueled folk singers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs to write and record numerous topical songs that reached a large fanbase of primarily young people. While President Lyndon Johnson's escalation of US involvement in Vietnam was met with increased protests, Reagan began his campaign for Governor of California. Phil Ochs mentioned both Johnson and Reagan on his 1966 album, Phil Ochs in Concert. In his introduction to "Ringing of Revolution", Ochs sets up the song by speculating on a future where the last of the bourgeoisie are besieged in a mansion atop a hill. Ochs imagines a film based on his own lyrics:
Ochs interchanges actors and politicians and pokes fun at Reagan for following in George Murphy's footsteps: Murphy, like Reagan, had been a film actor and became president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), then went on to be a Republican US Senator for the state of California. Reagan had succeeded Murphy as SAG president where he worked as an informant for the FBI during the Hollywood blacklist period. Two decades later, Reagan also ran for office and became California's governor.
Tom Lehrer made a similar comparison in his song "George Murphy", which opens:
Helen Gahagan was also an entertainer turned politician, progressing from Broadway to US Congress until Richard Nixon unseated her after claims that Gahagan was "pink down to her underwear". In Lehrer's song on his 1965 live album, he punctuates Reagan's name with a question mark, evoking a laugh from an audience who did not yet know that Reagan would sweep the gubernatorial election the following year.
In 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival mentioned Reagan in their science fiction-inspired song "It Came Out of the Sky" in which a flying saucer landing in the US Midwest spirals into a commercial and political fiasco. In his lyrics CCR frontman John Fogerty lyrics imagine how different sectors of society would respond, with Hollywood turning the event into an epic film, The Vatican declaring it as Christ's return, then-vice president Spiro Agnew proposing a tariff on all things Martian, and Governor Reagan suspecting a communist conspiracy. Singer John Fogerty wrote about his inspiration for the song's spectacle and its Reagan reference in his 2015 memoir, saying, "Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid are in there, big newscasters at the time. And Ronald Reagan—I call him Ronnie the Popular."
In 1970 Jefferson Starship referred to Reagan's policies and attitudes as governor in the song "Mau Mau (Amerikon)" on their debut album Blows Against the Empire. In the song vocalist Paul Kantner recants, "the dogs of a grade-B movie star governor's war" in reference to the previous year's actions taken against students at the University of California, Berkeley to create a People's Park as part of the political counterculture of the 1960s. Governor Reagan's Chief of Staff, Edwin Meese, ordered the Alameda County Sheriff to fire upon the crowds with buckshot, resulting in the death of one student and the hospitalization of 128 others. These directives had come from Reagan himself, who had been publicly critical of UC Berkeley administrators for tolerating student demonstrations. In his 1966 gubernatorial campaign he had promised to crack down on what he called "a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants" on the Berkeley campus. In their song, Jefferson Starship countered Reagan's social conservatism with the line, "We'll ball in your parks".
During Reagan's presidency
While Presidents Johnson and Nixon had come under lyrical fire from songwriters for the role they played in waging war both in Vietnam and against protesters in the US, songs about presidents Ford and Carter were scant in comparison. Exceptions include James Brown's 1974 single "Funky President", 1975's "Please, Mr. President" recorded by 10-year-old Paula Webb, and Devo's 1980 hit, "Whip It". With Reagan's return to major political office came his renewed campaign against things often associated with a rock-and-roll lifestyle: promiscuous sex, illicit drugs, and left-wing politics. These attitudes, along with his domestic and foreign policies, made Reagan into a target for a new generation of protest music.
Popular and folk music
After Reagan's election as US president in 1980, many pop music artists responded in their song lyrics. In 1981, "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang" by British synthpoppers Heaven 17 slammed UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher along with Reagan, denouncing the leaders' policies as tending toward racism and fascism. The song was banned by the BBC over concerns of libel. That same year Prince released the album Controversy, including the song "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," a "hastily blurted plea to Reagan to seek disarmament", in which Prince pleads with the president not to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. On the same record, the song "Annie Christian" envisions an angel of death responsible for the recent violent events, including John Hinckley's attempt on Reagan's life, the slaying of John Lennon, and a wave of infanticide in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1982 Australian rock band Midnight Oil critiqued American military intervention in other nations' affairs on their single "US Forces." Talking about the song with Rolling Stone in 2017, singer Peter Garrett said that "it’s construed as an anti-American song but it was an anti-Reagan, anti-Republican song about what they were doing and the impact it was having on our country at the time.” Two years after the song's release, Garrett ran for an Australian Senate seat representing the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party. After winning more votes than his opponent, other parties joined forces to refuse Garrett and his party a seat in the Senate.
Blues musicians also sang about Reagan. Vietnam and Korean War veteran Louisiana Red recorded "Reagan Is For The Rich Man" backed by harmonica player Carey Bell in 1983. Red wrote the track after having been refused government benefits, and expresses preference for Reagan's western films over his politics. That same year blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree recorded the song "President Reagan" in which the former boxing champ accuses Reagan of helping the rich, ignoring poor people and veterans, and undoing the policies put in place by John F. Kennedy two decades earlier. Dupree also sings about being "so glad he only got two more years, and the world will be happy...and we won't shed no more tears," without the knowledge that Reagan would be voted in for a second term.
In 1984 former Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist John Fogerty alluded to Reagan once again for his single "The Old Man Down the Road". That same year Eagles drummer Don Henley released the single "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" in protest against the US involvement with the Contras in Nicaragua. In the song he chastised people for wanting to dance while sales of guns and drugs were going on at the behest of the CIA. Henley would later sing about Reagan as "this tired old man that we elected king" in a parting shot at the president as he was leaving office in 1989's "The End of the Innocence". Among 1984's other songs protesting the Reagan administration's role in the Iran-Contra affair were "Nicaragua" by Bruce Cockburn, "Lives in the Balance" by Jackson Browne. "Please Forgive Us" by 10,000 Maniacs, and "Untitled Song for Latin America" by Minutemen.
When Britain's ITV network launched the satirical puppet show Spitting Image in 1984, the first record released in relation to the show was a rework of the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron". The Spitting Image version, "Da Do Run Ron," was a spoof election campaign song for Ronald Reagan, featuring Nancy Reagan listing reasons why he should be re-elected. The cover featured the puppet versions of the Reagans that appeared on the show and later starred in the 1986 video for "Land of Confusion" by British band Genesis. Chris Barrie, who voiced Reagan on Spitting Image, also did so on Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes". The song follows Reagan's career to an imagined future in which Jesus Christ can only return after a nuclear apocalypse, and Barrie, as Reagan, quotes Don McLean's "American Pie" and parts of an Adolf Hitler speech.
On the heels of 1984's presidential campaign, the rock group Supertramp featured spoken voice-overs from both Reagan and Bush on the right audio channel and their Democratic opponents Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro on the left audio channel during the fade-out for their song "Better Days". The song's video reviews the 20th century through a retrospective montage of its hardships and the leaders who promised a solution. Beginning with the Great Depression and the rise of the Third Reich, the video sequences clips of military parades and battles moving forward to atomic test and other advancements in weapons technology, to footage of President Nixon, and then Reagan as his voice can be heard saying, "Our nation is poised...for greatness." In a similar vein, the last minute of Def Leppard's "Gods of War" is layered with soundbites of Reagan, Thatcher and the noises of missile launches and bombs exploding. In a departure from Cold War rhetoric, the two leaders' quotes are lifted from their justifications for the 1986 United States bombing of Libya and Britain's participation in the affair. Reagan's quotes serve as precursory marks to the War of Terror that the US would lead against majority Muslim countries in the following decades. He can be heard on the track saying, "A message to terrorists everywhere. You can run...but you can't hide", and, "We are not going to tolerate these attacks from outlaw states", ending with, "They counted on America to be passive...They counted wrong," in contrast to Def Leppard's anti-war lyrics.
In 1985 former Police frontman Sting released "Russians", with lyrics leveled at Reagan, the Soviets, and both countries' pro-nuclear rhetoric, all set to Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite. Milwaukee folk-rockers The Violent Femmes imagined the president as "Old Mother Reagan", a dangerously senile grandmother who tries in vain to enter heaven in one of the group's most fiercely political songs. The same year jam band Phish made their own overt case against the president, sung as a letter to the first lady. Originally titled "Memo to Ronnie Reagan", the song "Dear Mrs. Reagan" mimics Bob Dylan's protest music of the 1960s but rails against Mrs. Reagan's Just Say No anti-drug campaign. The band continued to perform it until Reagan left office in January 1989.
1985 also saw the release of Dog Eat Dog, Joni Mitchell's synth-driven album co-produced by Thomas Dolby. The album's songs capture the headlines of the 1980s, including South Africa's apartheid and Ethiopia's famine, while critiquing the rise of mass consumerism and televangelists. Mitchell saw the rise of the religious right as a dangerous and manipulative force on US politics and likened Reagan to a puppet being manipulated by powerful religious leaders. Mitchell told The Guardian:
Reagan feels that Armageddon is inevitable and it's dangerous when you have a President who thinks that way since he's the one who can call for the pushing of the button. He sees himself in his personal drama, I think, increasingly as a religious leader and he has public lunches with some of these very powerful evangelists, Pat Robertson and The 700 Club for instance. In other words, you have the church stroking Reagan and saying "Yes, yes, aren't they saying nasty things about you, they must be communists. Therefore they threaten both you and me. Don't you think we should silence these communists from speaking?"
U2's 1987 song "Bullet the Blue Sky" from The Joshua Tree was inspired after lead vocalist Bono visited El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War and witnessed how the conflict between rebels and the US-backed government affected local civilians. During a spoken word passage of the song, he speaks of being approached by a man, "his face red like a rose on a thorn bush, like all the colors of a royal flush, and he's peeling off those dollar bills, slapping them down, 100, 200". Bono said the person he had in mind while writing these lyrics was Reagan, whose administration backed the military regimes in Central and South America that Bono encountered on his trip.
Frank Zappa was an outspoken critic of the Reagan presidency and what he saw as a pandering to the religious right wing. During a televised debate on CNN's Crossfire, Zappa said, "The biggest threat to America today is not communism, it's moving America toward a fascist theocracy. And everything that's happened during the Reagan administration is steering us right down that pipe." Several songs on Zappa's 1988 album Broadway the Hard Way ridicule Reagan, notably "Promiscuous," which jabs at the Reagans' attempts to reduce sex education in public schools and replace it with abstinence-only propaganda as well as his slow response to the AIDS pandemic.
On his 1989 album, Big Daddy, John Mellencamp's song "Country Gentleman" is "a scathing indictment on Ronald Reagan". Written and recorded during Reagan's final year in office, the song's last line thanks God that "he went back to California."
In the 1970s, punk rock emerged as an antithesis to establishment, authority, and the status quo, and by 1980, president-elect Reagan became a prime pariah for punks to rally against in both the United States and abroad. The widespread appearance of Reagan as a vilified icon in punk music particularly can be linked to the do-it-yourself model of bands releasing their own records and not being subject to the censorship of major labels, commercial radio or television. Reagan's rise to power also coincided with the arrival of a new subgenre: hardcore punk. Many hardcore bands put Reagan's face on flyers, T-shirts, and album covers, plus peppered lyrics, song names, and album titles with the president's various monikers, including "Reagan," "Ronnie," "Bonzo," and "The Gipper."
Some punk bands even named themselves after the president or events related to him, the first being the anarcho-punk band Reagan Youth who formed in Queens, New York in 1980 as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Hitler Youth. The band's theme song was sung in satire as if by a cadre of neo-fascist youth, shouting, "Reagan Youth—Sieg Heil!" In April 1981, 19 days after the attempted assassination of Reagan by John Hinckley Jr., a skate punk group from Phoenix, Arizona named themselves JFA, short for "Jodie Foster's Army". Jodie Foster had been the target of an obsession Hinckley had developed since seeing her portrayal of a teen sex worker in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver. Hinckley eventually attempted to kill the president as a means to impress the actress. Originally performing under the name The Breakers, one of JFA's first songs was about the assassination attempt, describing Hinckley's actions with the line, "Shoot the prez, shoot a cop, secretary too." When Breakers fans adopted that song's title—Jodie Foster's Army—as their own nickname and began showing up at Breakers gigs with "JFA" written on their clothes, the band decided to adopt it as their new name.
San Francisco's Dead Kennedys made a career out of mentioning Reagan in songs like "Moral Majority", "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now," "Bleed for Me", and the track "Kinky Sex Makes the World Go Round", a spoken-word piece about World War III formatted as an erotic phone call between Margaret Thatcher and Reagan's fictitious Secretary of War. The band's 1986 studio album, Bedtime for Democracy, is a play on Reagan's film Bedtime for Bonzo and features a multitude of songs about Reagan. "Potshot Heard Round the World" is about US military actions in the Middle East, "with Reagans and Gaddafis cast as cartoon villains and heroes." Reagan plays the title role in the song, "Rambozo the Clown", a portmanteau of Sylvester Stallone's Rambo franchise and Bozo the Clown from children's daytime TV. The Dead Kennedys were done in by a lawsuit against their inclusion of H. R. Giger's Penis Landscape painting as an insert the album Frankenchrist. Singer Jello Biafra chose to include in the album the first time he saw it, saying, "This picture is like Reagan America on parade."
JFA's label-mates, the Sun City Girls, released an entire Reagan-themed album in 1987 whose title, Horse Cock Phepner, was an alleged nickname for Ronald Reagan. The album was the band's most lyrical; an obscenity-laden "documentation of the American nightmare in all its incestuous beauty." The album's refraining spoken word track "Voice of America" makes mention of the president, and the album's song "Nancy" depicts then-First Lady Nancy Reagan as a sexual fetishist. Other songs deride members of the Reagan administration, including Attorney General Edwin Meese, and the band recorded an updated cover version of The Fugs song "CIA Man" to be about atrocities committed by the Central Intelligence Agency during Reagan's presidential terms. In a 1999 interview, the Sun City Girls' guitarist Rick Bishop said:
Other bands during that part of the '80's, both major and not-so-major acts, were really getting on the political bandwagon for one stupid reason or another. They were all so fucking serious, trying to be a voice for a generation or some shit like that, but worst of all they remained within the parameters of social acceptability. There was also a big censorship flap going on at the time. We looked at it as a chance to catch up with our obscenity quota.
Other notable punk bands that sang about Reagan included The Ramones, The Clash, The Damned, The Exploited, NOFX, Suicidal Tendencies, Wasted Youth, T.S.O.L., Government Issue, Dayglo Abortions, D.O.A., The Fartz, The Minutemen, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, MDC, Spermbirds, and The Crucifucks. Many of these groups, along with the Dead Kennedys, organized a series of "Rock Against Reagan" concerts and tours to infuse awareness of then-current politics into the punk subculture.
Some hardcore punk songwriters made a conscious decision to avoid putting Reagan in their lyrics. In wanting his music to outlast the administration, Washington, DC, musician Ian MacKaye, who was in the bands Minor Threat, Embrace, Pailhead, and Fugazi during the Reagan years, has said, "I remember clearly resisting the urge to put the word 'Reagan' in any of the songs". Meanwhile other members of the US hardcore scene took a different political stance altogether: In the late 1980s US skinheads spearheaded a patriotic right-wing faction of New York hardcore, and although bands like Agnostic Front and Cro Mags did not reference the president directly in their lyrics, their support of Reagan fell within their interpretation of patriotic backlash that reimagined hardcore without the anti-establishment ethos of punk rock. Some groups' stances on the president were a bit more ambiguous. When the drunk-rock group Murphy's Law praised Reagan and his films in their 1986 song "California Pipeline", fans could take it as either actual pro-Republican patriotism, or a tongue-in-cheek take on anti-Reagan irony. By the late 1980s, references to Reagan in hardcore music had become so commonplace that the joke was no longer on the president, but on a punk scene where bands were practically obliged to put a Reagan song on their setlist or album.
Hip-hop and sampling
As hip-hop came of age during the 1980s, Ronald Reagan became the first president to make mention of its music and culture, and Reagan in turn became the first major political figure to recur as a subject in the genre. Proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron made Reagan the subject of his 1981 song "B-movie" as well as his 1984 single "Re-Ron" focusing on Reagan's re-election campaign.
The 1980s also saw the widespread use of sampling sounds for use in music, and as sampling equipment became more affordable, both experimental and hip hop artists utilized with greater frequency. Sound collage group Negativland first sampled Reagan on their 1981 album Points on the instrumental track "The Answer Is", where the music interrupted by the president stuttering, "The problem isn't being poor, the problem is, um, the answer is ..."  The art rock band 3 Teens Kill 4 sampled Reagan and anecdotes about him in their 1984 song "Tell Me Something Good". In 1985 P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins and Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads teamed up as the supergroup Bonzo Goes to Washington (named for Reagan's early 1960s films Bedtime for Bonzo and Bonzo Goes to College) to release a single that heavily sampled the president saying, "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that outlaws Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes," during a microphone test. German Techno act Moskwa TV sampled the same phrase in the "bombing mix" of their 1985 dance track, "Tekno Talk".
A snippet of Reagan saying "out of control" was looped by DJ Jazzy Jeff, Was (Not Was) and EPMD. The president had originally used the expression in reference to the national debt and was appropriated by dance artists to entice their audiences. Industrial dance group Skinny Puppy also used Reagan's voice in their music. Their song "Far Too Frail" puts a spin on the president's prudishness as he is heard saying, "For years some people have argued that this type of pornography is a matter of artistic creativity", and in "State Aid" Reagan's voice is clipped to create a stammering effect that reflected his reluctance to address the AIDS crisis.
Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon used the same sample in their 1984 video for "World Destruction" performing under the name Time Zone. The single's B-side also sampled Walter Mondale talking about Reagan.
Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau cowrote an entire musical revue with Elizabeth Swados, featuring the song "Rap Master Ronnie." Hollywood actor Reathel Bean was the revue's star performer and in 1984 released a three versions of the song on a 12" single attributed to Reathel Bean & The Doonesbury Break Crew. There was also an accompanying video where Reagan and his posse of Secret Service agents go to a black DC neighborhood to rap for minority votes.
Other '80s rap songs mentioning or referencing Reagan include Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" (1982), Project Future's one-off "Ray-Gun-Omics" (1983), Ice-T's "Squeeze the Trigger" (1987), Biz Markie's "Nobody Beats the Biz" (1988), Boogie Down Productions' "Stop the Violence" (1988), Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause" (1988), and rapper Too Short's 1988 track "Cusswords."
Reggae and African music
The Kansas City's Grammy-nominated Blue Riddim Band, recorded the satirical track "Nancy Reagan" in 1982 about what the band considered to be misguided priorities on the part of the President and his wife. The song was later versioned by Ranking Roger in 1985 and by Big Youth in 2011. Fela Kuti featured demonic caricatures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and other world leaders on the cover of his 1989 album Beasts of No Nation and mentioned them in the lyrics.
In 1984, Randall Jahnson directed a video for the Minutemen song "This Ain't No Picnic". Shot for $450, the video intersperses shots of the Minutemen playing the song on a barren landscape with World War II propaganda footage of Reagan in a US Air Force Spitfire fighter plane, edited to appear as though Reagan was strafing the band with the aircraft's machine guns. The video was one of the first by an indie band to be played on MTV and was in the running on the network's first Video Music Awards in 1985.
That same year Frank Zappa created a music video for his racially charged song "You Are What You Is." Though a somewhat conventionally produced video by Zappa standards, MTV blacklisted it because in it an actor made up to look like Reagan was depicted sitting in an electric chair.
Also in 1984, Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a video for their anti-war song "Two Tribes" featuring actors playing Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Konstantin Chernenko who were fighting as though they were professional wrestlers. The video was televised several times during the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
In 1986 Genesis collaborated with the producers of British sketch comedy show Spitting Image on the music video for their song "Land of Confusion." The video opens with a puppet caricatures of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in bed with a chimpanzee parodying Reagan's film Bedtime for Bonzo, and spirals into the president's fever dream featuring Benito Mussolini, Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Muammar Gaddafi, Richard Nixon, television celebrities, and the members of Genesis themselves. Reagan awakens drowning in his own sweat, fumbles for a bedside button labelled "Nurse", but instead presses the one titled "Nuke", setting off a nuclear explosion. The video won Best Concept Music Video at the 30th Annual Grammy Awards and was nominated for by MTV for video of the year. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau ranked the video number one on his year-end "Dean's List," and it made number three on the equivalent list in the paper's annual Pazz & Jop survey of music critics.
Reagan appeared as an actor and spokesperson on spoken word recordings as early as 1958 and was first pictured on album covers in the early 1960s. One notable recording was Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine, a 1961 Cold War propaganda piece sponsored by the American Medical Association. In his speech, Reagan purports that Social Security is a socialist attempt to supplant private savings, and eventually concludes that, "Pretty soon your son won't decide when he's in school, where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him."
The first musical album which featured Reagan on the cover was Ronald Reagan Recommends Award Winning Music from Hollywood, a promotional item produced by General Electric during Reagan's tenure as their spokesperson from 1953 to 1962. The LP features the General Electric Transcription Orchestra rendering such hits as "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," "White Christmas," and "Que Sera, Sera."
During the 1980s, Reagan's likeness appeared on jackets of records by musicians making political statements almost exclusively against the president. These include:
- Let Them Eat Jellybeans!: 17 Extracts From America's Darker Side, the compilation album released on the Dead Kennedys' Alternative Tentacles label in 1981, featured Winston Smith's artwork of the president in front of an inverted United States flag. Let Them Eat Jellybeans' title was a portmanteau referring to Reagan's favorite candy and Marie Antoinette's monarchic "Let them eat cake" quip allengedly lobbed at France's starving peasantry two centuries hence. The phrase had gained popularity in the media after Reagan had cut food programs that supported children from low-income families, with military veterans during a hunger strike, and artist Jimmy Ernst incorporated the phrase into his collage work in the early 1980s. The album cover and title also inspired an ironic Reagan-era button worn by critics of the president and traded by pin collectors. For the album's 35th anniversary, artist Shepard Fairey made an original print combining the Reagan motif with other emblems of Winston Smith's work with the Dead Kennedys.
- Reagan's In, the 1981 debut album Wasted Youth from Los Angeles, featured a version of Reagan's face drawn by then-unknown hardcore punk artist Pushead.
- "Should I Stay or Should I Go", the 1982 hit single by The Clash, featured Reagan on some versions of the picture sleeve, while others depicted a photo of the band.
- Earth Crisis, the 1984 album by reggae group Steel Pulse, featured drawings of Reagan, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, Pope John Paul II, and a Klansman, among others.
- "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," the Ramones 1985 single, pictured Reagan's controversial visit to a German military cemetery in Bitburg earlier that year. Critics in the US, Europe, and Israel decried the presidential visit because among the 2,000 German soldiers buried there were 49 members of the Waffen-SS who had committed genocidal atrocities. The phrase "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" was coined by protesters in the weeks leading up to Reagan's trip. Before the trip, Reagan ignited more controversy when he expressed his belief that the soldiers buried at Bitburg "were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."
- "Five Minutes," the 1985 single by Bonzo Goes to Washington, the collaboration between Bootsy Collins of P-Funk and Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads, depicts Reagan on the sleeve, looking at his wristwatch.
- Feed Us A Fetus, the 1986 LP by Canadian thrash band Dayglo Abortions, adapted a photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan with the US presidential seal in the background, adding to it is a fetus being served to the president on a plate. Earlier in his political career, Ronald Reagan had signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act six weeks into his first gubernatorial term, bringing California's statewide total of legal abortion procedures from 518 in 1967 to an average of around 100,000 annually throughout his two terms as governor—more than any other state prior to Roe vs. Wade. In 1972 Nancy Reagan make a public statement regarding her husband's decision, saying, "If we accept the right to take life before birth are we so far from making the decision after birth?" She went on to say, "I agree with the California abortion law passed under my husband, however, I believe it has been terribly abused". By the end of the Reagans' first term in the White House, they had changed their position on abortion, and in 1986 the president addressed a joint session of Congress, saying, "Today there is a wound in our national conscience. America will never be whole as long as the right to life granted by our Creator is denied to the unborn". By the 1990s, Nancy Reagan reasserted her public opinion of being "somewhere in the middle" in not supporting abortion while believing in women's right to choose. The Dayglo Abortions's name caused the band problems in both the United States and Canada, and the cover of Feed Us A Fetus resulted in an obscenity charge that was ultimately brought before and overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada.
- Beasts of No Nation, the 1989 album by Fela Kuti, critiques state-sanctioned violence in depicting demonic caricatures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and South African prime minister P. W. Botha, among other world leaders on its cover. Artist Ghariokwu Lemi said of his illustration, "I chose to focus on these three personalities because on the global scene they were responsible for the state of affairs of the world. At that point in time, they represented the axis of repression as they supported and helped to prop up the apartheid regime in South Africa and its beastly human policies".
Ronald Reagan's campaign music
Both in his two terms as governor and during his 1980 run for the presidency, Reagan was introduced with the pop americana standard, "California Here I Come". The song was reworked into a jingle for the candidate opening with, "California, here we come, back where Reagan started from. In 1998 folksinger Oscar Brand recorded this version, along with other presidential campaign songs, for a collection released by Smithsonian Folkways.
During his second run for president, Reagan's campaign advisor, George Will, tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." for the campaign. Will wrote that if "labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles, made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism". A week after Will's writing appeared in a column, Reagan praised Springsteen in a stump speech given in Hammonton, New Jersey. Soon after Reagan's speech, Springsteen expressed discontent with the president and his policies, and "Born in the U.S.A." was dropped from the campaign. Reagan's team then reached out to John Cougar Mellencamp to use his song "Pink Houses" and were turned down. The campaign then adopted "God Bless the U.S.A." by country singer Lee Greenwood. Greenwood played the song for the Second inauguration of Ronald Reagan and at the inaugurations of the next three Republican presidents.
Bob Dole and then Pat Buchanan also used "Born in the U.S.A." in their respective 1996 and 2000 campaigns, until Springsteen objected.
In 1983 Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt cancelled The Beach Boys annual Independence Day performance in Washington, DC, opting instead for crooner Wayne Newton and a US Army band. The Beach Boys had played a free concert on the National Mall every July 4 since 1980 until Watt declared that rock music attracted "the wrong element" and that the administration was "not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism as was done in past years." Watt's social conservativism made him the target of public outcry and denouncements from both the President and the First Lady who declared themselves Beach Boys fans. Days after Watt's announcement, Reagan presented the Secretary with a plaster boot with a hole in it to indicate that Watt had "shot himself in the foot." Watt soon reversed his order and invited the Beach Boys back, but the band had quickly booked another 4 July concert in Atlantic City. The Beach Boys returned to a crowd of 750,000 on the National Mall in 1984 and performed at Reagan's second inaugural ball the following year.
Many artists from different genres have continued to make note of Reagan's legacy in their lyrics, including Neil Young, Glenn Frey, Van Dyke Parks, GWAR, Camper Van Beethoven, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, Kanye West, and the Dead Milkmen. Billy Joel was among the songwriters to mention Reagan as a recent president on his 1989 single, "We Didn't Start the Fire", and New York City hardcore band Sick Of It All revived their genre's pariah in their 1992 song "We Want the Truth".
Rage Against the Machine's 2001 album Evil Empire takes its title from name Reagan repeatedly used to describe the USSR. In an interview with MTV, Rage's frontman Zack de la Rocha explained, "The title Evil Empire is taken from what Rage Against The Machine see as Ronald Reagan's slander of the Soviet Union in the eighties, which the band feels could just as easily apply to the United States."
In 2006 folk-satire duo The Prince Myshkins released a song about Reagan named "I Don't Remember" for testimonial the president had given during the Iran-Contra Hearings. He was also mentioned in the 2009 Aqua song Back to the 80s.
In 2010, television actor Fred Armisen and ex-Scream/Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl paid tribute to their own punk rock roots in the Saturday Night Live sketch, "Crisis of Conformity", a send-up of an '80s hardcore band reuniting to play a wedding 25 years past their heyday. Chicago indie label Drag City later released a Crisis of Conformity single featuring the song "Fist Fight in the Parking Lot" whose opening lines "When Ronald Reagan comes around / He brings the fascists to your town" and subsequent mention of Alexander Haig are a sendup of similar lyrics by the Dead Kennedys and other 80s hardcore groups.
In 2012, thrash metal band Municipal Waste formed the spinoff group, Iron Reagan. The band's name pays double tribute to the 1980s with a nod to the group Iron Maiden who enjoyed heavy airplay on MTV during Reagan's presidency.
Musical references to Reagan continued to persist in the late 2010s. Bright Eyes founder Conor Oberst's 2016 song "A Little Uncanny" comments on Reaganomics and explores the irony that Reagan's charisma distracted from the darker side of his policies. After numerous artists refused to perfrom during inaugural events for Donald Trump in January 2017, a 1980s cover band called the Reagan Years agreed to play at the All American Inaugural Ball at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill hotel amidst criticism for supporting a "bigot, womanizer, horrible man."
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'Ringing of Revolution' describes typical upper-class ignorance of the plight of the poor and, in the spoken intro, likened Lydon Johnson to the actor John Wayne.
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In his patter before 'Ringing of Revolution' (Ochs's patter was itself one of his genres, a famous form of political commentary), he acidly casts a movie about Vietnam ('and Ronald Reagan plays George Murphy').
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The tune paints a picture of Americans focusing on their own selfish needs amid the Iran-Contra weapons-selling scandal of the Ronald Reagan administration, and it features allusions to gun running and the corrupting influence of money and drugs.
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In 1989 I released a record called Big Daddy. That record sold 4 million copies in the first year. On that record is a song called 'Country Gentleman,' a scathing indictment on Ronald Reagan. The last verse is something like" – here Mellencamp breaks into song, a private-concert moment that is both thrilling and a bit unnerving – " 'Country gentleman, there's a bird who flew / High above this nation and preyed upon its weakness / Picked our bones and threw it in a stew / Thank God he went back to California.' You know how much [stuff] I caught for that song? None.'
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Growing up in the 80s in New York City, it was a different place, and there were people who wanted to speak out against discrimination of any kind. Everybody was against Reagan, but there were some [of us] who didn't care for the anti-Americanism and wanted to make the country better and some people twisted that into nationalism on like the extreme, far right side.
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Bonzo Goes To Washington, the most obscure supergroup ever assembled (a trio with Bootsy Collins and…Daniel Lazerus, whoever that is). The track is called 'Five Minutes,' and it's basically a sample of Ronald Reagan's 'We begin bombing in five minutes' joke speech, with some rudimentary beats and, well, Bootsy Collins.
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The video for “Two Tribes” had a few different versions. However, while “Relax” was completely reshot because of the sexual content, “Two Tribes” was merely re-edited for MTV to remove violence, like the scene where Reagan bites Chernenko’s ear. The video — which remains scarily relevant today — was a critical success. “Two Tribes” even hit the height all music videos dream of: It was played several times at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
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