In recent years, it’s become common for rock artists to object after a political figure uses their music without permission. In many cases, the artist isn’t able to prevent such use, because blanket licenses allow it. However, one of the earliest notable examples played out differently when the Pretenders’ track “My City Was Gone” was appropriated by controversial right-wing broadcaster Rush Limbaugh.
Limbaugh, who died this week at 70, picked the 1982 Pretenders song as the theme for his self-titled radio show in 1984, saying he liked the instantly recognizable bass line in the opening phrases. He didn’t air the part that included band leader Chrissie Hynde’s lyrics, which were at odds with his own views. They explored the destruction of traditional American life through the kind of policies he supported: “I went back to Ohio / But my pretty countryside / Had been paved down the middle / By a government that had no pride.”
Because Limbaugh was subject to radio-broadcast regulations, Hynde was within her rights to pursue him for misuse and prevent its continuation – but she didn’t, and she had a good reason. Her dad, Melville “Bud” Hynde, was a Limbaugh fan. She believed in a live-and-let-live approach to politics, even though it sometimes led to family arguments.
That changed in 1997 after Limbaugh told the press that he liked playing “My City Was Gone” because “it was [written by] an environmentalist, animal-rights wacko and was an anti-conservative song.” He added: “It is anti-development, anti-capitalist, and here I am going to take a liberal song and make fun of them at the same time.”
His comment led to Hynde enforcing her rights, but even then she offered a middle ground: No action would result from his breach of licensing if he forwarded all due royalties to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals campaign.
She explained: “In light of Rush Limbaugh’s vocal support of PETA’s campaign against the Environmental Protection Agency’s foolish plan to test some 3,000 chemicals on animals, I have decided to allow him to keep my song ‘My City Was Gone’ as his signature tune and to donate all proceeds from the deal to further PETA’s efforts in that regard.” The amount was reported to be $100,000 at the time.
In an open letter to President Donald Trump in 2020, Hynde reinforced her view. “The other day when you gave that award to Rush Limbaugh, my father would have been so delighted,” she wrote. “He loved listening to Rush, which is why I allowed my song ‘My City Was Gone’ to be used on his radio show. My father and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye. We argued a lot. But isn’t that the American way? The right to disagree without having your head chopped off?”
In later years, Limbaugh would clash with other rock artists, notably a cease-and-desist legal bid from Rush and a round condemnation from Peter Gabriel in 2012, when Limbaugh called rights campaigner Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” for saying women should have easier access to contraceptives.
The episode led to a rare apology from the normally resolute broadcaster, who’ll be remembered for denying climate change, supporting the claim that Trump won the 2020 election, describing predominantly Black sport teams as “gangs” and dismissing feminism as a way “to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.”