Music/Popular Culture

Donald Trump angers Neil Young in latest GOP song appropriation gaffe

trumpThese are probably not the sort of stories that Donald Trump wanted to start off with:

The New York real estate mogul arrived on stage at his campaign kickoff announcement Tuesday as the sounds of Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” blared through the atrium at Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan. . . .

“Donald Trump was not authorized to use ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ in his presidential candidacy announcement,” a statement from Young’s team read. “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America.”

But, then again, The Donald seems to be of the school that believes that any publicity is good publicity as long as they spell your name right. Fortunately for him, his name is pretty easy to spell. And he probably doesn’t care about Neil Young’s ire.

When you look at the lyrics, though, you have to wonder, what was The Donald thinking? Three verses: one about social unrest, another about an abandoned baby, and the last about materialism that takes a swipe at the first President George Bush:

We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand

Oh yeah, it’s the chorus. “Keep on rockin’ in the free world.” Seven words that can be looped endlessly and become a campaign chant. Unless there’s a cease and desist order. Or enough bad publicity. Of course, The Donald is only the latest politician to use a song without permission or out of context. Here are a few more.

Ronald Reagan famously mis-characterized Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a “song of hope.”

Down in the shadow of penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go

In the case of “Born in the USA,” the appeal was, once again, in the chorus. In this case the easily chanted 4-word title. When he realized that the song was being misconstrued, Springsteen altered is performance. It goes down in history as perhaps one of the most misunderstood songs ever.

Of course the Reagan campaign also tried to use John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses”:

Well, there’s a young man in a t-shirt
Listenin’ to a rockin’ rollin’ station
He’s got greasy hair, greasy smile
He says, Lord this must be my destination
‘Cause they told me when I was younger
Said boy, you’re gonna be president
But just like everything else
Those old crazy dreams
Just kinda came and went

Since 1984, lots of Republican campaigns have used Mellencamp’s music for brief periods until the musician has stepped and asked them to stop. If “Born in the USA” is the most misunderstood song, the John Mellencamp may be the most misunderstood musician.

Sarah Palin used Katrina and the Waves “Walking on Sunsine” until the band objected. Jackson Browne sued the McCain campaign to get it to stop using “Running on Empty” to target Obama. Both Mitt Romney and John McCain got into hot water in 2012 for using Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.”

The common theme here seems to be campaigns looking for upbeat, familiar tunes with themes they can appropriate and, especially, choruses that can be instant theme songs for candidates.

Sometimes it works. The Clinton campaign’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” is a great example.

But part of the GOP problem is its lack of musicians, outside of country music, with recognizable, appropriate songs. Sure, they’ve got Kid Rock. And Ted Nugent. But their catalog is limited at best.

Int the world of conservative campaign music, it’s easy to sound like a curmudgeonly parent talking to their teens: “Hey, would you get your own music!”

1 reply »

  1. nice piece cat. there’s a meta message here, but not sure if it’s the disconnect between what people say they believe in (e.g., music) and how they vote, or if it’s the slow death of the republican party for demographic reasons