Basslines and Protest Signs Part 30: Quit Playin’ My Song

By | October 16, 2019 at 1:00 PM
Prince at Coachella

The estate of music icon Prince was in the news this week when they tweeted their displeasure at Donald Trump for using “Purple Rain” at one of his rallies.

“President Trump played Prince’s “Purple Rain” tonight at a campaign event in Minneapolis despite confirming a year ago that the campaign would not use Prince’s music. The Prince Estate will never give permission to President Trump to use Prince’s songs.”

The estate also attached a letter from Donald Trump’s campaign for president, dated October 2018, that promised the president would not use Prince’s music at any events going forward. He broke that promise because the event was in Minnesota and lots of politicians play Prince in Minnesota because, y’know, pandering.

It’s an interesting line to draw in the sand but it’s not a new one. For years, politicians have used music at their events, and usually it’s to provide some sort of “message backdrop” — movie and TV directors would say that it provides exposition. Often, politicians will choose a song that puts across the mood they want to convey and if it’s more direct, there are lyrical references. 

But these are turbulent times. In the past, an artist might have been more inclined to look the other way if a politician they don’t like used one of their songs. Take a “Hey, I’m just glad they like the song” approach. But the Republican Party of today, and the president, are so drenched in toxicity that any association can justifiably be considered a threat to the musician’s career — a tie to racism, sexism, homophobia and all of that nastiness.

That’s why Prince’s estate objected, and it’s why Steven Tyler of Aerosmith objected to Trump using the song “Livin’ on the Edge” last year, sending a cease and desist letter. There are more: Adele, The Rolling Stones, and Neil Young have all objected to Trump’s use of their music. Sadly, it counts for very little in most cases.

The Prince Estate have that letter and the broken promise it represents to fall
back on but, in general, unless it’s being used on a political advertisement,
politicians are free to use whichever songs they want at rallies according to Forbes’ Melinda Newman.

“The sad truth is for many artists, they cannot keep their songs from being used
in this context even if they vehemently disagree with the politician who is using
the song.” 

A fair question is: Why would Trump want to use music by people that despise him and his policies? Why stir that water? Is it a powerplay? Is he saying, I can do it so I will? If so, that would appear to be remarkably short-sighted. But here’s the thing, it happened again — this very week.

Queen performing in 1977

The rock band Queen demanded that Trump remove their song “We Will Rock You” from a campaign video, which his team promptly did. It’s not the band’s first tangle with Trump, he previously used “We Are the Champions” at a rally, prompting the band to say that they didn’t want their “music associated with any mainstream or political debate in any country” and they didn’t want “We Are the Champions”
“to be used as an endorsement of Mr. Trump and the political views of the Republican Party.”

Trump just doesn’t care apparently and, based on the comments at the bottom of the various stories about this, his supporters get a kick out of “triggering” the bands in question and their fans. Because that’s the world we live in now. Trump is the political equivalent of a sibling who puts their arm across your side of the car just to get on your nerves, then says “Not touching you, can’t get mad.” 

But then, when you consider his choices for music he could play were he to only play songs by bands that agree with his platform — Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Staind — that’s slim pickings.

History is also littered with plenty of occasions when bands were happy to donate their talents. Bill Clinton is a huge Fleetwood Mac fan, so he was delighted when they reunited to perform at his 1992 inaugural ball. They did so willingly. Trump can
only dream.

When Barack Obama used Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, Wonder was happy with the association too. Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes” was John F. Kennedy’s official campaign song. No arguments from ol’ blue eyes.

Bruce Springsteen

The Republicans have always had a harder time though. George W. Bush liked to use Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” until the late singer/songwriter threatened to sue. Similarly, John McCain was asked by ABBA to stop using “Take a Chance on Me”, and Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, was asked to stop using the song “Shipping Up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys.

Trump has been asked to stop using “Happy” by Pharrell and “You Can’t Always
Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones. But Kid Rock was happy for Mitt Romney to use his dire track “Born Free” during his failed campaign. Maybe Trump can have that…?

One song he certainly shouldn’t use is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” The rock & roll classic is often misinterpreted as a patriotic rallying cry but it’s actually an anti-war anthem. Many a politician has used it without first studying the lyrics, and become a figure of ridicule. Plus, Springsteen and Trump have no love for eachother. 

We know who our Boss is.