Neil Young is not the first rock star to get riled up by Republicans using their music to score political points.
The left-leaning legend called out Donald Trump for using his iconic hit “Rockin’ in the Free World” during his 2016 campaign launch on Tuesday. Young, a Canadian, backs Bernie Sanders for president and had previously released an album during the Bush administration called “Living with War” which included a song called “Let’s Impeach the President.”
Late Wednesday, the Trump campaign issued the following statement: “Through a license agreement with ASCAP, Mr. Trump’s campaign paid for and obtained the legal right to use Neil Young’s recording of ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ at Tuesday’s event. Never the less, we won’t be using it again – there are plenty of songs to choose from. Despite Neil’s differing political views, Mr. Trump likes Neil very much.”
But every election season, the GOP seems to make the same mistake. Candidates select unauthorized music for their campaign rallies by artists whose politics (and often lyrics) stand in direct opposition to their own philosophies. Mainstream heartland music seems to be the genre of choice for conservatives, but unfortunately for them, the tunes often tend to be more progressive than they perhaps sound.
The incongruity became obvious back in 1984, when Ronald Reagan inelegantly name-checked Bruce Springsteen’s blockbuster hit “Born in the USA” at a campaign stop in New Jersey. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts,” Reagan said. “It rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young American’s admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
The president’s Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, countered, ”Bruce Springsteen may have been born to run but he wasn’t born yesterday.” Meanwhile, Springsteen resented his name being linked to the sitting president, especially since his song was about a disaffected Vietnam veteran, and he struck back at a concert later in Pittsburgh.
“Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day,” Springsteen told the audience. “And I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” He then played “Johnny 99,” a pointed and somber song about the closing of an auto plant.
Springsteen followed up that performance with a John Sayles-directed music video that explicitly highlighted the plight of the poor, veterans and other disadvantaged communities. ”It was right around the time that Ronald Reagan had co-opted ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ and Reagan, his policies were everything that the song was complaining about,” said Sayles in the oral history book “I Want My MTV.” “I think some of the energy of the performance came from Bruce deciding, ‘I’m going to claim this song back from Reagan.’” “The Boss” has gone on to campaign for Democrats John Kerry and Barack Obama.
John Mellencamp is another artist who has routinely asked the GOP to change the station. In 2012, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin used his song “Small Town” on the campaign trail, Mellencamp called him out for overlooking his long-held loyalty to organized labor. When Walker used another Mellencamp track at events last year, the singer took issue with it again. “Nothing has changed since the last time Gov. Walker ran for election,” his publicist said in an email to the Associated Press.
Conservatives also tried to use Mellencamp’s music for John McCain’s 2008 campaign for the presidency and again in 2010 for an anti-same-sex marriage effort, which drew criticism from the “Jack and Diane” singer.
And when Paul Ryan publicly declared his fandom for the radical rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine in 2012, their guitarist Tom Morello savaged him in a column for Rolling Stone, writing, “Charles Manson loved The Beatles but didn’t understand them.”
The cynical read on these musical choices is that they have an innate appeal to white “middle class” voters, who conservatives have historically been able to pry away from the Democrats. However, more often than not, they seem to miss the nuance in their quest to be hip and relate to the common man.
If you dig a little deeper, a veritable Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame can be formed with artists who asked not to be associated with conservative candidates. Tom Petty, David Byrne, Jackson Browne, Rush, Orleans, Sam & Dave, The Dropkick Murphys, Van Halen, Twisted Sister and the all-female band Heart, whose hit song “Barracuda” Sarah Palin tried to turn into a personal anthem, have all told Republicans to cease and desist.
These public rebukes are not just embarrassing for Republicans, they can also be costly. Artists have not shied away from suing candidates who continue to use their content without permission.
However, one 2016 Republican remains immune to this kind of controversy: Ted Cruz. He doesn’t listen to rock.