These Artists Have Publicly Refused to Let Trump Use Their Music


Photo by Jim Pietryga, via Wikimedia Commons.

By Carlos Abreu

August 25, 2020

From the Rolling Stones to R.E.M. and Adele, the list of musicians fighting the president reads like an encyclopedia of rock and pop.

“A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having,” goes an often-used quote attributed to anarchist, activist and writer Emma Goldman—and the 45th President of the United States is having a hard time finding music for something simpler than a revolution: just getting reelected.

Trump is not alone: he’s just the last in a long line of politicians—mostly Republicans—who have faced the rejection of musicians in the use of their music at rallies and campaign events. 

The trend started in 1984 with Bruce Springsteen telling Ronald Reagan he could not use “Born in the U.S.A.” in his reelection bid. Still, Trump is the outlier in how many artists have protested, and is arguably on his way to breaking the record for the most formal rejections from popular artists.

Here’s a list of the most notable cases.

Neil Young: “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk”

The fight between the Canadian rock star and Trump began in 2015, when the then-candidate started using the 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World” during his presidential campaign announcement. 

Neil Young issued a statement saying that Trump wasn’t authorized to use the song in his announcements. “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America,” the statement concluded.

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But the Trump campaign didn’t back down, alleging they were using the song legally by paying the licensing fees—and they were right. Campaigns have the same rights to play songs that radio stations do, through blanket licensing deals. Entities like ASCAP and BMI even have special licenses for political campaigns.

The famously stubborn Young didn’t give up, either. He withdrew the songs “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk” from ASCAP’s political license, and even tried a novel legal strategy. This month he filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit against the Trump campaign for playing his songs, including “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk,” at campaign rallies. Other musicians and copyright experts are following the groundbreaking suit with interest.

The Rolling Stones: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” 

Trump’s repeated use of the Stones’ classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at rallies has left many scratching their heads as to what the famous refrain means in the MAGA context, but has never confused the British stars themselves. 

Over the years, the band has sent out several statements calling for Trump to “cease all use” of their music, to no avail. Just like with Neil Young, the Trump campaign kept using it and paying the licensing fees until the band pulled the song out of licenses for political campaigns.

Last June, the Stones, working along with performing-rights organization BMI, issued a statement threatening to sue Trump for breach of the licensing agreement if he continued to use their music at his political events.

Tom Petty: “I Won’t Back Down”

The family of the Florida rocker issued a statement condemning the use of the 1989 classic at the recent campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Both the late Tom Petty and his family firmly stand against racism and discrimination of any kind,” the statement read. “Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate.”

The note concluded by saying they had issued an official cease-and-desist notice to the Trump campaign. While he was alive, Petty had also sent a cease-and-desist to George W. Bush to prevent the use of the same song.

Rihanna: “Don’t Stop the Music”

In 2018, Rihanna sent a cease-and-desist to the Trump campaign after learning that her hit song had been played at the president’s rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Trump’s unauthorized use of Ms. Fenty’s music… creates a false impression that Ms. Fenty is affiliated with, connected to or otherwise associated with Trump,” the letter stated.

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Pharrell: “Happy”

Also in 2018, Pharrell Williams sent a legal note to Trump after learning that his feel-good smash hit had been played at a political event in Indiana just hours after a shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“On the day of the mass murder of 11 human beings at the hands of a deranged ‘nationalist,’ you played his song ‘Happy’ to a crowd at a political event in Indiana,” the letter read.

Elton John: “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man”

In 2016,the English superstar issued a statement against the use of these two classic tracks as “warm-up” music at Trump rallies, saying that his music had “not been requested for use in any official capacity by Donald Trump,” and that “any use of his music should not be seen as an endorsement of Donald Trump by Elton.”

Still, in a separate interview, Elton John expanded on the statement, saying it wasn’t personal, as he had met Trump and the president had been “very nice” to him.

“I don’t really want my music to be involved in anything to do with an American election campaign,” he added. 

Adele: “Rolling in the Deep” and “Skyfall”

The Trump campaign used the British singer’s signature hit and her Bond theme at campaign rallies in 2016, while he was still competing in the primaries. 

“Adele has not given permission for her music to be used for any political campaigning,” her spokesman said at the time.

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The statement might have hurt the then-candidate, who is said to be a fan of Adele and notoriously skipped the line to a 2015 concert at Radio City Music Hall. The singer later publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Queen: “We Are The Champions”

The Queen classic was played during the 2016 Republican National Convention when the then-Republican nominee introduced his wife, Melania.

Guitar player Brian May used his website to speak for the surviving members of the band, stating: “Regardless of our views on Mr Trump’s platform, it has always been against our policy to allow Queen music to be used as a political campaigning tool.”

Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which controls Queen’s copyrights, also issued a statement, saying they had previously asked Trump to stop playing the song.

R.E.M.: “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Everybody Hurts,” and “Losing My Religion”

The Georgia band may have split in 2011, but have not stopped fighting against Trump’s use of their music. In 2015, they issued statements calling him an “Orange Clown” and worse for his use of “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and this year they are “exploring all legal avenues” to stop him from using two more of their classic songs on his campaign trail.

Bass player Mike Mills let his fans know via Twitter that if the legal actions failed, he still wanted them to know that “we do not condone the use of our music by this fraud and con man.”


CATEGORIES: Elections | Music


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