Just before he stepped aboard Air Force One for the trip that would take him from Washington, D.C., to Florida and into his life as an ex-president, Donald Trump held one last rally at Andrews Air Force Base. It was a send-off from the faithful that featured music from artists who wanted nothing to do with him.
The crowd heard the Village People’s YMCA, and Tiny Dancer from Elton John as he left the stage. Both of those artists had at one point told the Trump administration to stop playing their music at rallies and public events.
Victor Willis, the Village person who dressed as a cop or naval officer, started complaining to Trump’s people in June 2020, demanding that he stop using both YMCA and Macho Man, culminating in a cease-and-desist order that Trump ignored.(Willis had a theory that Trump was singing “M-A-G-A” in his head while the song was playing.) Elton John tried for years to disassociate his music from Trump with zero success.
The list of angry artists is a long one: The Beatles (over Here Comes the Sun); Eddie Grant (Electric Avenue); R.E.M. (Losing My Religion, Everybody Hurts); Leonard Cohen’s estate (Hallelujah); Linkin Park (In the End); Nickelback (Photograph); Panic! At the Disco (High Hopes); Prince (Purple Rain); Queen (We are the Champions); Tom Petty’s people (I Won’t Back Down); Neil Young (Rockin’ in the Free World); and Rihanna (Don’t Stop the Music). Some reacted with public statements while others tried legal remedies.
Nothing worked. The truth is that there’s little in copyright and public performance laws that could stop Trump from using whatever songs he wanted at his rallies.
But this insistence on using unsanctioned music was only part of the musical legacy Trump leaves behind. Consider the following.
Trump had a knack for using the wrong music
No one has been able to explain to me the rationale behind using You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones at his rally. Was the administration trying to temper the hopes of the faithful by explaining that sometimes they just get what they need? If so, what kind of political message is that?
Same thing with Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight, which isn’t exactly a feel-good song. Collins filed a cease-and-desist letter to no avail. And why would Trump use Pharrell Williams’ Happy at a rally that was held just hours after the horrific mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018? Talk about tone-deaf. What message was sent by playing It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) from R.E.M.? You got me.
Even more baffling was the playing of Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, which began right at the beginning of Trump’s presidential run in 2015. Did no one tell him The Boss wrote that as a sharp condemnation of how America handled the homecoming of its Vietnam vets?
When Trump inspected a meatpacking plant, someone put on the Guns N’ Roses version of Wings’ Live and Let Die. While everyone else was masked up and following COVID-19 precautions, Trump walked around bare-faced. Did no one connect the dots between the photo op and the music playing in the background? (Axl Rose later made up T-shirts that read “Live N’ Let Die with COVID 45,” donating all proceeds to charity.)
The best worst musical selection for a rally was Fortunate Son by CCR, which skewers the rich and privileged who were able to avoid the draft because their fathers had connections. How many deferments did Trump get because of his alleged bone spurs? The answer is five, and all were a “favour” to his father, Fred Trump.
Trump liked to dad dance to the Village People, utterly oblivious to the fact Macho Man is used by the LGBTQ2 community to express and celebrate a certain sense of identity, not to prove how healthy and vibrant Trump is. And I guess no one explained to him the genesis of YMCA, either.
Trump did have musical allies
Not all musicians were against Trump. Ted Nugent, a conservative Second Amendment absolutist, was a fervent Trump supporter. Kid Rock visited the White House and sold “God, Guns, and TRUMP” T-shirts at his shows. And let’s not forget that 3 Doors Down played at part of Trump’s inauguration celebrations.
Given that Trump first started appearing in rap lyrics during his mogul days in NYC back in the ’80s (cf. Johnny Ryall by The Beastie Boys and Lie-Z by The Fat Boys), it’s probably not surprising that he had supporters from that community. Kanye West was all-in with Trump to the point of launching his own presidential campaign with the idea of siphoning away Black voters from Joe Biden and thus increasing the chances of a Trump victory. And he wasn’t the only rapper on Team Trump. Lil Pump, Lil Wayne, and 50 Cent (at first, anyway) were all on board.
And then there were his country allies: Toby Keith, Lee Greenwood, Tim Rushlow, Larry Rushlow (frontman of Restless Heart), and Richie McDonald (of Lonestar).
Pre-president, there were dozens and dozens of songs that namechecked Trump in the lyrics, most of which celebrated his riches. But once he was elected president, things turned against him. There were pro-Trump songs (see Gun Totin’ Patriot by Bryson Gray and Forgiato Blow), but they were outnumbered by anti-Trump screeds. Here are just a couple of titles from 45’s time in office:
- Tiny Hands, Fiona Apple
- The Orange Goblin, Madadkin
- Batuka, Madonna
- 45 (A Matter of Time), Sum 41
- Quick Escape, Pearl Jam
- FDT, YG & Nipsey Hussle (followed by FDT Pt 2.; Guess what the “F” stands for…)
- The Heart Part 4, Kendrick Lamar
Towards the end of the administration, it was reported that Green Day’s American Idiot — written in response to the Bush 43 years — was experiencing a big upsurge in streams as well as use on TikTok.
A puzzling lack of protest songs
Despite all the opposition to Trump and the number of songs written that slag him, I can’t think of one anti-Trump protest song that had a mainstream breakthrough. Republican presidents tend to get young musicians to write songs decrying their policies. I mean, just think about how political music was under conservative administrations like those of Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes (not to mention Margaret Thatcher). What happened with Trump?
I spoke to singer Ben Folds about this. “Artists know that there’s a 24-hour news cycle. By the time they write, record, and distribute a song written about a certain event, the world has moved on to the next outrage. It’s just much easier to protest via social media.”
He has a point.
When Trump was elected, I predicted that music would turn harder, darker, and more critical. Guitar-based rock would make a comeback as young people used aggressive music to let us know how they felt. Punk would rise again. But it didn’t quite happen that way.
My best guess is that technology got in the way. With everyone streaming music, music no longer has a centre. We don’t have a massive consensus about … well, anything … anymore because each of us is free to customize our consumption of news, information, and culture. Compare that to the ’60s, when music was the way young people communicated and learned about politics and social issues. Now we have our apps and algorithms to customize things just for us.
What’s the future of music under the Biden administration? Hard to say. With the pandemic still out of control, a seemingly hopeless partisan political divide in the U.S., continuing racial tensions, economic uncertainty, and a rising and increasingly belligerent China, there’s still a lot to get riled up about.
The number of musicians who have lined up behind Trump is impressive, which could manifest itself in something interesting.
Or because the world is exhausted from four years of Trump, we just may cocoon with happy, carefree music, much like we did with the pop era in Bill Clinton’s second term.
Hey, I hear the Spice Girls and Britney are available.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.