In January, President Trump’s campaign team played the R.E.M. song “Everybody Hurts” at a rally in Milwaukee.
Yes, they played “Everybody Hurts.” Yes, it’s a song about feelings and empathy. No, Trump hadn’t suddenly decided he needed to take a page from Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” playbook.
Instead, the president took a liking to the song for its reinvention as a taunt, after an anonymous troll created a meme that set it to a montage of Democrats looking sick to their stomachs over the president’s 2019 State of the Union address.
R.E.M. took no such liking to Trump’s appropriation of their song. “Please know that we do not condone the use of our music by this fraud and con man,” bassist Mike Mills posted on Twitter.
Admittedly low on the list of the exhausting daily scandals of the 45th presidency — but telling nevertheless — is the all-star lineup of musicians who have demanded that Trump stop using their music at his campaign rallies. Trump, who heads to New Hampshire Saturday for an event at the former Pease Air Force Base, has been upbraided most recently by the estate of Tom Petty and by Neil Young, for his use of their songs at his appearances in Tulsa, Okla., and at Mount Rushmore, respectively.
After the Tulsa rally, Petty’s family announced it was sending a cease and desist notice to the president’s campaign team. Petty wrote the song in question, “I Won’t Back Down,” “for the underdog,” they explained, “for the common man and for EVERYONE. . . . Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate.” (While he was still alive, Petty disapproved of George W. Bush’s use of the song, too.)
At Trump’s Teleprompter speech and photo op at Mount Rushmore last week, the maskless spectators withered in 95-degree heat as the sound system blared Young’s gnarly anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Despite their lethargy, it’s a Trump favorite: He played it the day he announced his candidacy in 2015.
Young, who is Canadian by birth, became a US citizen in February. On that occasion, he published a scathing open letter to Trump that began, “You are a disgrace to my country.”
Aerosmith has grappled with Trump more than once. They objected when he played “Dream On” during his campaign, and singer Steven Tyler doubled down on his objection two years ago, after Trump used the band’s “Livin’ on the Edge” at a speech in West Virginia.
“No is a complete sentence,” Tyler tweeted.
Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose has made a habit of zinging the president, who sometimes uses the band’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” at his events. “Personally I kinda like the irony of Trump supporters listening to a bunch of anti Trump music at his rallies,” he posted.
Since presidential candidates began using popular music on the campaign trail (in the 1970s, essentially, unless we’re counting “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”), musicians have been demanding that politicians — almost exclusively Republicans — knock it off. In 2008, Heart pressed the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket to stop using their song “Barracuda,” the title of which was Palin’s high school nickname. The same year, Boston’s Tom Scholz took Mike Huckabee to task for debasing “More Than a Feeling,” a mainstay of the bass-playing Huckabee’s live set with his band, Capitol Offense. In the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen famously chastised President Ronald Reagan for misinterpreting his song “Born in the USA.”
“This is NOT ok with me,” Young posted in reaction to Trump’s use of his music, including “Like a Hurricane” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” at the Mount Rushmore rally, adding that he stood in solidarity with the event’s Native American protesters. But the trouble for musicians who want no association with Trump is that a few stern words aren’t likely to shame him from using their songs.
After the Rolling Stones complained repeatedly about his affinity for their end-of-an-era epic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (odd counsel from an elected official, no?), the music rights organization BMI told Deadline that the Trump campaign has a “Political Entities License,” which allows it to use any of the 15 million songs within BMI’s purview, unless the artist submits a formal request for exclusion.
By no means has the Trump campaign offended older white musicians alone, though their playlists certainly do skew that way. In 2018 Rihanna was incensed when she learned the president had co-opted her song “Don’t Stop the Music,” vowing to block him from playing her music at his future “tragic” rallies. At various times during the presidency, Pharrell Williams (“Happy”), the O’Jays (“Love Train”), and the estate of Prince (“Purple Rain”) have all expressed their displeasure with their music accompanying Trump onstage.
By and large, the Brits don’t want their songs soundtracking Trump events, either. Besides the Stones, Adele, Queen, and Elton John have all said as much. After the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was used as Ivanka Trump’s walk-up music at the Republican National Convention in 2016, George Harrison’s estate called it “offensive.” Then they joked they might have agreed if the Trumps had chosen Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” (“beware of greedy leaders”) instead.
R.E.M.‘s Michael Stipe saw it all coming. His wry 1987 song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” starts with an earthquake and then reports from multiple hellscapes.
The song also documents a painful litany of man-made calamities: book burning, bloodletting, heel-crushing, a “tournament of lies.” In 2015, when the presidency was a mere glimmer in Trump’s roving eye, the candidate approached a podium on the lawn of Capitol Hill, accompanied by a loudspeaker playing R.E.M.‘s song.
“Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign,” Stipe said in a statement, following a few choice words by way of introduction.
The O’Jays are an interesting case. Their song “For the Love of Money” was memorably used as the theme song for “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” the competition shows that established Trump as a ratings-obsessed kingpin.
“He’s not a bad paymaster. His check cleared,” cofounder Eddie Levert told Billboard in 2016. But Trump’s apparently unironic use of “Love Train” at rallies — we can only assume he likes the line about reaching out to “all the folks from Russia and China, too” — was too much for Levert.
“I don’t think he’s the man to run our country,” he said.
Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, a relic of the 1980s, earned a belated 15 minutes of additional fame when he was cast as a contestant on Trump’s show. When Trump launched his presidential campaign, Snider condoned the use of his band’s 1984 glam-metal hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The song, Snider said in 2015, is about rebellion and “fighting the system. If anybody’s doing that, he sure is.”
During the course of this presidency, however, Snider has changed his tune, loudly. Lately he has accused his former boss of engaging in “the prostitution of our democracy.”
Trump may well continue to play some or all of these songs, at his rally in New Hampshire or future events. It seems as though he has some experience with the threat of lawsuits.
If he does, at least the artists whose wishes he fails to honor have the consolation of taking the position Neil Young articulated in his open letter.
“I hope you hear my voice,” he wrote. “Remember it is the voice of a tax-paying US citizen who does not support you.”
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.