Prepare to be patronized. Expect your intelligence to be insulted. Trust that your sensibilities will be offended.
Election season is upon us, and with it, descends another exhausting circus replete with cheshire grinning, face-palm gaffes, and soundbite realities.
Cue the usual hyperbolic declaration that if so-and-so wins, you're moving to Canada.
I think it's pretty obvious that "so-and-so" is Donald Trump in this case.
Speaking of the sarlacc-mouthed gameshow host, Trump invoked one of election season's most treasured traditions during an appearance this past month, when he assumed that his campaign enjoyed the tacit blessing of a leftist, activist, environmentalist, alternative rock band.
Departing a rally to the strains of R.E.M.'s 1987 radio staple, "It's the End of the World As We Know It," Trump earned an immediate rebuke from lead singer, Michael Stipe.
Invoking exactly the kind of raw and uncut candor that the Republican frontrunner (God help us) has bandied throughout his campaign, Stipe tweeted via bassist Mike Mills' account, "Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you - you sad, attention grabbing, power-hungry little men."
He issued a verbal cease and desist, telling Trump, "Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign."
Mills called Trump an "orange clown."
This is actually the second time during his brief and blustery campaign that Trump has been called out for such an offense...for using a song without an artist's permission, that is...not for being an orange clown.
Indeed, Trump kicked off his campaign to Neil Young's "Keep On Rockin' In the Free World," an explicit condemnation of former President George H.W. Bush and any number of core Republican pillars. Presumably, Trump was only really familiar with the chorus.
Though Trump's camp claims that they paid ASCAP and BMI for the rights to the song, they failed to obtain Young's permission. The Canadian singer forbade Trump from using his Gulf War anthem and instead gifted the song to headline-grabbing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Putting aside the fact that Trump obviously doesn't care what R.E.M. or Neil Young think of him, that he possibly doesn't even fully know who they are, it boggles the mind how often candidates for public office make this exact mistake. Trump may cast himself as a political outsider but this party foul comes straight from the official G.O.P. guide to choosing an anthem:
Step 1: Define your campaign using values that liberal musicians find repugnant and reprehensible.
Step 2: Invoke the art and intellectual property of said liberal musicians without permission in order to proliferate your message.
Step 3: Cease and desist unlawful use of intellectual property when confronted by angry liberal musicians.
Republican candidates, how do you keep getting this wrong? Are there not enough Toby Keith and Hank Williams, Jr. songs out there to express what you're trying to say. Can't you just play Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." ("And I'm proud to be an American...", you know the freaking song)...anyway, can't you just play that aural abomination and call it a day?
H.U.C.K. in the U.S.A.
Maybe Trump just genuinely likes rock music. I can see this guy air-soloing pretty hard to Rush's "Tom Sawyer" behind closed doors. The thing is, rock music doesn't like him. Matter of fact, rock music generally doesn't like Republicans, no matter how Republicans feel about it.
Take Mike Huckabee as a perfect case in point. The Republican party's second or third favorite religious extremist borrowed 1982 #1 smash hit "Eye of the Tiger" for a rally celebrating the recent release of Rowan County, Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis.
In case you aren't familiar with the story of this charming bigot, Davis was recently arrested for refusing to issue marriage licenses to applicants lest she should be forced to sanction the union of gay couples. The thrice-divorced Davis voluntarily appointed herself as guardian to the sanctity of marriage.
In no uncertain terms, Kim Davis violated Constitutional law, her responsibilities as a public servant, and the civil rights of every couple that sought a marriage license during her tenure. She also used her religious beliefs to justify behavior fueled by and instigative of hatred. Naturally, Mike Huckabee is celebrating Davis as a folk hero.
The band Survivor doesn't feel that way though. Poor Survivor. The only time the "Eye of the Tiger" band is ever mentioned in the news is when its members are forced to condemn Republicans for unauthorized use.
Just as it had in 2012--when Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney separately borrowed the Rocky III theme song--Survivor made its political orientation fairly clear. The song's composer, Frankie Sullivan, insisted that "I do not agree with Kim Davis' stance and do not believe in denying gay rights and the freedom for all individuals to choose the lifestyle they want to live. Our Constitution, and the words of our Founding Fathers, stand tall for freedom, which is what America is all about. I find it ridiculous in this day and age that this fight against gay marriage has gone on, even after the Supreme Court's ruling. Let's stop!"
Sullivan said the most upsetting part was that nobody ever asked him for permission.
And this isn't Huckabee's first offense. When the candidate borrowed Boston's power-chord earworm "More Than a Feeling" for his 2008 campaign, the band's guitarist and primary songwriter was something less than honored. Tom Sholz said that "Boston has never endorsed a political candidate and with all due respect, would not start by endorsing a candidate who is the polar opposite of most everything Boston stands for."
As it happens, Huckabee doesn't just borrow rock songs. He also performs them while looking uncomfortable in blue jeans. Check out his chops as the bassist for classic rock cover band, the Capitol Offense (I wish I was making this up. I would give anything to be making this up).
Even if he's doing bad things to it here, Huckabee clearly loves rock music. It just hates him.
Rocking the Partisan Vote
If it appears that I'm unfairly targeting Republicans, the truth is that they just don't seem to get along with rock musicians as well as Democrats do. Rockers and Democrats got off on a good foot when the Allman Brothers campaigned alongside fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter back in the late '70s. A popular joke at the time quipped that if elected, Carter would appoint Gregg Allman secretary of the Food & Drug Administration.
Bill Clinton's first shot at the presidency produced one of the more successful mergers between candidate and song. Fleetwood Mac's 1977 FM standard "Don't Stop" became inextricable from the Arkansas governor's triumphant campaign.
According to an article in Time, Bill Clinton's advisors implored him to choose a campaign song that was a bit more current. He refused. It proved a wise decision, though I feel compelled to point out that Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" was a pretty hot jam right about then.
Not only was the band okay with Clinton's use of the song, but the long-estranged members of Fleetwood Mac actually reunited just to play the president's inaugural ball. We didn't know it at the time, but this was a glimpse at the same brilliant fence-mending gift that saw President Clinton mediating a handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn just nine months hence.
As for President Obama, an incident involving Somalian/Canadian rapper K'Naan pretty well captures the sharp party lines that cut across popular music. When Republican challenger Mitt Romney used his "Wavin' Flag" at a 2012 rally, K'Naan told MTV News that "I have not been asked for permission by Mitt Romney's campaign for the use of my song. If I had been asked, I would certainly not have granted it. I would happily grant the Obama campaign use of my song without prejudice."
Not everybody felt that way. Obama actually did receive a cease and desist request during his 2008 bid. After learning that the presidential hopeful was using Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" at rallies, original singer Sam Moore demanded he stop...in pretty much the nicest and most eloquent way imaginable.
In a letter addressed to the future president, Moore said "Having been hit with rocks and water hoses in the streets, in the day with Dr. King as part of his artist appearance and fundraising team, it is thrilling, in my lifetime, to see that our country has matured to the place where it is no longer an impossibility for a man of color to really be considered as a legitimate candidate for the highest office in our land."
However, the legendary soul man continued, "I have not agreed to endorse you for the highest office in our land....My vote is a very private matter between myself and the ballot box."
Quite the contrast to R.E.M.'s f-bomb-punctuated message to Donald Trump.
Obama complied with Moore's wishes. For his part, Moore actually went on to perform alongside Elvis Costello and Sting at the Creative Coalition's Presidential Inaugural Ball for Barrack Obama. Obviously, Moore wasn't all that mad.
Just last month, the President laid his musical preferences bare by releasing his very own hand-selected Spotify playlist. The POTUS mixtape included icons like Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan as well as indie favorites like Okkervil River and Low Cut Connie. None objected to the president's fandom.
The bottom line? Rock Musicians tend to vote Democratic. According to 538, in 2014, 74% of political donations from figures in the entertainment industry found their way into Democratic coffers. This is not a screed against conservatives. It just seems that the traditional philosophical, ideological, and cultural mores of the Republican Party don't frequently jibe with those of your average rock musician. Go figure.
The Gipper's Gaffe
The most famous of incidents pitting rocker against Republican is the well-known 1984 spat between incumbent Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen. Reagan called "Born in the U.S.A." a message of hope, largely overlooking the song's bleak narrative about a jobless Vietnam vet. Springsteen publicly surmised that Reagen probably hadn't actually listened to his music.
It's a familiar story, as is the Republican practice of cribbing moves straight from the Reagan playbook. Four years hence, George H.W. Bush borrowed "Don't Worry Be Happy" for his campaign, invoking the rage of singer Bobby McFerrin (which you would assume is kind of hard to do).
During both of his presidential campaigns, George W. Bush was repeatedly chastised for stealing music from liberal musicians, most notably John Mellencamp ("R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.") and Tom Petty ("I Won't Back Down").
In fact though, Arizona Senator John McCain holds the record for pissing off the most liberal musicians. According to 538, McCain has been asked at one time or another to discontinue use of songs by Van Halen, Heart, Jackson Browne, Bon Jovi, the Foo Fighters, ABBA, Tom Petty (again), and on two separate occasions, the poor, exploited, and aforementioned John Mellencamp.
I imagine that Mellencamp and Petty have departments whose function is just to monitor campaign events for this kind of nonconsensual usage.
In 2012, the Dropkick Murphys perfectly articulated the inherent paradox that occurs every time a Republican borrows a rock song. The band released a statement on its Facebook page in response to Wisconsin state representative Jeff Fitzgerald's unauthorized use of "Shipping Up To Boston," pointing out that "The stupidity and irony of this is laughable. A Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate - and crony of anti-Union Governor Scott Walker - using a Dropkick Murphys song as an intro is like a white supremacist coming out to gangsta rap!"
That did not stop Walker himself from using the same exact song during a campaign appearance this past January. The Dropkick Murphys were fast to issue a statement explaining to Walker that "we literally hate you!!!"
Incidentally, "Shipping Up To Boston" is based on lyrics by Woody Guthrie. It's astonishing how openly unwitting Republican candidates will embrace the tenets of socialism if you put them to a catchy tune.
The same is true of political anarchy, if 2012's Republican running mate Paul Ryan is any indication. Mitt Romney's sidekick told the world that his favorite band was Rage Against the Machine.
The band's lead guitarist, Tom Morello, did a fantastic job of explaining why that makes us feel icky.
He declared that "Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades...Charles Manson loved The Beatles but didn't understand them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn't understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine."
Bottom line, any time a Republican borrows a rock song, or even mentions a rock band, he or she runs the risk of public humiliation.
And the consequences aren't merely of the egg-on-the-face variety. Jackson Browne actually received a settlement of an undisclosed sum for his legal action against McCain, who borrowed "Running on Empty" without asking permission. Top Talking Head David Byrne received a similar settlement when Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist tried playing "Road To Nowhere" at campaign appearances. (One wonders if Byrne might be more forgiving now that Crist has crossed the aisle to the Democratic side).
So the legal ramifications of using a song at a political rally without permission are clear and probably not worth it...unless you have good reason to believe that the musicians in question will have your back.
If you or somebody you know is in the business of planning Republican rallies, Rolling Stone offers a list of rock musicians who are sympathetic to your cause and probably won't sue you for using their songs:
- Kid Rock;
- Ted Nugent;
- Some of the Beach Boys;
- The angry ghost of Johnny Ramone;
- Gene Simmons without makeup; and
- Dave Mustaine, who once said that Rick Santorum "could be a really cool president, kinda like a JFK type of guy."
But that's pretty much it. Those are your options. If you don't like it, get on board with marijuana legalization and maybe you can get one of the more awful jambands to show up at your rally. Failing that, it's a really good idea to stay away from rock music, or at least respect its right to hate you.
Take a note from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been spotted sobbing uncontrollably (probably) in the front row of many a Bruce Springsteen concert. Bruce has been vocal in his hostility for Christie, his policies, and just his general demeanor as a human being. The top executive in New Jersey has been frequently snubbed by the state's true Boss.
Christie continues to attend the shows but he doesn't dare touch Bruce's tunes during rallies or campaign appearances. He has accepted--as should the Republican party in general--that even if he likes rock and roll, it doesn't much care for him.
That's the long and short of it. Candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee campaign with a sort of casual hatred...hatred for women, for immigrants, for Muslims, or for the 'political correctness' police who get their panties all in a bunch every time somebody uses the n-word.
And that's cool. Well, it's not cool but if that's how you roll, Americans reserve the right to reject you over the course of this long election cycle. But these values are in stark contrast to the inclusiveness that, as much as any other quality, defines rock and roll.
So if guys like Trump must have it this way--regardless of whether it's because hatred is politically expedient or because they really feel that way--it should be understood that there is no place for them in the world of rock and roll. It's time to accept it and move on.