Neil, The Donald, and the ripoff of rock and roll

     Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (left), and Musician Neil Young (Charlie Neibergall and John Locher/AP Photos)

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (left), and Musician Neil Young (Charlie Neibergall and John Locher/AP Photos)

    It’s easy to see why politicians use rock tunes as campaign anthems. After all, it’s a way to look hip and cool and relatable. But sometimes the disconnect between pol and song is worse than laughable. Call it deceptive advertising.

    The latest example is The Donald’s kickoff ripoff of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Trump probably used it because it has a good beat and “free world” in the title. And a lot of people don’t listen closely to rock lyrics anyway. But I do. And it just so happens that “Rockin'” is an angry screed about the plight of the homeless in a heartless America (“We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand / We got department stores and toilet paper / we got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”).

    Trump is arguably the last guy who should be using that song, which is why Neil – a supporter of Bernie Sanders – said yesterday that the plutocratic performance artist should cease and desist. Which is usually what happens in these situations. Artists tend not to like it when their work is misappropriated for political crusades that they’d never dream of endorsing.

    JFK, at least, had the decency to ask Sammy Cahn to rewrite his pop hit “High Hopes” with special lyrics for the ’60 campaign (“Ooops there goes the opposition, ker plop”). More typically, a candidate just takes a song as his own, without asking permission.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    The first big flap came in 1984, when President Reagan featured “Born in the USA” on the re-election stump, seemingly oblivious to what the Springsteen song was actually about: a blue-collar guy returns from war to find no factory and no job. It’s not a proud patriotic anthem. It’s a cry of despair about being beaten down “in a dead man’s town” with “nowhere to go.” But hey, the song was punchy and it went well with American flags.

    As Springsteen and others have long pointed out, the use of a song implies endorsement by the artist. Tom Petty got ticked off in 2000 when George W. Bush stirred crowds by playing “I Won’t Back Down – and he got his music publisher to send a letter to Team W: “Any use made by you or your campaign creates, either intentionally or unintentionally, the impression that you and your campaign have been endorsed by Tom Petty, which is not true.”

    Groups and artists like The Foo Fighters, The Beastie Boys, Heart, and David Byrne have similarly complained. Byrne went a step beyond, suing Florida Senate candidate Charlie Crist in 2011 for the latter’s use of the ’85 Byrne song “Road to Nowhere.” And John Mellencamp – whose heartland anthems are actually quite sarcastic, if you listen to the lyrics – has been ripped off so many times that he should probably put his protests in a form letter.

    Back in ’08, Mellencamp had all kinds of problems with John McCain, who liked to play “Our Country” and “Pink Houses” at his rallies. Which was ironic, because (a) Mellencamp was, and is, an outspokenly populist liberal, and (b) those songs are about the numbing inequities of the system: “And there’s winners, and there’s losers / But they ain’t no big deal / ‘Cause the simple man baby pays the thrills, the bills and the pills that kill.” Anyway, McCain finally stopped playing them.

    But this year Mellencamp is plagued by Scott Walker, who likes to play “Small Town.” The problem here is that Walker’s ideal small town is a place without labor unions, whereas Mellencamp’s ideal small town is a place where workers have collecting bargaining rights.

    David Byrne probaby had the best idea: Sue the bastards. As he has said, “Other artists may actually have the anger but not want to take the time and risk the legal bills. I am lucky that I can do that. Anyway, my hope is that by standing up to this practice maybe it can be made to be a less common option, or better yet an option that is never taken in the future.”

    Jackson Browne said much the same thing after he sued McCain, the Republican National Committee, and the Ohio GOP for using his song “Running on Empty” in an ’08 Internet ad to mock candidate Barack Obama’s energy policies. After the lawsuit was settled, Browne said: “This settlement is really a great affirmation of what I believed my rights to be, and all writers’ rights to be….I would hope that (politicians) would think twice about taking someone’s song without permission.”

    Good luck with that. I only wish that Donald Trump had used “A Well Respected Man,” the sarcastic Kinks song about a self-involved businessman (“…’Cause he’s better than the rest/ And his own sweat smells the best”). That, at least, would have been more appropriate.


    By the way, Fox News has announced new GOP debate rules. The five candidates with the lowest poll rankings will be consigned to the Phillies’ pitching rotation.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal