Donald Trump took the podium to the strains of Neil Young’s garage-punk anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World” last week, and announced his bid for the presidency. This was supposed to be a rock star moment for Trump, but it was more akin to Milli Vanilli getting busted for lip-synching. The Donald didn’t have Young’s permission to use the tune and the singer-songwriter was none too pleased.
Young’s management issued a statement from the artist, one that cut straight to the point: “Donald Trump was not authorized to use ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ in his presidential candidacy announcement. Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America.”
Young later elaborated in an open letter via his Facebook page, reading in part: “Music is a universal language. So I am glad that so many people with varying beliefs get enjoyment from my music, even if they don’t share my beliefs.” This was a nice gesture, but Old Neil wasn’t exactly being conciliatory.
“I am Canadian and I don’t vote in the United States, but more importantly, I don’t like the current political system in the USA and some other countries. Increasingly, Democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests. The money needed to run for office, the money spent on lobbying by special interests, the ever increasing economic disparity and the well-funded legislative decisions all favor corporate interests over the people’s.”
On Saturday, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders presided over a rally attended by some 5,000 supporters in Denver, and he too had “Rockin’ in the Free World” cranked through the public address system. The difference? He did so with Young’s blessing.
This is just the beginning, folks. Election fever is in its initial stages, and as is usually the case, the first thing to be kicked to the curb is subtlety. Candidates have been making fools of themselves by appropriating populist rock anthems for what feels like forever. More often than not, this is all for show. On occasion, the candidates actually know something about and are fans of the music they appropriate (President Obama) or espouse policies in keeping with those embraced by the music (Sanders). More commonly, they are trying to appear hip by proxy, and failing, miserably. Some of the wealthiest men and women in the free world have routinely expected us to believe that they relate on a deep level to working-class anthems or songs delineating the struggles of the economically displaced. Even more surprising than this is the frequency with which members of the voting public buy into this nonsense, on both sides.
Yes, music is certainly a universal language. But the dialect? It’s decidedly local.
If we take the Young tune Trump attempted to lay his mitts all over as an example, there is much to learn. Lesson No. 1 for candidates looking for a ditty to get the populous all riled up in their favor: Read the lyrics to the tune you’re appropriating before you wrap it around yourself like a flag. “Rockin’ in the Free World” is not a song about establishing a nationalist stance, rallying troops, or throwing around vague platitudes in the name of “freedom.”
The song offers pointed criticism of the George H.W. Bush presidency, taking common Bush rhetoric and twisting it into a darker reality: “We’ve got a thousand points of light for the homeless man/We’ve got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand,” Young spits during one verse. An earlier verse references the drug-ravaged and economically terrorized urban streets of the late ’80s, the period during which Young wrote the song. “I see a woman in the night/ With a baby in her hand/Under an old street light/Near a garbage can/Now she puts the kid away, and she’s gone to get a hit/She hates her life, and what she’s done to it/There’s one more kid that will never go to school/Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”
Wow. Trump really must have been banking on no one hearing anything but the rousing chorus in this song. He should have looked back to the routinely lionized Ronald Reagan, who tried to associate his “trickle down” economic policies with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” another scathing tune with a big sing-along chorus routinely misunderstood by folks who never bothered to learn the lyrics. Springsteen wasn’t having it.
What about the other candidates? Hillary Clinton has kept things broad and generic, her campaign having released only a Spotify playlist littered with modern pop songs, among them Pharrell’s “Happy.” She’s either being smart, avoiding the issue altogether, or doing both simultaneously.
Jeb Bush blared Spanish-language Ranchera music during his announcement rally, while his supporters chanted “USA! USA!,” in what amounted to the first, but surely not the last, surrealist campaign event of the election cycle.
Rick Perry created his own personalized remix of the Colt Ford tune “Answer to No One,” which boasts lyrics such as these: “I won’t back up, I don’t back down/I’ve been raised up to stand my ground/Take my job but not my guns/Tax my check till I ain’t got none.” Ugh.
All of this is absurdist theater at best, and shameless base-pandering at worst. It seems fitting to let Young have the last word, at least for the time being.
“I do not trust self-serving misinformation coming from corporations and their media trolls. I do not trust politicians who are taking millions from those corporations, either. I trust people. So I make my music for people, not for candidates.”
You go, Neil.