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Musicians Say "No" to Trump

From "YMCA" to "Happy," songs don't always land well on the campaign trail

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With its Wagnerian orchestral soundtrack, exceptionally low camera angles, and sweeping shots of white marble columns reaching up toward the heavens, the recent Republican National Convention served as an answer to the question, "What would happen if the producers of "The Apprentice" did a remake of Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will?" Which makes sense, given that two of Trump's former reality show producers were brought onboard to help direct the event.

What was more surprising was the music itself. Gone were MAGA rally favorites like the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." Was it possible that, for the first time in four years, Trump had finally yielded to the demands of the numerous artists who've railed against his use of their music without their consent?

Family of the late Tom Petty will not back down against Trump. - MARK SELIGER
  • Mark Seliger
  • Family of the late Tom Petty will not back down against Trump.

That question would be answered during the convention's fourth and final day. But first, to put all of this in perspective, it's worth taking a brief detour to consider the history of Trump's battles with these musicians and the legal issues surrounding them.

The best-known case is Trump's use of the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" at the close of rallies in which he's just assured his overwhelmingly white audiences that he will, in fact, get them everything they want and more. Trump has been doing this for four years now, during which time a sizable portion of his audience must have picked up on the contradiction.

There was the Midwest rally that Trump held just hours after a white racist walked into a synagogue and opened fire on the congregation. While the rest of the nation grieved, Trump got his followers to get up and dance to Pharrell Williams' "Happy."

Williams' lawyer responded with a cease-and-desist order that conveyed his client's outrage.

Tom Petty's family decried the use of "I Won't Back Down" at Trump's June 20 Tulsa rally. George Harrison's estate sent its own cease-and-desist letter after Trump appropriated "Here Comes the Sun." The surviving members of Queen, dismayed by his use of "We Will Rock You," did the same on behalf of themselves and their late singer Freddie Mercury.

The reason Trump has continued to get away with all this involves the blanket licensing agreements that music licensing organizations like BMI and ASCAP make with political campaigns and venues. Both organizations let artists fight their own battles until this June, when the two organizations warned Trump to stop using "You Can't Always Get What You Want," as well as any other Rolling Stones songs. According to BMI, once an artist issues a cease-and-desist letter, any future use constitutes a breach of contract.

And so it was that, on the last night of the Republican National Convention, the gathering of unmasked supporters on the White House lawn were deprived of the upbeat anthems.

Still, during the closing ceremony, the singer Christopher Macchio came out on the White House balcony to serenade the President and his entourage with a semi-operatic set that featured the late Leonard Cohen's devastatingly bitter breakup song "Hallelujah." Apart from its title, Cohen's borderline vicious ode to God-knows-what was an inexplicably bizarre addition to a medley that included classical-crossover fare like "Ave Maria" and "Nessun Dorma." This is, after all, a song with lyrics like "I've seen your flag on the marble arch / Love is not a victory march / It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah."

According to the White House, Trump makes all of the final decisions when it comes to songs. Cohen's estate has indicated it is exploring its legal options in regard to Trump's use of "Hallelujah."

Instead of the Rolling Stones, he's replacing it with his fans' second-favorite rally song: the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." There's something almost endearing about seeing MAGA supporters joyfully getting down to the racially integrated and flamboyantly dressed group's ode to intimate male bonding. 

But Village People leader Victor Willis is not amused, as he conveyed in a recent Facebook post:

"I ask that you no longer use any of my music at your rallies, especially 'Y.M.C.A.' and 'Macho Man', following the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter marches," he wrote. "Sorry, but I can no longer look the other way."

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