Scuffles Between Musicians and Politicians Highlight National Divide

Another election season means, as always, another round of politicians being told to stop using artists’ music without permission. Most recently, Pharrell Williams issued a cease and desist letter to President Trump after rally organizers used his song “Happy” at a campaign event in Indiana.

In his letter to the president, Williams’ attorney Howard King denounced the song choice in the wake of October’s fatal shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“There was nothing ‘happy’ about the tragedy inflicted upon our country on Saturday and no permission was granted for your use of this song for this purpose,” King wrote.

The same week, after “Don’t Stop The Music” played at another rally, Rihanna tweeted “me nor my people would ever be at or around one of those tragic rallies.” Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose also joined the chorus of musicians denouncing Trump for using their music without authorization.

This kind of pushback is nothing new. Famously, back in 1984, President Ronald Reagan stated that, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

Reagan’s message clearly wasn’t endorsed by Springsteen, who has a long history of liberal advocacy and was none too pleased by Reagan’s use of “Born in the U.S.A.” — a decidedly unpatriotic song — without his consent.

Since then, similar instances of unauthorized music use have made headlines, from Bobby McFerrin disavowing President George H.W. Bush to the Foo Fighters, Jackson Browne, and ABBA all distancing themselves from Senator John McCain during his presidential run. Trump is perhaps the most brazen figure of unauthorized music use yet; he’s been criticized by everyone from Neil Young to Twisted Sister to Earth, Wind, and Fire for using music without permission.

These political disputes in the entertainment industry have taken on new meaning in the age of Trump. Late night hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers have experienced booming ratings as a result of embracing anti-Trump humor. Jimmy Fallon, on the other hand, infamously received enormous criticism after tousling Trump’s hair during an interview, taking a serious ratings hit.

Entertainment industry juggernauts, such as Jay-Z and Beyoncé, have also publicly supported NFL players kneeling during the national anthem — a means of protest against police brutality initiated by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. These protests have entered public discourse and forced the NFL’s predominantly white fan base to reckon with ongoing racism in America.

The question of why musicians and artists consistently counter conservative figures is easily answered. The arts have emerged as a platform for marginalized groups to speak out and tell their stories; politicians from the right have denounced these narratives and identities completely. In many ways, the entertainment industry relies heavily on multiculturalism — the antithesis of Trumpism. With so many entertainers completely opposed to Trump and what he represents, conservatives are left with artists like Kid Rock as their cultural standard-bearers.

While the entertainment industry is largely dominated behind the scenes by white men, it would be nothing without the diverse group of entertainers themselves. One of this year’s biggest movies was Black Panther — a superhero movie written, directed, and almost entirely starring Black people. One of the top American talk shows is hosted by a gay woman, Ellen DeGeneres. And the Billboard charts continue to be dominated by entertainers like Cardi B, Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar, and Rihanna.

Considering that Trump’s political platform is largely built on the demonization of people of color and the championing of mediocre white men, it makes perfect sense that the president cannot garner any support from the entertainment industry, outside of a few right-wing musicians here and there.

While music has always been inherently political, recent showdowns between conservative politicians and liberal musicians seem to only exacerbate the ideological divide in America. As we move past midterms and into the inevitably turbulent 2020 presidential election race, it’s clear that musicians will continue to exercise their political beliefs through not only song, but through legal action as well.