“I am a lonely visitor. I came too late to cause a stir, Though I campaigned all my life
towards that goal. ” Campaigner by Neil Young
The race to win the Republican Presidential nomination, already awash with candidates, got weird this week when Donald Trump threw his hat into the ring. Weird not just because of The Donald’s trademarked boardroom bravado as he took on the competition. The Donald expected jibes from members of the press who he labeled as “losers,” and from the likes of “Jeb!,” Marco, Rand, Huckabee, and the rest of the GOP hopefuls. But his first opponent hails from North of the Border with “dream comfort memory to spare,” Yes, before Mr. Trump could begin proving his Presidential mettle, he had to tackle Neil Young.
The confrontation erupted over Trump’s choice of theme song–Neil’s iconic anthem “Rockin’ In The Free World.” The Donald and his minions no doubt chose “RITFW” for its rousing refrain “Keep on rockin’ in the free world.” No one in Trump’s camp apparently ever listened to the rest of Neil’s song–the parts that deal with homelessness, addiction, and environmental destruction. News flash to The Donald–“Rockin’ In The Free World” is an indictment of the 1980’s, the song steeped in the anguish of “people sleeping in their shoes,” who “hate their li[ves},” of “kids who will never go to school, never get to fall in love never get to be cool.”
Never one to let irony obscure good PR, Trump marched to the podium with RITFW’s chorus blaring behind him. (The Donald no doubt doused his mane with an extra shellacking of aerosol to avoid being blown away as Neil’s feedback-drenched guitar roared like a hurricane.)
Before the 24 hour news cycle had run its course, Trump’s camp heard from Mr. Young’s. Neil was not amused. First, Young issued a short statement saying he did not authorize Trump’s use of the song.
Now, the legalities of this situation are anything but simple. Multiple layers of rights are involved. Copyright protects the song. Trump apparently accounted for that, obtaining a public performance license that covered “RITFW.” (These are available from rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI, and generally cover vast catalogs of songs.) But copyright is only part of the puzzle. Artists and other celebrities may have a “right of publicity” under state laws, which gives them control over the use of their image, likeness, or persona. And U.S. and state trademark laws prohibit false endorsements. So while Trump may have ponied up for a copyright license, Young still had two other legal weapons at his disposal–ones that went to the fundamental issue of whether an artist can control how, when, and where his or her image and reputation can be used by someone else for commercial or political advantage.
The next day brought more introspective commentary from Neil Young. An outspoken performer who has penned his share of political protest songs and has lent his name and talents to many political causes, Neil Young was especially miffed to have one of his signature hits appropriated by a politician without his permission:
“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. “But had I been asked to allow my music to be used for a candidate, I would have said no.” wrote Mr. Young.
This is not the first time a politician has clashed with a musician. Bruce Springsteen (Born In the USA), Jackson Browne (Running On Empty), and Tom Petty (American Girl) are just some of the singer/songwriters who have spoken up in protest when a candidate used one of their songs as a campaign anthem. In almost every case, when a musician and politician go eyeball to eyeball, the politician blinks. George W. Bush in fact relented when called upon by Tom Petty to cease and desist using “I Won’t Back Down.” Now there’s irony that both sides of the aisle can appreciate.
Quote of the Day: “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” Will Rogers