Donald Trump has been blowing up the old traditional GOP certainties left and right, and this week he overturned another one. In what seemed like an embarrassing rebuke, on February 1, Adele told the Republican front-runner that he didn't have her permission to use her songs at his massive campaign events. Adele might just be the world's most popular singer at the moment, and any normal candidate would have folded his tent, chastened. Not Trump. At his rally in Little Rock, Arkansas two days later the crowd of thousands listened to Adele's "Skyfall" before Trump's helicopter landed. A day after that, in Exeter, New Hampshire, Adele's "Rolling In the Deep" could be heard blaring behind the candidate when he made his entrance.
The move was classic Donald Trump, shameless and defiant. And this bold handling of a music controversy, and Trump's creative use of music on the trail in general, marks a complete departure from typical Republican Party practice. Trump is a novel GOP candidate in many ways, but in finally making music work for him, he's managed to master a problem that has bedeviled the party's campaigns—from Ronald Reagan 1984 to Michele Bachmann 2012—for decades.
If you've been watching Trump rallies, you know The Donald grooms his soundtrack as carefully as he styles his hair. He makes lavish use of Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical numbers; he'll often open and close his events to the strains of Twisted Sister's 1984 hit, "We're Not Gonna Take It." He uses pop music in subtler ways as well. When Trump was pushing the issue of Ted Cruz's Canadian birthplace, he tauntingly played Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA." When warning of the dangers of Syrian refugees, he read aloud the lyrics of Al Wilson's 1968 song "The Snake," about a woman who nurses an injured snake, only to be bitten as a reward.
Some of this is wit; some is pure theater. And some is evidence of plain old dealmaking. The Twisted Sister, for instance: It might seem strange for a real-estate mogul in beautiful suits to rally the crowd with a party anthem sung by a campy hair-metal band from the 80s. But the real surprise is that he actually got permission: Dee Snider, the frontman of Twisted Sister, liked Trump's confrontational spirit and gave him the OK.
And, perhaps more importantly, as the Adele incident this week shows, when he doesn't get the OK, he doesn't seem to care.This is all radical departure from the traditional GOP playbook. Typically—and this problem has plagued the party for more than a generation—a GOP candidate attempting to use a popular song risks receiving a snub from the artist, who not only rejects the candidate but then takes shot at his political stands. Republicans in the past have nearly always kowtowed to the artist's demands. It's awkward all around, and it has made GOP candidates gun-shy about trying to use pop music at all, let alone inventively—until Trump.
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The partisan cast of popular music began to emerge in Richard Nixon's administration. Pat Moynihan, himself a Democrat but also a Nixon White House aide, once wrote in a memo to White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and Domestic Policy Adviser John Ehrlichman that cultural elites failed to support Republicans, and Nixon in particular: "No one writes articles for us, much less books, or plays, or folk songs." Nixon, ever the tactician, tried to develop his own allies in the music world, inviting Merle Haggard to the White House to sing his song, "Okie from Muskogee." The Nixon White House saw Haggard's song as an anthem for the so-called Silent Majority, since in the lyrics an Okie from Muskogee would not "smoke marijuana ...take no trips on LSD" nor "burn no draft cards down on Main Street."
The Republican struggle to connect with musicians hit the headlines in the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign in 1984. He pursued a "Morning in America" strategy, highlighting a resurgent economy and a robust American stance in the Cold War." The Reagan team appropriated Bruce Springsteen's monster hit "Born in the USA" as a kind of Republican pep anthem. Reagan even went to New Jersey, the heart of Springsteen country, and told a crowd in Hammonton that "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen."
It was not at all clear that Reagan listened to Springsteen himself, or was even a Springsteen fan. After a story came out that Reagan often listened to Springsteen, reporters asked a Reagan aide to identify specific songs. The aide was unable to name the president's favorite Springsteen song. It's not clear Reagan could have named one, either.
The far larger problem was that Springsteen himself was mortified, and pointed out that the president had embarrassingly misread his song. The Boss told Rolling Stone that "You see in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, 'It's morning in America,' and you say, 'Well, it's not morning in Pittsburgh. It's not morning above 125th Street in New York." He also took a jab at the claim from Reagan aides that the Gipper was a fan, at one point wondering on stage which one of his albums might have been Reagan's favorite. Springsteen later called "Born in the USA" "the most misunderstood song since 'Louie, Louie.'"
Even if Reagan's team hadn't gotten the song wrong, Springsteen wasn't an apt choice: Four years earlier, the day after Reagan had beaten Jimmy Carter to win the White House, Springsteen told concert-goers at Arizona State University that "I don't know what you thought about what happened last night, but I thought it was pretty terrifying."
Subsequent GOP candidates haven't done much better. In the 1988 campaign, when George H.W. Bush was vying to replace Reagan, he tried to use Bobby McFerrin's infectious "Don't Worry Be Happy" as an unofficial campaign theme, linking Bush to the economic success of the Reagan administration. McFerrin asked the Bush campaign not to use the song, and the campaign complied.
Legally speaking, this is voluntary: As long as the campaign or the venue has bought a "blanket license," which is standard practice, it can use any song from the music library of the organization granting the license. (Use of music for campaign commercials is more complicated, and typically requires an artist's permission.) It's not the law that stops politicians from using certain songs; it's the embarrassment factor, which has been significant.
In the past few years Republican campaigns have turned into a kind of low-level war between musicians and the candidates trying to use their material. Tom Petty objected to Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann coming on stage to his "American Girl," as well as to George W. Bush's use of his "Don't Back Down"; John Mellencamp, Van Halen, Dave Grohl and Jackson Browne all complained about John McCain's use of some of their songs; Heart put out a blistering statement about Sarah Palin's use of the song "Barracuda"—"Sarah Palin's views and values in no way represent us as American women," they wrote. Boston's Tom Scholz asked Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to stop using "More Than a Feeling." One anonymous Internet wag summed up the situation by quipping that GOP politicians "can only use country music or dead people's music."
The 2016 race has offered more of the same. Last year, when GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker started using the Dropkick Murphys' "Shipping Up to Boston" at his political events, the band tweeted: "@ScottWalker @GovWalker please stop using our music in any way ... we literally hate you !!! Love, Dropkick Murphys." When Jeb Bush met and praised the rapper Ludacris at the Georgia State House, Ludacris did not return the favor. Asked which Bush was his favorite, Ludacris responded, "the one outside."
It's not that this hasn't happened to Donald Trump—and Adele isn't the first example. In October, Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler asked Trump to stop using the Aerosmith song "Dream On." Tyler's request was putatively made for business, not ideological, reasons, but it was still a "no." It came on the heels of more partisan entreaties, such as Neil Young insisting that Trump no longer use "Rockin in the Free World," and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe complaining about Trump's use of "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." Stipe also went after Trump on Twitter and Facebook, calling Trump's effort "a moronic charade of a campaign."
The difference is that Trump, whose own celebrity eclipses that of a lot of pop musicians, doesn't seem to care. Rather than back away from using music, he just plows forward. Shortly after receiving Tyler's cease-and-desist letter, Trump took to Twitter to insult the song, writing "Even though I have the legal right to use Steven Tyler's song, he asked me not to. Have better one to take its place!" And, being Trump, he made a deal: He called Twisted Sister front man Dee Snider, with whom he is friendly, to secure Snider's permission to use the song. (As Snider put it, "[Trump] didn't want a Neil Young situation.")
Snider in the past had told Paul Ryan that the song was off limits, but in this case he gave Trump the OK. It's hard to imagine a typical Republican using a song with lyrics like "Your life is trite and jaded / Boring and confiscated"—but Trump isn't a typical Republican, and the song's spirit of snarling, theatrical, slightly wry confrontation isn't a bad fit for the campaign. And as he makes his appeal to the frustration of the non-coastal elites who serve as his base, much of its message is right on point: "We'll fight the powers that be just/Don't pick our destiny 'cause/You don't know us, you don't belong."
Trump can make music work—whatever he manages to pick—because he's fundamentally a showman. Befitting a reality TV star, he benefits from readily identifiable theme music as he enters as exits the stage. He mixes in other songs to add to the festive mood of his rallies. He acts like a rock star with his audience, getting them to respond in chorus to fan favorites from his top issues. As the Pensacola News Journal's Carlos Gieska noted, when Trump asks who will pay for his wall, the audience knows how to reply: "Like fans who have memorized the lyrics to a favorite album, most of the 12,500 in attendance answered in unison, 'Mexico!'"
As with so many other aspects of the presidential campaign, Trump has taken decades of received wisdom about American politics and turned it on its head. Whatever else his impact on this race may be, he may have also given Republicans a roadmap for solving their pop music conundrum—or at least a swaggering example of how it's really done.