'Go f--- yourselves, the lot of you': the dicey, embarrassing history of pop music and politicians

Will
·10-min read
'Don't you dare!': The Stones were livid at Donald Trump playing their hit Start Me Up
'Don't you dare!': The Stones were livid at Donald Trump playing their hit Start Me Up

With its lyrics lambasting men who avoided the draft through financial or political privilege, as well as skewering wealthy tax dodgers, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 hit Fortunate Son could have been written specifically about Donald Trump.

It wasn’t, but it certainly was written about people like him – which is one of the reasons why John Fogerty, former serviceman and Clearwater frontman, this month issued a cease and desist against the US president’s use of the song at campaign events. 

In doing so, Fogerty joined a list of musicians who’ve publicly asked Trump to stop playing their music to pump up crowds at rallies and other political events. The list is a long one, and Fogerty finds himself in rich musical company, objecting along with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Luciano Pavarotti, Aerosmith, Rihanna, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones, who sent Trump a cease and desist letter after he played Start Me Up following a victory speech in May 2016.

Adele, whose other political forays include branding David Cameron a “wally” in 2011 as he pushed his vaunted Big Society policy, struck out at Trump’s use of Rolling In The Deep and Skyfall at campaign events in 2016. R.E.M frontman Michael Stipe used his words even more pointedly to rebuff Trump’s use of It's the End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) at a 2015 rally. “Go f--k yourselves, the lot of you—you sad, attention grabbing, power-hungry little men,” he said, via former bandmate Mike Mills’ Twitter account, “Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.”

Some artists have gone further than polite requests. In August this year, Neil Young took steps to sue Trump’s campaign for its repeated use of his songs Rockin’ In The Free World and Devil’s Sidewalk as, the notice puts it, “a ‘theme song’ for a divisive, un-American campaign of ignorance and hate.” A month earlier, the Artist Rights Alliance convened 60 signatories, including Blondie, Elvis Costello, Lorde, and Mick Jagger, on an open letter to the Democratic and Republican National, Congressional, and Senatorial committees demanding that political candidates seek explicit consent from artists before using their music in campaign and political settings.

Over the decades, popular music has become an increasingly common (and contentious) part of political campaigning. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, Assistant Professor of Music at Georgia College, is the founder and co-editor of Trax On The Trail – a scholarly resource dedicated to the study of the use of music in political campaigns. She says that the phenomenon of candidates using pop songs is a relatively new one. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s adoption of Milton Ager and Jack Yellen's Happy Days are Here Again during his successful 1932 campaign is one of the earliest examples of an existing popular song soundtracking an election.

Before that, well-known folk tunes would be set to new lyrics focused on a campaign’s specific policy platforms: a ham-fisted rendition of Yankee Doodle in support of William Henry Harrison’s in 1840 painted him as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate. These kinds of parodies persisted up until the advent of public broadcast technology in the 1950s and 1960s. In the decades that followed, politicians increasingly adopted rock and pop anthems to soundtrack their campaigning; though this, Gorzelany-Mostak says, was sometimes seen as controversial for very different reasons to the spats that occur today.

While Trump’s “locker room talk” has made the seedier side of life a fixture of the modern White House, Jimmy Carter’s close ties with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ rollers such as the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1976 was seen by some (albeit incorrectly) as a risky bet. Following a few more rotations of the presidency, Gorzelany-Mostak says Bill Clinton’s emergence in 1992, soundtracked by a raft of classic rock songs from the 1960s and ‘70s, was “a watershed moment” for the relationship between pop music and politicians. It was a trend that caught on quickly, too.

In the UK a couple of years later, Tony Blair would be elected leader of the Labour Party and the gears of his Cool Britannia campaign began a steady whir. The corny chords and unbridled poptimism of D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better soundtracked Blair’s landslide victory in the 1997 general election; but the song’s rather on-the-nose title has made a handy stick to beat his party with over the years too. After winning Blair’s old Sedgefield seat in 2019, for the first time since the 1930s, the Conservative Party tweeted “Things can only get better” to the delight of its buoyant following.

Jeremy Corbyn’s more successful general election campaign, in 2017, had been boosted by a grassroots music effort bannered Grime 4 Corbyn, and a handful of grime stars, including Stormzy, Novelist, JME, and AJ Tracey came out in support of the party’s socialist leader. The campaign’s request for “an all-star grime version of The Internationale”, as revealed by journalist Dan Hancox this month, didn’t come to fruition, however.

Corbyn’s opponent that year, Theresa May, fielded a number of complaints from musicians following a party conference made memorable by a persistent cough, less-than-sticky stage lettering, and a prankster interrupting the PM’s keynote address to deliver her P45. Florence Welch (of + The Machine fame) said the Conservatives’ use of You Got The Love “was not approved by us nor would it have been had they asked”; while pop producer Calvin Harris tweeted “I do not support nor condone happy songs being played at such a sad event” after his track This Is What You Came For soundtracked May’s entrance.

Neither Welch nor Harris quite matched the rage summoned in 2011 by The Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor-Taylor after he discovered his band’s hit Bohemian Like You had served as a conference backing track for then-Home Secretary May. “Why don’t these assholes have right-wing bands make them some right-wing music for their right-wing jerkoff politics?” Taylor-Taylor wrote on his band’s website. 

The Dandy Warhols’ ironic slackers anthem was perhaps an odd choice for Theresa May, but the Conservative Party of the day had form in this regard. When Eton alumnus and former cadet David Cameron named The Jam’s Eton Rifles – a song about class struggle – as one of his favourites of all time, Paul Weller was incredulous: “Which part of it didn't he get?” he said, in an interview with the New Statesman, “It wasn't intended as a f---ing jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.”

Paul Weller isn’t the only artist to take umbrage with Cameron’s fandom. Pop-rock band Keane entered into a feud with the Conservative Party during the 2010 general election after Everybody’s Changing was used at the Tory manifesto launch. Drummer Richard Hughes said he was “horrified” and that “it would just be polite to check that the band wouldn't mind being associated with the party.” While not used during Cameron's campaign, Johnny Marr from The Smiths kicked off that the former prime minister even so much as professed enjoying his band's music.

Because of the way music is licensed for broadcast in public places, it is indeed only a matter of politeness (as opposed to any legal obligation) for political campaigns to check with a band first. This is particularly the case in the US, where artists receive fewer moral protections in terms of how their work is used.

Across the pond, politicians can purchase a blanket ASCAP license that gives them permission to pick from almost 15 million songs that can be used for the duration of their campaign. Rights holders (be that a label, publisher, or the artist themselves) are able to withdraw permission for their songs to be played, but it’s down to ASCAP to inform the campaign of which songs have been excluded and then, of course, a matter of whether or not the campaign will heed this notice. “Like all instances of copyright infringement, the infringer is first met with admonishment from the copyright owner. If infringement persists, the infringing party receives a cease and desist. If that is of no avail, the final step is litigation,” says Rania Sedhom of New York law firm Sedhom Law Group. Reaching that final litigious step is rare.

“The trouble is,” explains Llewellyn Gibbons, law professor at The University of Toledo, “by the time the artist is aware of the trespass of a right, a cease and desist letter is written, and possible judicial intervention takes place, campaigns that flagrantly violate the rights of artists have moved on to a new song or new artist or a new venue and the process starts over and over again. Actual damages or even statutory damages for willful infringement (up to $150,000) are not enough to deter bad actors.”

There may be other reasons why some artists don’t go to the same litigant lengths as the likes of Neil Young. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, and hitting out against a political figure (especially one as divisive as Donald Trump) makes for cheap headlines. Those headlines can generate streams too. Since Trump’s controversial church photo op in June this year, Victor Willis, the Village People’s policeman and principal songwriter, has repeatedly asked the president to stop playing Macho Man and Y.M.C.A. at his rallies. Trump has persisted, to Willis’ apparent dismay. But the knock-on effect of Trump’s awkward jiving to Y.M.C.A. at a recent Florida rally hasn’t been lost on the Village People singer either – noting on his Facebook page this month that “Sales and streaming of Y.M.C.A. are through the roof. 3.65 million in the last five days. And that's just Spotify!”

With the rise of YouTube, TikTok and other user-generated content platforms that allow users to remix and parody popular songs, we’re witnessing a return to the Yankee Doodle days of political soundtracks. Trax On The Trail’s Dana Gorzelany-Mostak says the internet gives these songs, such as Camille & Haley’s Keep America Great, a much wider reach and longer lifespan.

It’s possible to see the cascade of parodies, parades, rallies, and artist rebuttals – and the trail of media think-pieces that follow them – as all contributing to the same loud cacophony. “You have artists firing off these snarky responses, people are talking about it on Twitter, and this noisy chorus of objectors emerges,” says, Gorzelany-Mostak, “And I feel that noisiness surrounding the issue is the soundtrack that Donald Trump is striving for.”