By Julia Miller
Music as political propaganda is a powerful tool. In recent years, music has become a staple at political rallies and campaigns. Songs are cherry-picked for strategic political gain, giving an insight into a candidate’s image and identity, and implying endorsement from the associated artist.
In the US, politicians can buy license packages from music rights companies, such as Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), giving them unlimited access to songs. Many artists are unaware of this blanket license, which has generated a torrent of complaints and cease-and-desist letters from musicians to politicians concerning the rights to their music.
America is currently in the middle of an election cycle and political rallies are rife. At 38 years old, Vivek Ramaswamy is the youngest-ever Republican candidate. He is currently campaigning against former President, Donald Trump, to emerge as the Republican nominee in the January primaries.
On August 12th, 2023, Ramaswamy gave a spontaneous performance of Eminem’s Lose Yourself at the Iowa State Fair. The multi-millionaire politician, who studied at Harvard, claims that the song’s message of overcoming adversity resonates strongly with him. However, Eminem has made it clear that he does not align with Ramaswamy’s policies, as he contacted BMI to object to the politician’s use of his music.
On August 23rd, the music rights company sent a letter to Ramaswamy on Eminem’s behalf which read, “BMI will consider any performance of the Eminem works by the Vivek 2024 campaign from this date forward to be a material breach”. The politician may not have gained favour with Eminem, but he has set himself apart from the older candidates in the race for the presidency.
Ramaswamy is not the only Republican candidate who has received backlash from musicians. It is no surprise that Donald Trump has had his fair share of entanglements with music artists. In 2016, Trump played Elton John’s Rocket Man and Tiny Dancer in his campaigns. The musician protested, claiming that his objections were not politically driven but motivated by his reluctance to be involved in the election.
The musician wrote, “I don’t really want my music to be involved in anything to do with an American election campaign. I’m British…it’s nothing personal”. A year on, Elton John was invited to perform at Trump’s inauguration. He politely declined, giving the same reason as before. Interestingly, Elton John did not refuse President Joe Biden’s invitation in September 2022, when he was offered the opportunity to perform at the White House. The musician even described the event as the “icing on the cake” of his career. Perhaps it was Trump’s politics which deterred the musician after all!
In 2018, Trump angered American producer and artist, Pharrell Williams. Just hours after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 11 people, the former President played Williams’ track Happy at a rally in Indiana.
Williams’ attorney, Howard King, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the politician, with the letter stating that Williams did not and will not give permission for his music to be played by Trump. The letter reiterates that the use of the song was wholly inappropriate after the antisemitic attack, noting that “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”.
Other musicians who have filed complaints against Trump include Adele, Queen, Rihanna, Rolling Stones, and Neil Young. There is even a dedicated Wikipedia page for “Musicians who oppose Donald Trump’s use of their music”!
The music chosen by some politicians has most definitely been bizarre. In 2008, US Politician John McCain used ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me in the hopes of boosting his campaign. The song opens with the lyric: “If you change your mind, I’m the first in line”. Quite an unorthodox political message! ABBA sent the politician a cease-and-desist letter, stating that they do not grant the politician permission to play their music.
More recently, another one of ABBA’s songs was played at a political event in Birmingham, UK, where Theresa May entered the Conservative Party Conference shaking her hips to Dancing Queen. As expected, this elicited a rush of comments on Twitter. The Swedish Ambassador praised the former Prime Minister, tweeting “Bravo to @theresa_may”. Others were not so diplomatic, describing her moves as robotic and labelling May the “worst dancer of all time”.
Politicians are serial offenders when it comes to causing collisions with musicians. As we get deeper into campaign season, it is highly likely that more musicians will join the long list of artists who have spoken out against politicians for appropriating their tunes.
Image: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons