With its Wagnerian orchestral soundtrack, exceptionally low camera angles, and sweeping shots of white marble columns reaching up toward the heavens, last week’s Republican National Convention served as an answer to the question, “What would happen if the producers of The Apprentice did a remake of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will?”
Which makes sense, given that two of Trump’s former reality show producers were brought onboard to help direct the event. The resulting spectacle could not have been more different from the previous week’s Democratic National Convention, which, by contrast, had all the production values of a local cable access show from the late 1970s.
What was more surprising was the music itself. Gone were MAGA rally favorites like the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” Was it possible that, for the first time in four years, Trump was finally yielding to the demands of the numerous artists who’ve railed against his use of their music without their consent?
That question would be answered during the convention’s fourth and final day. But first, to put all of this in perspective, it’s worth taking a brief detour to consider the history of Trump’s battles with these musicians and the legal issues surrounding them.
The best-known case is Trump’s use of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the close of rallies in which he’s just assured his overwhelmingly white audiences that he will, in fact, get them everything they want and more.
Trump has been doing this for four years now, during which time a sizable portion of his audience must have picked up on the contradiction. So why keep doing it?
One likely reason is that Trump and his followers enjoy nothing more than trolling their perceived enemies. Another is the fact that Trump is as tone-deaf when it comes to music as he is with everything else. This is, after all, the president who taunted Black Americans by asking “What have you got to lose?”... a question he subsequently directed toward coronavirus victims in an effort to sell them on hydroxychloroquine.
Meanwhile, back in the realm of music, there was the Midwest rally that Trump held just hours after a white racist walked into a synagogue and opened fire on the congregation. While the rest of the nation grieved, Trump got his followers to get up and dance to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”
Williams’ lawyer responded with a cease-and-desist order that conveyed his client’s outrage:
“On the day of the mass murder of 11 human beings at the hands of a deranged ‘nationalist,’ you played his song ‘Happy’ to a crowd at a political event,” Williams’ lawyer wrote. “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.”
But Trump, as he’s proven time and again, has a fondness for insulting dead people, and that routinely bleeds over into his campaign music. Tom Petty’s family decried the use of “I Won’t Back Down” at Trump’s June 20 Tulsa rally. George Harrison’s estate sent their own cease-and-desist letter after Trump appropriated “Here Comes the Sun.” The surviving members of Queen, dismayed by his use of “We Will Rock You,” did the same on behalf of themselves and their late singer Freddie Mercury.
The reason Trump has continued to get away with all this involves the blanket licensing agreements that music licensing organizations like BMI and ASCAP make with political campaigns and the venues in which they hold their rallies.
Both organizations let artists fight their own battles until this past June, when the two organizations unexpectedly warned Trump to stop using “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” as well as any other Rolling Stones songs, during his rallies. According to BMI, once an artist issues a cease-and-desist letter, any future use constitutes a breach of contract.
And so it was that, on the last night of the Republican National Convention, the gathering of unmasked supporters on the White House lawn were deprived of the upbeat anthems they’d come to know and love.
Still, Trump could not resist showing one last sign of disrespect, which he directed at a deceased artist whose estate and publisher had both turned down the RNC’s request to play one of his best-known songs at the convention. During the closing ceremony, the singer Christopher Macchio came out on the White House balcony to serenade the president and his entourage with a semi-operatic set that featured Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a recorded version of which had also been played moments earlier as fireworks exploded over the Washington Monument.
Apart from its title, Cohen’s borderline vicious ode to God-knows-what was an inexplicably bizarre addition to a medley that included classical-crossover fare like “Ave Maria” and “Nessun Dorma.” This is, after all, a song with lyrics like “I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / Love is not a victory march / It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”
According to the White House, Trump makes all of the final decisions when it comes to which songs are played at his events. But that doesn’t mean he actually listens to all of them.
So what happens next?
For now, at least, Trump has managed to keep from using the Rolling Stones as his walk-off music. Instead, he’s replacing it with his fans’ second favorite rally song, which is, wait for it, the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” There’s something almost endearing, given the racist and homophobic underpinnings of Trump’s campaign, to see MAGA supporters joyfully getting down to the racially integrated and flamboyantly dressed group’s ode to intimate male bonding.
But Village People leader Victor Willis is not amused, as he conveyed in a recent Facebook post directed toward Trump:
“I ask that you no longer use any of my music at your rallies, especially ‘Y.M.C.A.’ and ‘Macho Man’, following the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter marches,” he wrote. “Sorry, but I can no longer look the other way.”