the campaign trail

The Ongoing History of Musicians Saying ‘Hell No’ to Donald Trump Using Their Songs

“DOES ANYBODY HERE LIKE HARVEST?Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im

Before and after assuming the office of president in November 2016, Donald Trump’s relationship with popular musicians has been, to put it lightly, humiliating to the third degree. Barely anybody wanted to perform at his inauguration in January 2017, and now, more than three years later with another Election Day rapidly approaching, one of the most reliably recurring headlines of late has been about musicians voicing their disdain for Trump using their songs at political functions — a fact that spurred dozens of high-profile artists to sign a letter, demanding that politicians obtain “consent” for using songs on the campaign trail to avoid “legal risk and unnecessary public controversy.” The message was obvious: They didn’t want any association with the president, even if, as some have noted, legal options are slim if correct licensing fees are paid.

But back to the drama. Throughout Trump’s journey of rallies, campaign stops, alleged Juneteenth events, and more, numerous musicians have publicly demanded Trump disassociate himself with their work, a movement that has arguably been best pioneered by the president’s favorite artist, Neil Young. (Yeah, that’s got to hurt.) Take a stroll down memory lane and see just how long the history, which we sorted chronologically, has become.

Pissed-off victim No. 1: Neil Young

The first rocker to throw some cantankerous shade Trump’s way was none other than Young in June 2015, who found himself embroiled in a spat with Trump regarding the use of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” which was used as background noise for his official presidential campaign announcement at Trump Tower. “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America,” Young’s label asserted about this “not authorized” faux pas, to which Trump’s campaign team responded with … literal receipts. “Mr. Trump’s campaign paid for and obtained the legal right to use Neil Young’s recording of ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ at today’s event,” a spokesperson said. “Mr. Trump is a huge fan of Neil Young and his music and will continue to be regardless of Neil’s political views.”

Interestingly, the future president almost immediately ceased playing “Rockin’ in the Free World,” even with the legal logistics in his favor — owing to Trump’s lifelong affection for Young. “Mr. Trump is a big fan and likes Neil very much,” campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said at the time. “We will respect his wish.” Unwilling to not have the last word, though, Young proceeded to stress how Trump’s “misogyny” and “racism” were not rockin’ him politically, and that he’d happily give Bernie Sanders any of his music, should he ever request it.

Then, Young resurfaced the “Rockin’ in the Free World” issue with a strongly worded statement in November 2018 (which occurred during Trump’s midterms rallies), saying that while he has no legal grounds to block Trump from doing so, misusing the song violates his personal and political values. “He chose not to listen to my request,” Young wrote in an open letter, “just as he chooses not to listen to the many American voices who ask him to stop his constant lies, to stop his petty, nasty name calling and bullying, to stop pushing his dangerous, vilifying and hateful rhetoric.”

Upon becoming an American citizen in early 2020, Young has escalated his hatred toward Trump, stating that the president is a “disgrace to my country” who shouldn’t “trot out” his songs whenever he feels like it. After criticizing Trump’s COVID-19 response and threatening a lawsuit against him in July, Young officially filed a copyright infringement case in August, which stems from the Trump campaign using “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Devil’s Sidewalk” on several occasions during 2020 political rallies and stops. The lawsuit states that the campaign “does not now have, and did not have” a license or Young’s permission to play the two songs, and is thus seeking “statutory damages in the maximum amount allowed for willful copyright infringement.”

Pissed-off victim No. 2: R.E.M.

You could say Michael Stipe was totally not feeling fine about Trump’s frequent use of “It’s the End of the World” as a pump-up jam at his 2015 campaign rallies, so much so that the entire band crafted a cease and desist letter to make the madness stop. “The media and the American voter should focus on the bigger picture, and not allow grandstanding politicians to distract us from the pressing issues of the day and of the current presidential campaign,” R.E.M. wrote in a statement that confirmed their legal action, which is nice and all, but Stipe’s Twitter musings had a bit more chutzpah, addressing the Republican institution as a whole: “Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you — you sad, attention grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.” The band later released an anti-Trump song titled “World Leader Pretend.”

Pissed-off victim No. 3: Twisted Sister

Twisted Sister front man Dee Snider originally allowed Trump to use the band’s iconic jam “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as his closing song on the campaign trail in 2015, owing to the two being friends. (Snider had a stint on Celebrity Apprentice a few years prior.) At the time, Snider believed Trump was going to “raise holy hell” by “shaking things up” in the American political system, even saying Trump had a great sense of self-deprecating humor because he frequently joked about “being too orange.” A few months later, though, the honeymoon period ended.

Realizing the full extent of Trump’s political ideology, Snider ended up giving him a call to say, well, he’s not gonna take it anymore. “It’s very upsetting to me, ’cause I strongly don’t agree with his extremist positions,” Snider explained in late 2015. “I have to call Donald. I have to speak to him, as a friend. He was respectful enough to call me and say, ‘How do you feel about me using this?’ And I’ve gotta be — as a friend — respectful enough to call him and say, ‘Listen, man, this has gotten wildly out of control, and I really have a problem with it.’ It’s really gotten ugly.” Fellow band member Jay Jay French also voiced his annoyance at the song being used, explaining how the band, despite their “personal political leanings always [being] all over the map,” couldn’t in good faith allow Trump to keep using the song.

Pissed-off victim No. 4: Adele

Deviating from his jukebox classic-rock standards, Trump showed a particular fondness for Adele throughout the 2015 and 2016 campaign by employing a medley of the songstress’s hits, including “Rolling in the Deep” and “Skyfall,” the theme she crooned for the James Bond film. “Adele has not given permission for her music to be used for any political campaigning,” her spokesperson said in February 2016. To solidify her point, Adele later went on to endorse Hillary Clinton for president in front of tens of thousands of American concert attendees: “Don’t vote for him. I am English, but what happens in America affects me, too. I am 100 percent for Hillary Clinton. I love her, she’s amazing.”

Pissed-off victim No. 5: Elton John

It’s well-documented that Trump is fascinated with Elton John, a feeling that, as most recently detailed in John Bolton’s memoir, isn’t reciprocated. In February 2016, John publicly denounced his songs being used in the Trumpian orbit, which came to light when Trump would frequently use “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer” as warm-up music for his campaign rallies — although John noted they had nothing but pleasant interactions in the past. “I’m British. I’ve met Donald Trump, he was very nice to me, it’s nothing personal, his political views are his own, mine are very different, I’m not a Republican in a million years,” John said, before laying down an exquisite burn. “Why not ask Ted fucking Nugent? Or one of those fucking country stars? They’ll do it for you.” John would later go on to quickly deny Trump’s request to perform at his inauguration.

Pissed-off victim No. 6: The Rolling Stones

Satisfaction for the Rolling Stones was unattainable after Trump began to frequently lean on the band’s tunes to pump up the crowds at his campaign rallies in 2015 and 2016 — “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was, oddly, a favorite — which culminated with Trump blasting “Start Me Up” during his celebration speech upon clinching the Republican presidential nomination. The Stones had to release statements not once, but twice, in 2016 demanding that Trump immediately “cease all use” of their songs, clarifying that they “do not endorse” the nominee, after he kept using their songs “without the band’s permission.” Mick Jagger eventually conceded that there was no effective way to get Trump to stop using their music, equating the usage to something a theater or restaurant does as background noise: “They can play what they want … you can’t stop them.”

However, in June 2020, the Stones reversed course and threatened to pursue legal action against Trump for his continued use of their music at political rallies in the lead-up to the election. The band’s legal team at BMI, the prominent music rights organization, have issued numerous cease and desist letters to Trump’s campaign. “This could be the last time President Donald Trump uses Stones songs,” a statement read. “BMI have notified the Trump campaign on behalf of the Stones that the unauthorized use of their songs will constitute a breach of its licensing agreement. If Donald Trump disregards the exclusion and persists, then he would face a lawsuit for breaking the embargo and playing music that has not been licensed.”

Pissed-off victim No. 7: Queen

In June 2016, Queen condemned the repeated usage of their beloved jam “We Are the Champions” during Trump’s stage appearance at the Republican National Convention. “I can confirm that permission to use the track was neither sought nor given,” Brian May, one of the band’s three surviving members, explained. “Regardless of our views on Mr. Trump’s platform, it has always been against our policy to allow Queen music to be used as a political campaigning tool.” The whole band later reiterated that the “unauthorized use” of the song might spur legal action on their part, should they be so inclined, as Trump continued to use “We Are the Champions” in the months leading up to the 2016 election. “We are frustrated by the repeated unauthorized use of the song after a previous request to desist,” they collectively said, “which has obviously been ignored by Mr. Trump and his campaign.”

Pissed-off victim No. 8: George Harrison’s estate

The 2016 Republican National Convention seemed to be the ground zero of musicians being pissed off at Trump, as the estate of George Harrison immediately denounced the “unauthorized” use of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” — which was written by Harrison for Abbey Road — as walk-on music for both Trump and his daughter Ivanka. “It’s offensive and against the wishes of the George Harrison estate,” Harrison’s official Twitter wrote. “If it had been ‘Beware of Darkness,’ then we may have approved it!”

Pissed-off victim No. 9: Luciano Pavarotti’s estate

In a similar scenario, the estate of prolific opera singer Luciano Pavarotti was quick to defend the late tenor’s honor when Trump heavily featured his aria “Nessun Dorma” as a soundtrack to many of his rallies in 2016. The singer’s widow, Nicoletta Mantovani Pavarotti, along with his immediate family, proclaimed that the “values of brotherhood and solidarity” Pavarotti expressed “throughout the course of his artistic career are entirely incompatible with the world view” embodied by Trump. Interestingly, about a year and a half after becoming president, Trump asserted during a press conference with Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni that Pavarotti, who died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer, was a “great friend” of his. It seems the duo, perhaps at best, shared a complicated boss-underling relationship.

Pissed-off victim No. 10: Steven Tyler

Twice in 2015, Steven Tyler’s reps presented Trump with a cease and desist letter for his frequent use of “Dream On” at rallies and campaign stops, a song that often prompted Trump to try to air-drum during the instrumentals. (We really encourage you to watch this video.) Following a few months of back-and-forth, Trump relented and stopped using the power ballad, confirming his decision in one of his signature Twitter musings: “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!” We should note that fellow Aerosmith members Joe Perry and Joey Kramer are vocal Republicans, with Kramer, in particular, being a major Trump supporter.

History repeated itself in April 2018, when another cease and desist letter was dusted off by Tyler and mailed to Trump, as the president enjoyed using “Livin’ on the Edge” throughout his midterm rallies. “What makes this violation even more egregious is that Mr. Trump’s use of our client’s music was previously shut down, not once, but two times, during his campaign for presidency in 2015,” the letter from his attorney read, in part. “Mr. Tyler’s voice is easily recognizable and central to his identity, and any use thereof wrongfully misappropriates his rights of publicity.” Tyler’s attorney also asserted that the original cease and desist letters were ignored by Trump.

Pissed-off Victim No. 11: Prince’s estate

Following suits with the estates of Harrison and Pavarotti, Prince’s estate issued a statement in October 2018, warning both Trump and the White House to never to use “Purple Rain” again after the president played it at one of his midterm election rallies. “The Prince Estate has never given permission to President Trump or The White House to use Prince’s songs and have requested that they cease all use immediately,” Prince’s half-brother and of one his heirs, Omarr Baker, wrote.

Pissed-off Victim No. 12: Pharrell Williams

In October 2018, Trump played Williams’s feel-good jam “Happy” at his Future Farmers of America rally in Indiana just hours after 11 people were murdered at a Pittsburgh synagogue in an anti-Semitic mass shooting. Williams responded by having his lawyer send Trump an impassioned cease and desist letter ordering the president to stop playing “Happy” at political rallies and shaming him for playing it after a tremendous hate crime was committed. “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 in Indiana,” a statement read. “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. Pharrell has not, and will not, grant you permission to publicly perform or otherwise broadcast or disseminate any of his music.” The order states that any future use of the song will commit copyright and trademark infringement.

Pissed-off Victim No. 13: Rihanna

Just hours after she endorsed Florida Democrat Andrew Gillum for governor in November 2018, Rihanna learned via Twitter that her music was being used for the Republican agenda. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker tweeted that Trump had played “Please Don’t Stop the Music” at a Chattanooga rally for U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn (whom Taylor Swift publicly opposed) and Rih swiftly responded, threateningly, to please definitely stop that. “Not for much longer … me nor my people would ever be at or around one of those tragic rallies, so thanks for the heads up philip!” she replied. Yes, good lookin’ out, Philip!

Pissed-off Victim No. 14: Guns N’ Roses

On the same day as Rihanna, Axl Rose also lashed out at Trump for favoring Guns N’ Roses music at rallies. Rose tweeted that he and the band formally denied Trump’s permission to use their music after finding out that he played “Sweet Child O’ Mine” at a rally in West Virginia. “Unfortunately the Trump campaign is using loopholes in the various venues’ blanket performance licenses which were not intended for such craven political purposes, without the songwriters’ consent,” he explained. “Can you say ‘shitbags?!’ [poop emoji].” Rose added that he liked the irony of “Trump supporters listening to a bunch of anti-Trump music at his rallies.”

Pissed-off Victim No. 15: Ozzy Osbourne

After a brief cooling period following 2018’s midterm elections, Ozzy Osbourne reignited the Trump music debate in June 2019 after the president tweeted a Democrat-mocking video set to his famed solo track “Crazy Train.” Osbourne and his wife, Sharon, jointly condemned the song’s use. “Ozzy’s music cannot be used for any means without approvals,” they wrote, adding as a twist, “perhaps he should reach out to some of his musician friends. Maybe Kayne West (‘Gold Digger’), Kid Rock (‘I Am the Bullgod’) or Ted Nugent (‘Stranglehold’) will allow use of their music.”

Pissed-off Victim No. 16: Tom Petty’s estate

As the first high-profile music dispute against Trump in 2020, Petty’s estate issued a cease and desist to his campaign for using “I Won’t Back Down” at a June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Tom wrote this song for the underdog, for the common man and for everyone,” Petty’s family members stated. “We want to make it clear that we believe everyone is free to vote as they like, think as they like, but the Petty family doesn’t stand for this. We believe in America and we believe in democracy. But Donald Trump is not representing the noble ideals of either.”

Pissed-off Victim No. 17: Brendon Urie

Also in June 2020, Brendon Urie tweeted at the Trump campaign to stop using the Panic! at the Disco song “High Hopes” as walk-on music during campaign events. “Fuck you. You’re not invited. Stop playing my song,” Urie wrote, signing his and the band’s name. “Donald Trump represents nothing we stand for. The highest hope we have is voting this monster out in November.” Urie and the band never pushed back against Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for using the song in coordinated dance videos.

Pissed-off Victim No. 18: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen’s estate issued a scathing statement in August 2020, claiming that they “specifically declined” the use of “Hallelujah” at the Republican National Convention when approached by the party. The song was still used at the RNC despite the lack of clearance, and the estate is now “exploring our legal options” on how to proceed. (A cover of the song, by Tori Kelly, was played after Trump’s acceptance speech.) “We are surprised and dismayed that the RNC would proceed knowing that the Cohen Estate had specifically declined the RNC’s use request,” a statement read, “and their rather brazen attempt to politicize and exploit in such an egregious manner ‘Hallelujah,’ one of the most important songs in the Cohen song catalogue.”

Pissed-off Victim No. 19: Eddy Grant

Eddy Grant, the British singer-songwriter whose hit “Electric Avenue” became a smash in the 1980s, was able to successfully get the song removed from a Trump campaign video on Twitter. On September 1, 2020, Twitter confirmed that it received a copyright complaint from Grant, and, per company policy, the president’s video was removed. Grant has also filed a lawsuit against Trump’s campaign, arguing that it has “continued to willfully and wrongfully infringe copyrights” with its “wrongful conduct.”

Pissed-off Victim No. 20: Phil Collins

After Trump played the greatest drum-break song of all time, “In the Air Tonight,” at a rally in Iowa on October 14, 2020, Phil Collins’s legal team issued a cease-and-desist order to the president. The letter, which can be viewed here, writes that Collins expresses an “unequivocal statement that he wants no affiliation whatsoever” with Trump. Collins’s team also notes that the song choice was “particularly inappropriate since it was apparently intended as a satirical reference to COVID-19,” and, by using it, the Genesis front man’s “reputation and popularity with the public” was “damaged.”

Pissed-off Victim No. 21: John Fogerty

Nearly a month after the former Creedence Clearwater Revival front man publicly expressed irritation that Trump used “Fortunate Son” numerous times on the campaign trail, John Fogerty released a statement on October 16, 2020 to confirm he issued the president a cease and desist order. “He is using my words and my voice to portray a message that I do not endorse,” Fogerty, a Vietnam War veteran, wrote on social media. “I wrote this song because I was disgusted that some people were allowed to be excluded from serving our country because they had access to political and financial privilege. I also wrote about wealthy people not paying their fair share of taxes. Mr. Trump is a prime example of both of these issues. The fact that Mr. Trump also fans the flames of hatred, racism, and fear while rewriting recent history, is even more reason to be troubled by his use of my song.”

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