Saturday 1 October 2016

Politics and music - unhappy bedfellows

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

Anthemic: Neil Young was not happy that Donald Trump used his song for his US presidential campaign
Anthemic: Neil Young was not happy that Donald Trump used his song for his US presidential campaign

It would have been fun to be in the same room as Neil Young when he first heard the news that his evergreen anthem 'Rockin' in the Free World' had been 'borrowed' by Donald Trump to help launch his US presidential bid.

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It's hard to imagine two more different people than the brash tycoon who seems to relish making enemies and the eco-obsessed singer who first came of age in hippy California.

Young was said to be apoplectic that his emblematic song had been used by the billionaire, and his manager immediately contacted Trump's representatives to demand that they stop using it. They acquiesced, but not before images of Young with Trump had been circulated. (They had had a meeting some years ago when the singer was trying to raise funds for his hi-res audio player, Pono).

"Had I been asked to allow my music to be used for a candidate, I would have said no," Young said last week in a statement. "I am Canadian and I don't vote in the United States, but more importantly, I don't like the current political system in the USA and some other countries.

"Increasingly, democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests. The money needed to run for office, the money spent on lobbying by special interests, the ever-increasing economic disparity and the well-funded legislative decisions all favour corporate interests over the people."

Despite his irritation, Young was able to shoehorn references to his new album, The Monsanto Years, into his statement... clouds, silver linings and all that. Monsanto, for the uninitiated, is the world's leading developer of genetically modified food and something of a bête-noir for eco-activists.

Ever since Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA' to soundtrack the campaign for his re-election to US president in 1984, similarly right-of-centre politicians have managed to upset one musician after another. That Springsteen's most anthemic song is about a Vietnam vet enraged by the way his own country has let him and other blue-collar workers down, didn't seem to matter to Reagan's people, who only appeared taken with the sloganeering lyrics of the title and Springsteen's strident delivery.

Reagan, of course, wasn't the only leader of a global power who seemingly failed to understand the artist's intentions behind a specific song. David Cameron - Prime Minister and old Etonian - surprised many, not least its writer Paul Weller, when he mentioned loving The Jam's angry song of class division, 'The Eton Rifles'.

"To this day, I wonder how he could possibly have listened to it and thought it was some jolly drinking tune for him and his buddies," he told me during an interview to promote his latest album.

He's obviously mellowed, because at the time, shortly after Cameron became PM, he said: "If you can't take the time or have the intellect to see what the song's about, you haven't got much chance of running the country, have you?"

Few musicians, it seems, welcome the Tory-stamp of approval. When the Keane song, 'Everybody's Changing', was played during the launch of the Conservative manifesto, drummer Richard Hughes took to Twitter to express his horror, insisting that the party had not had the band's consent, and in any event, he would not be voting for them.

Labour, like the Democrats in the US, have found it far easier to curry favour with musicians, even if many of those who were happy to pose for pictures with Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street - Noel Gallagher included - have subsequently grumbled about being used.

It's impossible to listen to a bunch of upbeat 90s pop songs now without thinking of 'New Labour' and its 1997 election campaign masterminded by Peter Mandelson. D-Ream's 'Things Can Only Get Better' and The Lighthouse Family's 'Lifted' were used ad nauseam by the party in an attempt to demonstrate just how different it was going to be from John Major's ailing Conservatives.

Unfortunately, when Blair's grand vision began to go awry, those musicians who had so willingly jumped on the bandwagon, got tarnished too, and at the end of his reign, commentators were wondering, with D-Ream's euphoric words in mind, if things really had become better.

There was no shortage of musicians keen to get behind Barack Obama back in 2008, and an inauguration celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, featured a music programme that wouldn't have been out of place at the Grammys: the long list included Springsteen, U2, Beyonce, Josh Groban and will.i.am. The latter's 'Yes We Can' wasn't officially used as Obama's campaign song but the anthem became so associated with the new president that he started using the three words as his motto, the Irish version of which - Is Feider Linn - concluded his rousing speech at College Green, Dublin, in 2011.

Already, a slew of musicians are offering their services to the 2016 Democrat hopeful, Hillary Clinton, and a YouTube search will locate an especially awful effort called 'Stand with Hillary'.

The horribly countrified anthem, accompanied by a flamboyantly naff video, was written by would-be folk singer Miguel Orozco and features the following couplet: "Our American Dream is at stake and there's some hard choices that need to be made… And now it's 2016 and this time I'm a thinkin'/Guys, put your boots on and let's smash this [glass] ceiling."

Clinton might be advised to take tips from her hubby when it comes to choosing campaign songs: Fleetwood Mac's 'Don't Stop' soundtracked Bill's successful 1992 campaign.

It certainly was a better choice than the one chosen by Democrat George McGovern 20 years previously. Simon & Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was seen as too subdued to resonate with the electorate - and so it proved.

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