Mixing Pop and Politics

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post with this title after I had discovered an old C90 cassette I had made during my student days, featuring pop songs with political messages. The plan was that I would post all of the songs from the tape, and see whether, thirty years later, they held any current relevance.

That was in July, and here we are, three months later, and not a single additional post has appeared in the series.

Until today, and even this post isn’t going to include anything from said outdated mode of musical storage. (It will return again, but you’ll just have to remain on the edge of your seats a little longer, I’m afraid.)

The subject crossed my radar again a couple of times recently, watching coverage of the US Election trail, and I was reminded that American politicians – make that American Republican politicians – have a proud history in using songs without the artistes’ permission, and, more often than not, using the song quite wrongly.

King of the unendorsed usage has to be Bruce Springsteen, and specifically Born in the USA. Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan all used it at election rallies, and all received “cease and desist” notifications from Bruce.

To the untrained eye and ear, Born in the USA does sound like the sort of song a right wing politician should use to brighten up their campaign: it has a gloriously patriotic title, which is also the whole of the chorus; the iconic album cover depicts what appears to be a jean-wearing blue-collar worker, baseball cap stuffed in back pocket, standing in front of the good ol’ stars and stripes.

But when I say “to the untrained eye and ear” I actually mean anyone who has only ever seen that picture, had only ever heard what appears to be a triumphant fanfare at the start of the record which develops into the musical motif running throughout the song, and had never listened to any of the lyrics other than the title/the chorus. A pro-American record it most definitely is not:

It’s not just Springsteen who has a whole line of Republicans mistakenly using his tunes. John Mellencamp has had run-ins with as many of them as he has had own name changes. Just like glamour model and *ahem* best selling author Katie Price now insists on not being called Jordan anymore, and footballer Andy Cole asked everyone to start calling him Andrew, both because they had ‘matured’, so Mellencamp has been variously known as John Cougar, John ‘Cougar’ Mellencamp, and now just plain John Mellencamp.

On this side of the pond, he’s simply known as ‘the bloke who sang that song which introduced us to a foodstuff we have not embraced with quite the same vigour as our trans-Atlantic friends’ (by which I mean our friends from across the Atlantic, not our friends from across the Atlantic who are also trans – and that’s one open can I’m not going anywhere near): the ‘chilli dog’.

Sorry, I seem to have digressed: that’s not one of the songs appropriated by politicians, I’ve just included it because it’s ruddy great.

No, Mellencamp has locked horns with Reagan for using Pink Houses in 1984, John McCain for using the same song as well as Our Country in 2008, and with George W Bush in 2000 over the use of R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.

I’m not familiar with Pink Houses or Our Country, but I am very familiar with R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. as I bought it on 7″ single when I was a kid. And I’m here to tell you, it’s a little cracker:

Quite what lead the Bush campaign to land on that song is a bit of a mystery to me; I can see how it works in terms of The American Dream, for it’s a song about the early days of rock’n’roll, of Tamla Motown and Stax, a song which describes people from all walks of life – but usually ones from poor backgrounds – setting off to make music, doing what they want to do, in the self-proclaimed Land of the Free.

But it includes a list of successful black artists (“…there was…Frankie Lymon…Jackie Wilson, Shangri-La’s, Young Rascals…Martha Reeve….James Brown”) and let’s be honest, ensuring young black Americans achieve success in whatever field they choose (unless it’s in an actual field) has been shown (again) to be not exactly high on the list of Republican priorities over the past few months.

The song seems to have been picked solely for including the phrase “U.S.A.”, which can be shouted loudly along to it. Although I don’t think we can exclude the possibility that it’s usage also helped Dubya with his spelling lessons.

“Today’s letter, Georgie, is R. Ruh. R. And what does R stand for?”

“Rocket?”

“That’s good, Georgie,but it’s not quite what I was looking for. Rock. Ruh stands for Rock. Now what does O stands for….?”

“Oil?”

“Very good, Georgie, well done. Have a pretzel, you clever thing. Careful, don’t eat it all at once!”

Another American rocker not shy of issuing “cease and desist” notices was Tom Petty, who clashed with George W Bush when he used this song:

And this, which was appropriated by Republican/Tea Party/Lunatic candidate Michele Bachmann in 2011, and there’s no real mystery why she would select this absolute pearler:

Ahhh, 2011. It’s weird getting nostalgic for a time such a short while ago, but wasn’t it wonderful when all we had to worry about was the Tea Party nut-jobs on the fringes of the Republican party, as opposed to the actual nut-job occupying the White House now?

Actually, to digress for a moment, that song takes me back to the early 1990s, when I was, far too briefly for my liking, working in the Virgin Megastore in Cardiff. Lowlight of my time there: serving one of my college lecturers, who didn’t recognise me at all, and when I explained who I was and how he knew me, just looked at me as if to say: “Yes, I thought this might be where you’d end up working”.

Highlights of my time there: selling the entire Echo & The Bunnymen back catalogue to Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers and, one evening, after the doors were closed and we were cashing up and tidying up, somebody put American Girl on the in-store sound system, and you could palpably feel the mood lift: everyone was singing along and dancing and twirling and hand-clapping as they completed their chores, like some choreographed moment from a high school musical. Happy times.

Also in 2008, John McCain used Foo Fighters’ My Hero:

Anyway. I could go on about all these improper uses of songs all day as there’s a whole list of them, but it’s a list that includes Nickelback and if you think I’m posting a song by them you are very mistaken, my friend.

So here’s why the subject cropped up on my radar the other week: because I read that Trump had been using this song at his rallies:

Now that, you have to concede, is a bold choice for Trump to use, for so many reasons.

Firstly: it’s called Fortunate Son, which can only serve to remind us that Trump didn’t make all of the money he has amassed (apart from the stuff that the Russians have given him, I mean), as that was all inherited from his father, Fred, who, lest we forget was a German immigrant – but a white one, so not one DJT would have an issue with now, natch – who made his own fortune (American Dream: tick!) in the thoroughly reputable world of real estate. In 1997, when his worth exceeded a billion dollars, he transferred the majority of his buildings to his surviving children, who sold them in 2004 for over 16 times their previously declared worth, effectively dodging hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. Fortunate, indeed.

Speaking of tax, the song even mentions the taxman (“…But when the taxman comes to the door, Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale…”) which given the recent revelation that in 2017 Trump paid just $750.00 in Federal Income Taxes, seems remarkably apt.

The song, itself is, broadly, about how the sons of wealthy, powerful politicians and businessmen managed to avoid the draft to the Vietnam War because of daddy’s status. Trump, famously, didn’t have to go fight because of his “bone spurs” which are bony lumps that grow on the bones of the spine or around the joints, or, in Trump’s case, his feet. In 2019, his former lawyer Michael Cohen testified that Trump had invented the condition so that he didn’t have to do his national duty.

You have to conclude that whoever picked Fortunate Son to soundtrack his rallies knew exactly what they were doing, for it perfectly highlights all of the reasons you shouldn’t vote for Trump.

And this was a theory which Armando Iannucci floated on Frankie Boyle’s New World Order this week: that there is a Democrat working within the Trump campaign who has been given the responsibility of choosing appropriate records to play at the rallies. And given this remit, boy have they run with it, selecting not just Fortunate Son but also the music used in this clip, which I promise you has not been added after the rally, this actually happened:

Some excellent “working-the-crowd” gestures there from the Wotsit-coloured Wonder. Be afraid, Bono. He’s a pair of leather trousers, one foot-on-a-monitor, and a pair of redundant sunglasses behind you.

In case you’re not familiar with the record that soundtracks that clip, it’s YMCA by Village People, a song which, pretty much, promotes the idea of gay sex in Christian hostels. Here’s a picture of Village People from their hey-day:

Exactly the sort of fine, upstanding young men one would expect to find amongst Trump’s core voters.

Village People, you will not be even slightly surprised to learn, have asked Trump to stop playing the song at his rallies. I’m hoping instead they have permitted him to use their follow up hit:

There’s a joke about that submarine being full of seamen somewhere in there, but I’ll leave you to make it at your own leisure.

More soon.

Published by

Jez

Contact me by email at: dubioustaste26@gmail.com Follow me on Twitter: @atastehistory Or do both. Whatever.

2 thoughts on “Mixing Pop and Politics”

  1. A very funny Saturday read Mr Jez. You have a real knack for writing which we too often ignore mentioning around her because we focus on the song content. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it, but with little remuneration, it’s a labour of love really (and a lot of nice people drop by).

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