Donald Trump – a polarizing figure infamous for his exorbitant wealth, bright red hat, orange face, sexual assault allegations, and being the single most divisive President of the United States of America.
In both his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and throughout his presidency, Trump has garnered both intense support and intense resentment; and, as I’m sure you’ve heard, he is one cocky son of a bitch. His boisterous political campaigns are known for their frequent and flamboyant rallies. It is common practice for political figures to use music at their rallies to get their crowds buzzing with excitement and anticipation, but for a campaign as controversial as Trump’s, such an act isn’t meaningless.
Use of music for such purposes can easily be seen as politicizing and weaponizing songs in ways that the artists never intended nor agree with. Having used many different artists’ music at his rallies, Trump and his campaign have proclaimed the legality of such song use in response to any backlash, including any public displeasure expressed by artists on social media or in interviews. Many artists are tweeting and speaking out, but is there any legal action that can be taken? Entertainment Weekly quotes intellectual property lawyer Danwill Schwender, who states that there are indeed several legal avenues for artists to take, most common of which is a cease and desist letter, a.k.a. a document sent to an individual or business to stop purportedly illegal activity (“cease”) and not to restart it (“desist”). Still, Schwender concludes that, “ultimately, negative publicity may prove the most reliable deterrent,” and an artist expressing displeasure to their fanbase often stirs up more controversy for politicians than the song is worth.
So, who exactly has hit back at Trump over his use of their music? Here’s a list of artists that have refused to sit back and let him use their songs.
During a 2015 D.C. rally with Ted Cruz, Trump used R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and was met with swift Twitter backlash from the band’s frontman Michael Stipe.
“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.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and Trump still hasn’t backed down. In a January tweet, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills tweeted,
“We are aware that the President* @realDonaldTrump continues to use our music at his rallies. We are exploring all legal avenues to prevent this, but if that’s not possible please know that we do not condone the use of our music by this fraud and con man.”
Young has long fostered a hatred for Trump and has been fighting to get Trump to stop using his 1989 song “Rockin’ In the Free World” year in and year out. Their feud began in 2015 when Trump used the song when he announced his run for president. Young made a statement on his website saying,
“I asked him then, in a widely shared, public letter to cease and desist… However, he chose not to listen to my request, 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.”
Similar to the R.E.M. case, Trump has continually used Young’s music despite his protests, and even used the song at his recent 4th of July rally at Mount Rushmore. Young spoke out again, taking to Twitter,
“This is NOT ok with me, I stand in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux & this is NOT ok with me.”
STEVEN TYLER of AEROSMITH
Trump has used Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge” in his campaigns many times, and Steven Tyler, unlike his co-writers Joe Perry and Mark Hudson (who are overt Republicans), attempted to take legal action in 2015. Though him and his team sent a cease and desist letter, the Trump administration has not acknowledged it nor stopped their music usage. In 2018, Tyler released yet another letter to the White House through his attorney saying,
“As expressly outlined in the Previous Letters, Mr. Trump does not have our client’s permission to use any of our client’s music, including “Livin’ On The Edge.” 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. As we have made clear numerous times, Mr. Trump is creating the false impression that our client has given his consent for the use of his music, and even that he endorses the presidency of Mr. Trump.”
DEE SNIDER of TWISTED SISTER
Snider has made quite the 180 over the years in regard to Donald Trump. In 2015, Snider made several statements in support of Trump, calling him a “friend” and giving him express permission to use Twisted Sister’s song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at his campaign rallies.
As Trump’s campaign progressed, though, Snider learned more and more about what the campaign stands for. In a 2015 interview with CBC radio, Snider evidenced his growing doubt in Trump and shared an updated opinion on him using Twisted Sister’s music in his campaign.
“What’s going on now really has me questioning allowing the song to continue to be used, and it’s very upsetting to me, ’cause I strongly don’t agree with his extremist positions.”
By 2017, Snider expressed much more than doubt. In a television appearance on Bolivia’s ATB, he made sure his current stance was known.
“It wasn’t until he ran for president that I discovered his belief system inside and I disagree with what he believes — I absolutely disagree with what he believes. So, it’s very difficult because we were friends before, but now that he speaks his true mind, I can’t be friends.”
Snider has since distanced himself (and his songs) from Trump.
Trump has been known to have a fascination – no, an OBSESSION with Elton John and his music. He even asked John to perform at his presidential inauguration, an offer which John declined. Obviously Elton doesn’t share the same admiration. A publicist for John confirmed to entertainment website WENN that John is not endorsing Trump’s political campaign.
“Elton’s music has not been requested for use in any official capacity by Donald Trump. Any use of his music should not be seen as an endorsement of Donald Trump by Elton.”
Trump’s campaign has been notorious for using Queen’s music against their wishes for years. In 2016, Trump walked onstage to “We Are the Champions” during the first night of the Republican National Convention. Many more uses of Queen songs followed, even recently. Trump tweeted a 2019 campaign video using “We Will Rock You” in the background. Soon after the video went up, a representative for Queen stressed that the usage was unauthorized, and stated the band had “already entered into a process to call for non-use of Queen song copyrights by the Trump campaign.” Queen’s publishing company, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, has also made statements addressing such issues on Queen’s behalf, saying,
“We are frustrated by the repeated unauthorized use of the song after a previous request to desist, which has obviously been ignored by Mr. Trump and his campaign… Queen does not want its music associated with any mainstream or political debate in any country. Nor does Queen want ‘We are the Champions’ to be used as an endorsement of Mr. Trump and the political views of the Republican Party. We trust, hope and expect that Mr. Trump and his campaign will respect these wishes moving forward.”
EVERLAST of HOUSE OF PAIN
During his 2016 campaign, Trump used House of Pain’s 1992 hit “Jump Around” many times at his rallies and was met with the outrage of House of Pain’s frontman Everlast. Through his Twitter, Everlast threw shots at Trump and promised legal action, saying,
“Hey @realDonaldTrump stop using my song jump around at your rallies you piece of shit. Cease and desist is coming you scumbag.”
In a Billboard interview, Everlast further addressed the controversy.
“The smartest businessman in the world should know that you have to license this music if it makes an appearance on TV with you, and they’re making appearances on TV — so you’re a moron. And the reason he doesn’t ask anybody — a lot of people have asked him to cease and desist — [is] because every fucking person would say, ‘No, fuck you,’ except for whatever right-wing country artist wants to give him the song, and I don’t even think there’s many of them.”
THE ROLLING STONES
Trump began his Indiana primary victory speech in 2016 by playing “Start Me Up.” In response, the band made clear their denouncement of the Trump campaign and made a statement through a band spokesperson.
“The Rolling Stones have never given permission to the Trump campaign to use their songs and have requested that they cease all use immediately.”
PAUL RODGERS of FREE
When Trump used Free’s song “All Right Now” at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Paul Rodgers was not having it. He quickly tweeted:
“Permission to use ‘All Right Now’ was never sought for or granted by me. My lawyer is dealing with this matter. – Paul.”
EARTH, WIND & FIRE
Trump’s use of their song “September” in 2016 prompted the band to join ranks with Queen against Trump’s music usage. The band quote-tweeted Queen’s response rebuffing the Trump campaign, adding:
“Another unauthorized use (September) at the Republican Convention, against our wishes — Earth, Wind & Fire.”
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had been blasting Adele songs at rallies, playing hits like “Rolling in the Deep” and “Skyfall.” Trump has expressed a love of Adele’s music, but the feelings aren’t mutual. A representative for Adele made a statement, saying:
“Adele has not given permission for her music to be used for any political campaigning.”
Adele herself then told Vulture:
“Don’t vote for [Trump]… I am English, but what happens in America affects me, too. I am 100 percent for Hillary Clinton. I love her, she’s amazing.”
EDDIE LEVERT of THE O’JAYS
When the O’Jays asked Trump to stop using their 1972 single “Love Train” at his rallies, both Trump and his campaign team didn’t take it well. Levert, justifying his band’s decision, said:
“I have a right to like what I like. I have the right to pick the people I want to follow and want to be associated with. I’m for change, but I don’t think [Trump] is the guy who will take us to the change he was talking about… I wish him the best, but I don’t think he’s the man to run our country. So, when he started using ‘Love Train,’ I called him up and told them, ‘Listen, man, I don’t believe in what you’re doing. I’m not with you. I don’t want you to use my voice. I’m not condoning what you’re doing.“
Pavarotti, a late opera icon, has been claimed by Trump as a “good friend” in the past, but Luciano’s family seems to be disproving such a claim considering their staunch rejection of Trump using Pavarotti’s songs. When Trump used Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” at a rallies in 2016, Luciano’s widow and three daughters spoke to the New York Times, saying:
“The values of brotherhood and solidarity which Luciano Pavarotti expressed throughout the course of his artistic career are entirely incompatible with the worldview offered by the candidate Donald Trump.”
GEORGE HARRISON of THE BEATLES
George Harrison’s estate members were not happy when The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was used by Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Using Harrison’s account, they expressed their ire on Twitter:
“If it had been Beware of Darkness, then we MAY have approved it! #TrumpYourself.”
AXL ROSE of GUNS N’ ROSES
Rose, upset by Trump’s usage of his band’s songs, shed some light on the legal problems that artists face while dealing with Trump’s administration in these 2018 tweets:
“Just so ya know… GNR, like a lot of artists opposed to the unauthorized use of their music at political events has formally requested r music not b used at Trump rallies or Trump associated events… 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. Can u say ‘shitbags?!’”
In a 2018 cease and desist letter, Williams’ attorney Howard King called on Trump to stop using “Happy” during campaign events. Williams’ team deemed Trump’s use of the song overall inappropriate, especially after Trump played it at his rally mere hours after a deadly mass-shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In the letter, King states:
“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… 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.”
King claims the use of “Happy” without consent constitutes both copyright and trademark infringement:
“Pharrell has not, and will not, grant you permission to publicly perform or otherwise broadcast or disseminate any of his music.”
After seeing footage of Trump’s 2018 Tennessee rally and its use of her hit “Don’t Stop the Music”, Rihanna took to her massive Twitter following before taking legal action. Quote-tweeting the video footage noting Trump’s usage, she quips:
“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…!”
She later sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Trump campaign.
Breaching a 2018 agreement between his administration and the Prince estate, Trump played “Purple Rain” at his 2020 Minneapolis rally. In response, the Prince estate shared the written agreement on Twitter in which Trump’s administration explicitly agrees to stop using Prince’s songs in connection with Trump:
“Without admitting liability, and to avoid any future dispute, we write to confirm that the [Trump] Campaign will not use Prince’s music in connection with its activities going forward.”
Along with sharing the letter, the estate tweeted:
“The Prince Estate will never give permission to President Trump to use Prince’s songs.”
In light of Trump’s 2019 usage of Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” in a Twitter video mocking the 2020 Democratic primary candidates, Ozzy’s wife Sharon sent a cease and desist letter on his behalf. The letter gets the point across while also throwing jabs at Trump:
“We are sending notice to the Trump campaign (or any other campaigns) that they are forbidden from using any of Ozzy Osbourne’s music in political ads or in any political campaigns… Ozzy’s music cannot be used for any means without approvals. In the meantime, I have a suggestion for Mr. Trump — 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.“
BRENDON URIE of PANIC! AT THE DISCO
After Trump walked out onto his campaign stage to “High Hopes” at Phoenix’s June rally, P!ATD’s lead singer Brendon Urie definitely had something to say about it. His angry tweet reads:
“Dear Trump Campaign, Fuck you. You’re not invited. Stop playing my song. No thanks, Brendon Urie, Panic! At The Disco & company… Trump represents nothing we stand for. The highest hope we have is voting this monster out in November.”
Urie has expressed his dislike of Trump throughout the years prior to this incident In an NME interview in 2018, Urie called Trump a “toxic orange” and asked:
“Why couldn’t you have just stayed a menial celebrity? We love laughing at you, but not when you’re just breaking our country down, dude.”
VICTOR WILLIS of THE VILLAGE PEOPLE
In his June 5th Facebook post, Willis addresses Trump, saying:
“If Trump orders the U.S. military to fire on his own citizens (on U.S. soil), Americans will rise up in such numbers outside of the White House that he might be forced out of office prior to the election. Don’t do it Mr. President! And I ask that you no longer use any of my music at your rallies especially “Y.M.C.A.” and “Macho Man.” Sorry, but I can no longer look the other way.”
This post comes after Trump’s shocking May 28th tweet, “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” in response to the George Floyd protests.
Petty’s family released this Twitter statement on June 20th:
“Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down” was used at a Trump rally in Tulsa, OK. Trump was in no way authorized to use this song to further a campaign that leaves too many Americans and common sense behind. Both the late Tom Petty and his family firmly stand against racism and discrimination of any kind. Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate… We believe in America and we believe in democracy. But Donald Trump is not representing the noble ideals of either. We would hate for fans that are marginalized by this administration to think we were complicit in this usage. Concurrently, we have issued an official cease and desist notice to the Trump campaign.”
Leonard Cohen’s estate was seething after Trump played a Tori Kelly cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the Republican National Convention. The song was played on the last day of the convention (August 27th) as Trump formally accepted the Republican party’s nomination; and in typical Trump fashion, it was met with around 8,000 fireworks. In a statement to USA TODAY, Cohen’s estate lawyer said;
“We are surprised and dismayed that the RNC would proceed knowing that the Cohen Estate had specifically declined the RNC’s use request, and their rather brazen attempt to politicize and exploit in such an egregious manner ‘Hallelujah,’ “
On the same day that ‘Hallelujah’ was played, Trump tweeted a completely mature video to celebrate his official Republican party nomination using Grant’s “Electric Avenue” as the background music. The very very mature video featured an animation of a bullet train with his campaign logo on it followed by Biden in a slow handcar. For the record, the animation quality looks like it was ripped straight out of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. According to CNN, Grant and his team immediately sent Trump a cease and desist letter, saying:
“…as a result of your wrongful unauthorized Infringing Use in connection with your controversial political campaign, substantial damage and irreparable harm has occurred and will continue to occur to my client and his reputation as an artist when affiliated in any way with your campaign… [this use indicates] a fundamental misunderstanding of the very meaning of the underlying work.”
Grant said in a statement following the letter:
“I call upon such arbiter, as is responsible for this sordid abuse, to come forward like a man and let’s sort this thing out, in the way that America demands when such issues are to be sorted, especially when they are wrong. Mr. Trump, I am calling on you. You are the final arbiter and I await the word from you.”