How music fits Trump's campaign message

Story highlights

  • Eric Kasper: Presidential campaigns have been using songs for hundreds of years
  • Even if a campaign complies with copyright law, an artist might still complain or sue, he says

Eric T. Kasper is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. With Benjamin S. Schoening, he is co-author of "Don't Stop Thinking About the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)What do the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," Queen's "We Are the Champions," the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" and Luciano Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma" have in common?

They're not all chart-toppers -- the Rolling Stones anthem only hit 42 on Billboard's Hot 100. But they are all iconic. And now they are part of a growing list of songs that Donald Trump's campaign has used to the ire of the respective artists or their estates.
Eric Kasper
"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," read a statement from Queen's music publisher. "We trust, hope and expect that Mr. Trump and his campaign will respect these wishes moving forward."
    A tweet from George Harrison's estate was more direct: "The unauthorized use of #HereComestheSun at the #RNCinCLE is offensive & against the wishes of the George Harrison estate."
    But while the use of songs might seem simply like part and parcel of the glitz of modern campaigning, it is actually nothing new on the presidential campaign trail. Back in 1800, John Adams had a song titled "Adams and Liberty" set to the same music as "The Star Spangled Banner." Contemporary observers in 1840 claimed that "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" helped sing William Harrison into the presidency. And who can forget Dwight Eisenhower's catchy "I Like Ike" in the 1950s?
    What has changed in recent decades is the expanded use of preexisting popular music. Candidates like Ronald Reagan in 1984 (playing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.") and Bill Clinton in 1992 (playing Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop") popularized the use of pop music by presidential candidates. And with newer technologies, popular music at campaign events has proliferated over the last twenty years.
    Trump has probably used a greater number of preexisting pop songs in a single election than any other presidential candidate in American history. But don't confuse volume with a lack of focus -- a look over the Trump campaign's playlist suggests the choices are far from random.
    For instance, the use of "We Are the Champions" on the opening night of the Republican National Convention reinforces Trump's claimed message that "our country doesn't win anymore," but that it would be "great again" with Trump as president.
    "Here Comes the Sun" played Ivanka Trump onto the stage at the same convention. The song was clearly intended to portray an important Trump family member in a bright and positive light, and her speech was, in coordinated fashion, upbeat in tone.
    "Nessun Dorma," meanwhile, has been described as expressing values of solidarity and brotherhood, which is an important message for a candidate trying to unite a party after a long, hard-fought primary season. And the song used to close the convention, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," was presumably aimed at Republicans who have concerns about either Trump's policy positions or his personality.
    All of these choices are understandable, and on message. But what elevates a campaign song to greatness? It's not just about having appropriate lyrics and a good beat -- a perfect campaign song also needs to keep the campaign on message. With that in mind, artists' objections risk detracting from the power of the musical message.
    Trump isn't the first to feel a backlash from artists. As candidates have increasingly turned to popular music in recent elections, they have sometimes felt artists' scorn. Tom Petty sent a cease-and-desist letter to George W. Bush in 2000 over the campaign's use of "I Won't Back Down" without permission. Sam Moore asked Barack Obama to stop playing "Hold on, I'm Comin'" in 2008. That same year, Jackson Browne filed a lawsuit against John McCain for using "Running on Empty." And in 2012, K'Naan requested Mitt Romney to stop playing "Wavin' Flag."
    Whether the Trump campaign has the legal right to use any of the songs noted above is contingent on multiple factors. If the campaign did not seek consent directly from the copyright holder (who may or may not be the recording artist), the campaign might still have secured a public performance license from ASCAP or another musical performance rights organization.
    But even if a campaign is in compliance with copyright law, an artist might still publicly complain or file a lawsuit on other grounds, such as whether the campaign's use of the song falsely implies that the artist endorses the candidate.
    Legally and politically, the safest use of music by any campaign is to have a copyright-holding artist's consent to play a song, or, better still, to have the artist perform the song live at a campaign event. Trump has musicians, such as noted supporters Ted Nugent, Wayne Newton and Kid Rock, that he could turn to if he wanted to pursue this less risky strategy.
    That having been said, artists' objections against Trump have not, to date, stopped him from using key songs, and they do not appear to have derailed his messages in any significant ways. Some artists have used strong words against him, but no lawsuits have been filed. So as the Rolling Stones might have said, when it comes to campaign music thus far Trump has essentially been able to get what he wants.