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Cleveland, Rocked: Music At The Republican National Convention

As balloons fell after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump accepted his party nomination last night, the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want' rang through the arena.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
As balloons fell after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump accepted his party nomination last night, the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want' rang through the arena.

Throughout the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week, there was a persistent and obvious theme of discord on repeat. Call it "Music vs. Meaning" and let us sing some of its many verses: Musicians expressed resentment at Donald Trump and his party's use of their songs. Acts — both on and off the arena floor — tried to send messages, with varied levels of success, about their political views. Intentionally or not, the possible future First Lady snuck a viral refrain from a 1987 pop song into a speech that was already problematic. The whole week was studded with such uncomfortable, perplexing and frankly odd moments.

Quite a few bands whose music has been used along Donald Trump's campaign trail have made their unhappiness very public: The O'Jays. The surviving members of Queen. George Harrison's estate. Adele. Earth, Wind & Fire. REM's Michael Stipe. The Turtles. Aerosmith's Steven Tyler (though he said his objection was financial, not ideological). Neil Young (though he, like Tyler, eventually said he was concerned about money and permission). And perhaps most famously now, The Rolling Stones — more on them later.

Legally, however, the GOP and the Trump campaign can use all those songs, as Melinda Newman (a former colleague of mine at Billboard) explained in Forbes this week, as long as the rights holders are paid: "The sad truth is for many artists, they can not keep their songs from being used in this context even if they vehemently disagree with the politician who is using the song."

The only use that such unhappy musicians can prohibit is in political commercials — and so far, Trump has not needed to rely on paid advertisements to get his message and visage in the public eye. (By contrast, a suit involving music used in a Ted Cruz campaign commercial during the primaries will go ahead, a judge in Seattle ruled earlier this month.)

Other musicians who have in the past publicly said that they don't necessarily agree with the Republican platform took a different tack. The convention's house band this year was led by guitarist and former Saturday Night Live musical director G.E. Smith. This isn't the first time that Smith and his bandmates have played a Republican convention. As Smith explained to Guitar World in 2013, he's taken these gigs on with family bills in mind: "Well, not only will this pay for several years of Josie [his daughter]'s school, but I can hire six or seven of my friends, and give them a really good pay day too ... We may not be Republicans, obviously, but it was really interesting."

Nonetheless, Smith and his fellow musicians put together some intriguing song choices together to entertain the delegates. Among them was David Bowie's "Station to Station," which includes lines like "It's not the side-effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love/It's too late to be grateful."

And one of the band's picks on Wednesday was, according to Newsday, a huge crowd favorite: Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" — a song which was, Diamond claimed in 2007, written in honor of one very notable Democrat: Caroline Bouvier Kennedy — the current U.S. ambassador to Japan. (Diamond later said that his cute back story was only partly true.)

Other artists were a little more directly confrontational with the delegates. Four years ago, singer Stephan Jenkins explained why his band, Third Eye Blind, turned down an invitation to play a private party during the Republican National Convention: "They are in fact, a party dedicated to exclusion...If I came to their convention, I would Occupy their convention."

This year, however, Third Eye Blind, a band whose popularity was at its peak about twenty years ago, morphed into a Trojan horse of anti-Republican sentiment when they played a charity show at Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the apparent purpose of riling up the GOP attendees at the show. They played almost none of their '90s hits, and Jenkins taunted the crowd with comments like, "Raise your hand if you believe in science!"

On the other side of the stealth spectrum was the debut of Prophets of Rage, a supergroup featuring members of some more obviously political groups: Public Enemy's Chuck D, Rage Against the Machine's guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, alongside B-Real from Cypress Hill. As the New York Times' Joe Coscarelli pointed out, they played for — and rallied beside — like-minded audiences in Ohio. He jotted down sketches of their time in Cleveland: "Prophets of Rage, meanwhile, face an entirely friendly room eager to mosh and scream along to aggressive anti-establishment songs written two decades ago."

But some of the most interesting intersections of — and muddlings between — music and politics this week came out of the Trump campaign itself. One of the highest-profile moments at the convention this week actually seemed to carry certain musical resonances, even if none were intended. After the sections of Melania Trump's Tuesday evening speech that her husband's campaign now says were taken from Michelle Obama came words that seemed to be a Rickroll: "He will never, ever give up. And, most importantly," Mrs. Trump said, pausing just then to let her words fully sink in, "He will never, ever let you down." Yesterday, CNBC reported that Rick Astley's now-immortal 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up" has enjoyed a 19 percent surge in Spotify streams since Tuesday night.

Throughout his primary battles, Trump's campaign soundtrack has included recorded tracks that expressly seemed to be aimed at simply amping up the audience, like Adele, The Beatles, and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." But Trump has also thrown in some curveballs that make it plain that at least somebody on that campaign has an ear for using music as theater. His playlist has often included a recording of Luciano Pavarotti singing the Puccinia aria "Nessun Dorma" (None Shall Sleep) from the opera Turandot.

Here's one case in which the lyrics actually do appear to reflect Trump's political intentions. "Nessun Dorma" ends with these words: "All'alba vincerò! Vincerò, vincerò! ("At dawn, I will win! I will win, I will win!")

But in case that high-culture song is a bit too coded, the Republican candidate's arrival in Cleveland on Wednesday was reportedly heralded by a recording of Jerry Goldsmith's music for the 1997 flick Air Force One, starring Harrison Ford.

As the balloons and confetti (eventually) began to rain down last night at the Quicken Loans arena, however, rock 'n' roll had the last word on Trump — or maybe exactly the inverse happened. The evening's last musical selection was the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Commenters on Twitter last night made hay of the seeming disconnects in meaning between the song and the convention's spectacle of unity. But Trump has long used that tune in particular as one of his campaign's anthems, despite the band's fury and a request the band sent to the GOP candidate's team earlier this year to stop using it.

No one from the Trump campaign has explained exactly why "You Can't Always Get What You Want" has become such a staple selection at his events — at one rally in Carmel, Ind. back in May, for example, the song was played at least four times at that single campaign stop. But in May, Trump himself responded to the Stones' request in a way that appeared to slough off any implications of the song's lyrics entirely: "I like Mick Jagger. I like their songs," he told CNBC.

Over at The New Yorker's website earlier this week, Amanda Petrusich published an essay about some of those apparent paradoxes of meaning, along with some of the musicians she's encountered in Cleveland this week. "In this particular context," she wrote — citing famous examples like "Born in the U.S.A." and "This Land Is Your Land" — "it doesn't matter if there's a staggering fissure between what a thing really means and what someone else wants it to mean. All that matters is that it sounds cool."

Trump's response to the Stones bulwarks Petrusich's point. But it's also true that there's something of a bargain that artists — musicians, poets, painters, whatever — implicitly make when they put their work out into the world. They can create with whatever intention they want, but the receptors of that art — the public — are inevitably going to receive and interpret that output with their own filters, experiences and frameworks. There can be a big split between what is legally allowable and what makes artists happy. That is the deal. And once the creative work is public, others can assign whatever meaning they want to it— consciously or unconsciously, earnestly or cynically.

And forever after, those works carry, in our communal memory, not just the artists' intentions about that output (correctly understood or not), but also the resonances of how that music is later used by others. Even if Richard Wagner had not been an anti-Semite himself (which he certainly was), would most people be able to completely divorce his compositions from how they were loved by Hitler and the other Nazis? A less loaded Wagner example: Can anyone today hear his "Ride of the Valkyries" without instantly flashing to Apocalypse Now?

Artists can make their displeasure widely known, of course; it's easier today than it's ever been, and absolutely instantaneous thanks to social media. But as soon as musicians feel the need to publicly disassociate themselves from their own work, they are that much farther away from their creations. There's an intercessor, an interloper. After last night, will we ever be able to hear "You Can't Always Get What You Want" again without feeling a slight tug of a certain memory — not of Mick Jagger singing, but of Donald Trump shouting?

Next week, we'll be looking at the intersection of music and politics at the Democratic National Convention, which begins Monday in Philadelphia.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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