If Donald Trump were only to play rock songs at his events that had the permission of the recording artists in question, his walk-ons and walk-offs would mostly take place to the sound of silence. But he continues to not let artists’ heated objections stand in his way. His event at the base of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota Friday night repeatedly featured the sounds of an artist who’s called Trump out as “a disgrace to our country”: Neil Young.
The Neil Young Archives Twitter account made it clear that the rocker has not changed his position on the president’s unauthorized usage of his material. “This is NOT ok with me,” Young wrote while retweeting a clip of his “Rockin’ in the Free World” being used at the July 4 weekend celebration. Against another clip of “Like a Hurricane” being played as attendees filed in, Young tweeted, “I stand in solidarity with the Lakota Sioux & this is NOT ok with me.”
This is NOT ok with me… https://t.co/Q9j9NRPMhi
— Neil Young Archives (@NeilYoungNYA) July 4, 2020
In an open letter to Trump in February, Young wrote, “You are a disgrace to my country. Your mindless destruction of our shared natural resources, our environment, and our relationships with friends around the world is unforgivable.… Our first black president was a better man than you are.” He added that “Rockin’ in the Free World” “is not a song you can trot out at one of your rallies… Every time ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ or one of my songs is played at your rallies, I hope you hear my voice. Remember it is the voice of a tax-paying U.S. citizen who does not support you. Me.”
The South Dakota event’s appropriation of these and other Young songs at the event follows last weekend’s announcement by the Rolling Stones that the group was filing a cease-and-desist order against the Trump campaign and would proceed to litigation if it did not stop using their music at rallies. Although nearly any rock artist that’s ever had a song used by Trump before has publicly objected at some point, this was believed to be the first time anyone had publicly cited BMI’s Political Entities License in saying such usage could be legally blocked. BMI confirmed that it had conveyed to the campaign that it was blocked from using the Stones’ BMI catalog. Later this week, ASCAP told Deadline that the Trump campaign was legally blocked from using the Stones songs under its aegis as well.
Trump’s “celebration” in South Dakota was technically not a campaign rally, despite his partisan speech, so it’s not known whether the White House would claim to BMI and ASCAP that it was not a political event. Regardless, both the White House and the Trump campaign have shown little interest in responding to the wishes of artists who have objected to having their music used — a long list that, besides Young and the Stones, includes the Tom Petty estate, R.E.M., Queen, Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, Panic! at the Disco, Aerosmith and Elton John.
Young’s statement of solidarity with the Lakota Sioux refers to their stand that the land on which the president held his event was stolen by the U.S. government in violation of an 1868 treaty.
Released in the early ’90s, “Rockin’ in the World” is notable for its mixture of sarcastic and despairing lyrics, including lines that mock the famous speeches of then-president George Bush (“We got a thousand points of light / For the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand”). So a disdain for the legacy of the Bush family may be the one thing that Trump and Young share, coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum that they do, although it’s unlikely it gets picked for the president’s events for anything other than the surface-level patriotism of its choruses, a la President Reagan’s famous use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”