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Trump’s Bizarre Music Picks: How Linkin Park’s ‘In the End’ and Other Campaign Songs Send a Strangely Defeatist Message (Column)

We look at a dozen songs — including the Stones' and Neil Young's — that no one would play at a rally again if they listened to the words... unless someone's sending a secret message about a campaign death wish.

President Donald Trump Phoenix
AP

If “The Princess Bride’s” Inigo Montoya were to ever attend a Donald Trump rally or watch his campaign’s videos, it’s clear what he’d say: “You keep using that song. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

From the 2016 campaign through the present day, music fans have been baffled by Trump’s use of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as his walk-off music at rallies. But that scarcely begins to compare to the puzzlement over why he or his campaign believe Linkin Park’s “In the End” is a motivational anthem, as opposed to one of the most abjectly depressing and de-motivating rock songs ever to achieve hit status. A video tweeted by Trump was removed from Twitter Saturday after Linkin Park’s management company filed a copyright claim, which probably won’t keep him from continuing to use the song as part of his rally playlist, as he did in Tulsa. But the mystery remains unsolved: Why would he want to — unless he’s sending a secret message that he really wants to lose?

Look up the Genius.com page for the Linkin Park song and the very first comment says. “This chorus evokes existential nihilism, which posits that personal accomplishments, and even life itself, are without inherent meaning.” Now, it’s beyond question that existential nihilism has been enjoying a big comeback in the Trump era, but it’s still not generally invoked in the same breath as “four more years.” Who knew the president was a major Sartre stan?

Of course, other songs Trump or his peeps have favored also seem weirdly counterintuitive, from Neil Young’s cynical “Rockin’ in the Free World” to R.E.M.’s despondent “Losing My Religion.” That extends to the songs on his playlist that mostly have to do with drunkenness or death. (In fairness, every once in a while a campaign song actually seems on-the-nose, like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” or Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” although that doesn’t stop these artists or their estates from trying to issue cease-and-desists, just like nearly every artist who’s ended up on a Trump playlist.)

Following are some songs that have been staples of Trump events, starting with Linkin Park’s, annotated with obvious reasons why they don’t make the best rah-rah rally songs:

“In the End” by Linkin Park

What the Trump campaign hears:
Who knows? It’s hard to pick out a single moment or line of this unremittingly bleak song that anyone would mistake for motivational.

What attentive listeners hear:
“I’m surprised it got so far,” sings the late Chester Bennington, perhaps channeling Trump ‘s thoughts, if you believe the theory that he never really expected to get elected in 2016. Singer Chester Bennington once said that Trump was “a greater threat to the USA than terrorism,” so perhaps he would enjoy the thought of the Trump campaign blasting these words: “I had to fall to lose it all, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter.” Really, there could not be a better theme song … for a Make America Meaningless Again campaign.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones

What the Trump campaign hears:
Maybe it’s simply supposed to be the promise that “you get what you need” from the president? Or maybe it’s MAGA supporters that are supposed to be the demonstrators singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration / If we don’t, we’re going to blow a 50-amp fuse.”

What attentive listeners hear:
At best, the song is about a peaceful acceptance of a stark reality once expectations have dimmed. (Maybe not Herbert Hoover’s vow of a chicken in every pot, then, but at least some Hamburger Helper?) At worst, it’s what Marianne Faithfull referred to it as: a “junk song” and a “tough drug song.” As Mick Jagger once said to the BBC, “If I was Donald’s DJ… it’s a funny song for your play-out song. When he finished the speech, he played this out, this sort of doomy ballad about drugs in Chelsea. It’s kind of weird if you think about it… an odd thing, very odd.” In the surreal lyrics, there are prescriptions being filled, and deceptive women with blood-stained hands — calling Kellyanne Conway, anyone? — and “death” as an end-all and be-all. In other words: Go, team!

“Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young

What the Trump campaign hears:
A few phrases, here and there, might sound patriotic, in isolation: “There’s colors on the street / Red, white and blue… / Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them / … got fuel to burn…. / …free world.”

What attentive listeners hear:
Verses describe zombie-like homeless people “sleeping in their shoes.” An addict leaves her child to die while she scores drugs. Holes in the ozone layer are invoked. Young pokes his own holes in George H.W. Bush’s Peggy Noonan-written speech lines about “a thousand points of light” and “a kinder, gentler nation”: “We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” Trump is apparently no more of a fan of the Bush family than Young was, but reviving the rock star’s mockery of the language that inspired and helped unite the Republican party only a generation ago probably isn’t the president’s reason for being so attached to the song.

“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

What the Trump campaign hears:
Something exciting is in the air. It must be victory!

What attentive listeners hear:
Something exciting is in the air. It must be Collins’ anger and bitterness over his first divorce. “Well, if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand,” Collins sings, in just one sample of the ceaselessly mean and/or deeply wounded sentiments. “You can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been,” Collins continues, sneering: “It’s all been a pack of lies.” The song’s spirit of non-stop vituperation fits in well with the president’s daily litanies of grievances, although that’s probably not the reason for its position on the playlist.

“My Way” by Frank Sinatra

What the Trump campaign hears:
A lack of apologies, or obeisance of any sort: “Not the words of one who kneels / The record shows, I took the blows.” And: “Regrets, I’ve had a few / But then again, too few to mention.” Being Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.

What attentive listeners hear:
The narrator is about to die.

“Beat It” by Michael Jackson

What the Trump campaign hears:
Hey, all you rivals, haters, fake news-ers and nattering nabobs of negativism… you should beat it! We are coming for you.

What the attentive listener hears:
What has often gotten lost in the 37-year history of “Beat It” is that it actually advocates retreat. The song’s narrator tells a young person who is scrapping for a fight that he might end up severely wounded or dead if he doesn’t swallow his pride and back off. Or, as a commenter on the tune’s Genius.com page puts it: “You want to prove you’re tough, and that you aren’t a sissy, but since they’re tougher, you need to get out. Be the better man, and walk away from the violence.” Somehow, this messaging seems very off-brand for a campaign.

“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.

What the Trump campaign hears:
”That’s me in the spotlight,” maybe? Other than that one line, your guess is as good as anybody’s — it’s hard to fathom what could really be considered rabble-rousing in this paean to vulnerability, sadness and impossibility.

What attentive listeners hear:
“A hurt, lost and blinded fool… The slip that brought me to my knees… Trying to keep up with you, and I don’t know if I can do it… Why try?” Democrats hear these hopeless thoughts blasted over the PA at a Trump rally and think: From Michael Stipe’s lips to God’s ears.

“Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)” by Elton John

What the Trump campaign hears:
It’s Saturday night. Are you ready to rumble?

What attentive listeners hear:
Lyricist Bernie Taupin writes about going to the local pub as a young teenager and getting drunk out of his gourd to escape an unhappy home life: ”I’m a juvenile product of the working class / Whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass,” he has Elton singing. Tellingly, the song’s underage protagonist sings, “My old man’s drunker than a barrel full of monkeys / And my old lady, she don’t care.” Perhaps Trump relates? Although his father, Fred, was not an alcoholic, his niece Mary Trump’s new book describes Trump Sr. as an abusive, “high-functioning sociopath,” and his mother in return being distant and uncaring with the children. Given that kind of upbringing, who wouldn’t be up for a scrap?

“All Right Now” by Free

What the Trump campaign hears:
It’s-uh all right now. No, really, it’s fine.

What the attentive listener hears:
Fornication with a prostitute and/or one-night stand is a good and desirable thing. If you, the man, suggest love is involved, the woman will correct you and reassure you that love’s got nothing to do with it,. You will be surprised and pleased with this arrangement. Lovemaking, like politics, can be purely transactional, with no need to carry the relationship into the future.

“Piano Man” by Billy Joel

What the Trump campaign hears:
Crowd size hyperbole, maybe? “It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday,” Joel sings. “You got us feeling all right.”

What the attentive listener hears:
Drunkenness, drunkenness and more drunkenness. “The businessmen slowly get stoned — they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.” A withering portrait of Wall Street 2020?

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion

What the Trump campaign hears:
“I’m the king of the world!”

What the attentive listener hears:
The other party in this song’s scenario is plainly dead. Passed on. No more. Gone to meet his maker. A stiff. Bereft of life. Pushing up daisies. Kicked the bucket. Shuffled off his mortal coil. Run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. An ex-person. (See also: “My Way.”)

“Nessun Dorma” by Pavarotti or Andrea Bocelli

What the Trump campaign hears:
“Vincerò, vincerò!” (“I will win!”)

What the attentive listener hears:
“E noi dovrem, ahime, morir.” (“And we will have to die.”)