Musicians who slammed Trump for using their songs without permission

Since the fateful day in 2015 that he descended the golden escalator at Manhattan’s glitzy Trump Tower to declare his candidacy for president of the United States, Donald Trump has demonstrated his skills as a showman, honed by years on reality television. Nowhere has this been more evident than during his bombastic campaign rallies, and music has played big role.

When it comes to that music, Trump rallies have leaned heavily into classic rock — no doubt reflecting the musical tastes of the septuagenarian president. Give his polarizing presidency, it shouldn’t be surprising that not all the artists whose music is played during these rallies are thrilled about it; however, as Forbes pointed out, so long as the campaign pays to license those songs, there’s not a whole lot they can to do stop it. 

Yet that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of these musicians have become so irked to learn their music is being played at Trump’s rallies that they’ve have issued indignant statements, written angry letters, and even threatened lawsuits over the Trump campaign’s unauthorized use of their music. Read on to find out about the many musicians who slammed Trump for using their songs without permission. 

Neil Young has battled Donald Trump over music for years

Neil Young first complained when his 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World” was used at the Trump Tower event where Trump announced his presidential bid. As Rolling Stone reported, Young issued a statement declaring Trump “was not authorized” to use the song; the following day, Trump’s campaign manager backed down, telling Rolling Stone they “won’t be using it again.” 

However, the campaign later reneged, with the song remaining a staple of MAGA rallies. In a 2018 post on his website, Young continued to gripe that Trump “chose not to listen to my request” after he issued a cease-and-desist letter. Young followed up in the summer of 2020, Rolling Stone reported, by suing the Trump campaign for “willful copyright infringement” after two of his songs were played at rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Mount Rushmore. 

The Canadian-born rock icon, who became a U.S. citizen in 2020, didn’t hold back when he wrote Trump a scathing open letter. “You are a disgrace to my country,” Young wrote, sharing his hope that whenever Trump hears one of his songs he’ll recognize the voice of “a citizen who does not support you.”

R.E.M. had a four-letter response for Donald Trump

A 2015 campaign rally featured R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” blaring from speakers as Donald Trump walked to his onstage podium. R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe voiced his displeasure on social media. “Go f**k yourselves, the lot of you — you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men,” Stipe declared in a two-part tweet via the account of bass player Mike Mills, warning Trump not to use his music “for your moronic charade of a campaign.”

That request was ignored, as was a statement the band issued via Facebook. In the post, R.E.M. made it clear they “do not authorize or condone the use of our music at this political event” and implored readers to “not allow grandstanding politicians to distract us from the pressing issues of the day and of the current Presidential campaign.” In January 2020, Mills followed up with another tweet claiming they’re “exploring all legal avenues” and that they “do not condone the use of our music by this fraud and con man.”

Appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Stipe shared a run-in he’d had with Trump in the late 1990s, in the VIP section of a small venue where Patti Smith was performing. Trump, Stipe explained, was “very disruptive and rude” as he loudly blabbed to his date throughout the performance. Trump finally beat it after Stipe told him to “shut up.”

Twisted Sister decided they were 'Not Gonna Take It'

Twisted Sister will always be best known for the band’s 1984 celebration of rebellion “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which was often played at Donald Trump’s rallies in 2015. That same year, frontman Dee Snider — who appeared on a season of The Celebrity Apprentice — told Canadian Business that Trump called him up and asked permission to use the song, which he “appreciated.”

While Snider referred to the future president as “a friend” in that interview, a few months later he told CBC Radio that Trump’s “extremist positions” had him “questioning” whether he should continue letting Trump use the song. “When you’ve got white supremacy groups aligning themselves with you and you don’t denounce them… that’s a problem for me, and I’m really sort of coming to the end of my road here with this,” said Snider.

In a 2017 opinion piece for Forward, Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French wrote that “with the band’s full support, Dee asked, in a private conversation, that the song be withdrawn from the Trump playlist,” to avoid having the song “become the anthem of the Trump campaign.”

Elton John suggested Donald Trump reach out to this artist

When Sir Elton John learned that Donald Trump was playing his iconic hit “Tiny Dancer” at his rallies (an odd choice to pump up a crowd, but whatever), the legendary rocker shut that down quickly. “Elton’s music has not been requested for use in any official capacity by Donald Trump,” his publicist said in a February 2017 statement, reported The Telegraph. “Any use of his music should not be seen as an endorsement of Donald Trump by Elton.” 

Awkwardly, just a month earlier he refuted claims he’d be performing at Trump’s inauguration. “Elton John is going to be doing our concert on the mall for inauguration,” Anthony Scaramucci, who was then a member of Trump’s presidential inaugural committee, told BBC HARDtalk. However, the rocker’s publicist set the record straight. “Incorrect. He will NOT be performing,” the publicist said in a definitive statement to The New York Times. The Trump administration continues to use John’s music: In August 2020, Ivanka Trump walked out to “I’m Still Standing” at the RNC.

“I don’t really want my music to be involved in anything to do with an American election campaign. I’m British,” Sir Elton explained in a 2016 interview with The Guardian. “I’m not a Republican in a million years,” he added. “Why not ask Ted f**king Nugent?”

The Rolling Stones and Donald Trump have a long history

When The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was played at the 2016 Republican National Convention, the band responded in a since-deleted tweet (via Spin) declaring they didn’t endorse Donald Trump and the song was “used without the band’s permission.” The Stones subsequently threatened legal action, with Variety reporting in June 2020 they were “taking further steps” that could lead to a lawsuit.

Regarding Trump’s decision to use that particular track, Mick Jagger told BBC it was a “kind of weird” choice. “It’s a funny song for a play-out song – a drowsy ballad about drugs in Chelsea!” Even so, Trump “couldn’t be persuaded to use something else.”

There’s no love lost between Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Trump. Back in 1989, the band staged a pay-per-view concert at Trump’s Atlantic City casino. As part of the deal, Trump was barred from promoting the show or even attending the show. As the band’s tour producer Michael Cohl later recalled to Pollstar, Trump ignored that and kept popping up backstage — and had even scheduled his own unsanctioned press conference. Richards was infuriated, slamming a large hunting knife on a table and telling Cohl, “Do I have to go over there and fire him myself? One of us is leaving the building — either him, or us.” Trump ultimately backed off when told the band refused to perform unless he pulled the plug on his press conference.

Queen is in an 'uphill battle' with Donald Trump

The Stones weren’t the only classic rockers to be ticked off about their music used at the 2016 Republican National Convention. One of the RNC’s most grandiose moments occurred when Donald Trump made his entrance amidst clouds of fake smoke while Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasted. 

Trump had been using the song at his rallies throughout that summer, which caused consternation for Queen guitarist Brian May. In a statement on his website, May confirmed “that permission to use the track was neither sought nor given,” and that he and the rest of the band were “taking advice on what steps we can take to ensure this use does not continue.” In addition, May also responded to a fan’s letter informing him that Trump was using the song during televised rallies, insisting he and the band were exploring what steps they can take “to dissociate ourselves from Donald Trump’s unsavory campaign.”

However, it seems that Queen has had little luck getting Trump to stop using the song. In a 2020 BBC News report, Queen’s management stated the band has “repeatedly taken issue with the Trump campaign,” but admitted it had been an “uphill battle.”

George Harrison's estate called RNC song choice 'offensive'

Among Donald Trump’s more dubious accomplishments has been angering a deceased Beatle. That’s what took place when the estate of the late George Harrison caught wind of Trump using the Harrison-written Beatles hit “Here Comes the Sun” to accompany the entrance of his daughter, Ivanka Trump, at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Harrison’s official Twitter account fired back, writing that the “unauthorized use” of the song “is offensive & against the wishes of the George Harrison estate.” In a second tweet, the estate offered a joking comeback. “If it had been ‘Beware of Darkness,’ then we MAY have approved it!” that tweet read, adding the hashtag #TrumpYourself.

Harrison’s fellow Beatle Paul McCartney is also no fan of Trump. In a 2018 interview with the Evening Standard, Sir Paul said that he normally avoided discussing politics, but made an exception “when Trump said climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.” That, he explained, made him think, “Woah, wait a minute. That’s a leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world… That just sounds like a mad man. Just like mad talk.”

Steven Tyler said 'Dream On' to Donald Trump's rallies

Aerosmith’s “Dream On” was a favorite song choice during Donald Trump’s 2015 campaign rallies. This irked frontman Steven Tyler — so much so that his lawyer issued not one but two cease-and-desist orders to Trump’s campaign. As CBS News reported, Tyler’s second letter stated that the campaign does “not have our client’s permission to use ‘Dream On'” and that playing it at rallies provides “the false impression that [Tyler] is connected with or endorses Mr. Trump’s presidential bid.” 

According to the Boston Globe, Tyler devised a clever way to bar Trump from using the song by having Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) — the organization that coordinates licensing of music — pull all public performance rights for “Dream On,” meaning that Trump nor anyone else could legally use it in a live setting.

Tyler entered into a similar battle with the Trump campaign in 2018 when another Aerosmith song, “Livin’ on the Edge,” was played at a rally. According to Variety, Tyler’s lawyer fired off another cease-and-desist, noting this “violation” was even “more egregious” given “that Mr. Trump’s use of our client’s music was previously shut down, not once, but two times” back in 2015. 

Donald Trump broke a promise to the Prince estate

Donald Trump’s campaign found itself in a peculiar situation when Prince’s 1984 hit “Purple Rain” blared to the audience during a 2019 campaign rally in the late, great music icon’s hometown of Minneapolis.

Following the rally, the Prince estate issued a tweet expressing dismay that the song had been played. Included in that tweet was a copy of a 2018 letter from the Trump campaign’s lawyer, insisting it would no longer be playing any Prince music whatsoever at Trump’s campaign rallies. In the letter, Trump’s attorney, Megan Newton, wrote that while the president was admitting no liability for playing the song, “to avoid any future dispute, we write to confirm that the Campaign will not use Prince’s music in connection with its activities going forward.” That promise, the tweet from the late rocker’s estate made crystal clear, was broken almost exactly a year later.

“The Prince Estate will never give permission to President Trump to use Prince’s songs,” the tweet defiantly declared.

Pharrell wasn't 'Happy' with Donald Trump's song choice

In October 2018, a Philadelphia synagogue was the site of a horrific shooting that left 11 people dead. Hours later, Trump staged a rally in Indiana. Among the songs played was Pharrell Williams’ infectious hit “Happy” — an arguably jarring song choice on the day of such a tragic incident. In reporting on the event, The Washington Post described the rally’s “incongruous feel of a somber tribute to yet another mass shooting in America and a campaign rally complete with cheers, put-downs and an upbeat soundtrack, including a version of the song ‘Happy’ by Pharrell.”

Williams instructed his lawyers to send Trump a cease-and-desist letter. “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,” wrote lawyer Howard King, reported The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”

Guns 'N Roses fired back at Donald Trump

Donald Trump is apparently a huge fan of Guns N’ Roses. In her memoir, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders revealed Trump once made her watch the band’s video for “November Rain,” claiming it was “the greatest music video of all time.” 

That fandom is not mutual. In 2018, GNR frontman Axl Rose took to Twitter to point out that the band was “opposed to the unauthorized use of their music at political events,” and “formally requested” their songs stop being “used at Trump rallies or Trump-associated events.” However, Rose pointed out Trump’s campaign was “using loopholes in the various venues’ blanket performance licenses which were not intended for such craven political purposes… Can u say ‘s**tbags?!'”

In 2020, Trump toured a mask factory in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — without wearing a mask — while Guns N’ Roses’ cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die” blared in the background. The band fired back with a cheeky response. In a tweet, GNR shared a link to a new item from its merch collection: a T-shirt reading, “Live N’ Let Die With COVID 45,” referencing Trump’s status as America’s 45th president.

Leonard Cohen's estate blasted the RNC

Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” is one of the world’s most-covered songs, with numerous singers having performed the track over the years. It was a performance of the song at the 2020 Republican National Convention, however, that angered the heirs of the Canadian singer-songwriter — particularly since Cohen’s estate had already denied a request to use the song during the convention. 

“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,'” said the Cohen estate’s attorney, Michelle L. Rice, in a statement to USA Today. Rice concluded her statement with a dig at Donald Trump. “Had the RNC requested another song, ‘You Want it Darker,’ for which Leonard won a posthumous Grammy in 2017, we might have considered approval of that song.” 

A few months after Cohen’s 2016 death, his son, Adam Cohen, told Canadian Press that his father had predicted Trump would be elected, “which of course made us all laugh hysterically.” At the time, he attributed the prediction to his terminally ill dad’s considerable intake of medical marijuana.

Tom Petty's family said they 'Won't Back Down'

When Donald Trump held his ill-fated rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the summer of 2020, one of the songs played was Tom Petty’s classic ode to defiance “I Won’t Back Down.” The family of the late singer, who died in 2017, issued a lengthy statement on Twitter decrying the song’s use at the rally.

“Trump was in no way authorized to use this song to further a campaign that leaves too many Americans and common sense behind,” the statement declared. “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. He liked to bring people together.”

Furthermore, the statement continued, “Tom wrote this song for the underdog, for the common man and for EVERYONE… We would hate for fans that are marginalized by this administration to think we were complicit in this usage.” The statement also noted that the family issued a cease-and-desist to the Trump campaign.

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