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Trumping musical misappropriation

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Reuters

Trumping musical misappropriation

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Reuters

American presidential candidate, billionaire and television personality Donald Trump made headlines (yet again) yesterday, this time for playing the 1987 REM hit It’s the End of The World as We Know It at a political rally in Washington DC.

REM lead singer Michael Stipe’s response, delivered via bassist Mike Mills’ Twitter account, was scathing:

Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you - you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.

This was not a campaign rally in the strictest sense, but rather a Tea Party event organised by Senator Ted Cruz called Stop the Iran Deal.

Trump made his entrance to a 10 second extract from the song’s chorus, a three-fold repetition of the words “it’s the end of the world as we know it”.

The painfully obvious ploy was to imply that the Iran deal is not just bad, but apocalypse-inducing.

The song has a history with predictions of calamity. People turned to in droves - presumably to enable a party-mode transition to oblivion - before the 2012 Mayan calendar reboot, reflected in a massive 612% sales boost in the last week of December that year.

In June, the Trump campaign’s skirmish with Neil Young brought the complex issues of first amendment free speech versus copyright and intellectual property laws into focus, with payment of licensing fees in relation to political events a central aspect of that debate.

The current altercation isn’t even September’s first instance of an antagonistic politics vs. musician exchange – Jim Peterik, the co-writer of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger (1982) issued a condemnation of that song’s use at the Kentucky clerk gay-marriage-licence-refuser Kim Davis’s release-from-jail party earlier this week.

But of more general interest is the charged tug of war between politicians and musicians over the use of music in the political sphere.

“And I (don’t) feel fine…”

Stipe’s reaction has been blistering, no-holds barred and angry – a good approach if you want to be clear about your point of view, and probably quite therapeutic.

Most artists understand that once their work is out there, they lose ownership of that work’s cultural journey. Like a grown up child who leaves the nest, the artistic work goes on to have a life of its own.

But Stipe’s fiercely protective reaction reflects the sense that one of REM’s children, fully adult and moved out as it is, has been subjected to a form of abuse.

REM frontman Michael Stipe. Reuters

Given REM’s history and reputation for political liberalism, it’s easy to see why he’s so upset.

The clearest evidence that the rally producer who chose the song knew exactly what they were doing is the cynical edit that cut the song during Trump’s entrance right before the all-important words that complete the chorus - “and I feel fine”. To Stipe, mutilation would probably be a better word than edit.

After three iterations of “it’s the end of the world as we know it”, each one ending on a brooding A minor chord, the last phrase “and I feel fine” flips the whole feel into a more positive space.

That phrase, about feeling fine, is sung over a sustained C major harmony, turning the chorus into a bona fide “four chord song” progression, the last chord providing a poignant, but comfortingly bland “it’ll be alright” sensation.

Obviously, the “feeling fine” line was cut so that the rally’s baldly literal “end of the world” theme wasn’t undermined.

Of course the song is so famous that most of the crowd at the rally would have known that final line of the chorus, so the question becomes, exactly how well is this choice of music working for the political message?

I would say, not so well. In using such a famous song, clearly trying to exploit one phrase taken out of context, you still simultaneously remind people of the whole song, or at least its overall image and feel (which is actually fairly upbeat in this case, despite the chaotic and doom-laden lyrics).

It’s possible the organisers were using a carefully conceived two-prong strategy – “create a bit of nervousness about the end of the world with the words, but also make ‘em feel good by playing an REM song – put them in a good mood so The Donald can work his magic”.

From a few steps back, however, there’s an opportunity here for disgruntled musicians to strike back. And while it’s easy for me to say, that opportunity involves making an argument with considered responses that reclaim the music for its original purpose.

Lol, angry, or clever?

It’s very tempting, naturally, to mock the campaign for continuing to plunder the back catalogues of left-leaning rockers. And to be sure, founding REM member Mike Mills has already referred to Trump as “the Orange Clown”.

Yet mocking Trump apparently doesn’t always have the intended deleterious effect, given his inexplicable poll growth.

Perhaps, instead, it’s time to remind people what this song is all about.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It is packed with imagery – a stream-of-consciousness that includes a negative take on base and aggressively expressed nationalism, and a critical stance on politics, (particularly in terms of its relationship to commerce with the line “government for hire”). It’s probably safe to assume that REM band members feel Trump’s political brand is ripe for critique on both counts.

In fact the lines about government and nationalism even receive special emphasis in the first two verses of the song.

REM frontman Michael Stipe. Reuters

Structurally, most of the verse features a relatively low-key accompaniment, allowing the staccato, declamatory, half-spoken text to be foregrounded, and alternates predictably between two unremarkable chords. But REM sharply underlines the last line of text in each verse through an abrupt shift to more strongly-flavored harmonies, as well as a layer of rockin’ electric guitar line.

This has the effect of underscoring the bitterness of the lines about government and nationalism, not necessarily the vibe the rally organisers would want associated with Trump.

But highlighting the profoundly galling incongruity between certain political forces and the spirit of the music those forces are exploiting could be an effective way to combat musical misappropriation. Especially if the fracas over licensing issues isn’t resolved in the way musicians such as REM, Peterik and Young would prefer.

Attempting to ban the use of one’s music through angry public statements may get attention but not necessarily much traction in the moral and political battle.

Insisting on an honest and thorough account of the music’s true character in the public sphere would give its message a chance to be heard again - and draw attention to the motivating emotional impulses behind the song’s creation, reinvigorating its potential to act as a positive transformational force.

Otherwise, to borrow from the song’s second verse, instead of reporters, it could be “Team by team, (musicians) baffled, trumped, tethered and cropped”.