Politics & Policy

Music Modernization Is a Political Act

President Donald Trump with Kid Rock prior to signing the Music Modernization Act in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, October 11, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Grooving to the politics of pop music

Passage of the Music Modernization Act earlier this week spotlights a curious cultural practice that has gone ignored: the surprising, elating use of a Rolling Stones song at President Donald Trump’s political rallies ever since the 2016 campaign season. We’re reminded that pop music is, supposedly, made for us all — to enjoy, embrace, remember, dance to, and, equally important, to purchase.

To affirm that the purchase of pop art is partly spiritual, affecting one’s emotions and indefinable beliefs, is not the purpose of HR 1551, but the reality of that affectionate exchange has always caused me a pang of regret every time pop musicians object to a politician’s using their music to entertain voters. Those complaints usually come from supposedly liberal-minded artists, whether Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young or mere opportunists like Steven Tyler, and they’re never above political favoritism. Perhaps Fleetwood Mac should have complained that Bill Clinton forever tainted “Don’t Stop,” the hit song that was conceived not as simple-minded Boomer optimism but as a desperate grasp for self-sufficiency following a heartbreak.

Every time a politician tries updating a pop song into a new “Happy Days Are Here Again” and then gets pushback from a musician, it causes a particular disappointment; the likes of Springsteen and Young momentarily forget that their music was originally offered to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of the listening context — strip bar, block party, concert hall, bedroom, headphones, or political arena.

The Music Modernization Act, which President Trump signed in the presence of music legends Mike Love, Sam Moore, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Kid Rock, John Rich, and others, ought to update our appreciation that pop music can be put to various uses by various listeners. (At Thursday’s announcement, the reminiscence of the Beach Boys’ Mike Love about Trump’s efforts to save the life of Whitney Houston was an astonishing revelation; it connected personal respect to personal commitment.) Such an instance of humane, political truth-telling should inspire and extend appreciation of pop-music culture as a common civilizing balm. It becomes an especially significant practice when digital-era licensing royalties (which the MMA newly guarantees will wind up in the hands of previously bereft artists and producers) are legally upheld.

If this music “modernization” works, it will get past the fatuous, superficial resistance of pop artists, who tend, as a group, to commit themselves to Democratic-party politics, forgetting that the essence of creating music for “the people” transcends partisanship. In his now legendary resistance to Ronald Reagan’s mention of the song “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen denied egalitarian enjoyment to Springsteen fans who had voted Republican, just as he implied that to be a Springsteen fan was to commit oneself to a lifelong sentence in the left-liberal workhouse — a time-worn idea that Trump’s signing of the Music Modernization Act should remedy.

Fact is, pop artists want their royalties more than they want your votes. It was always dishonest — and offensive — to pretend that the enjoyment of their record-buying political opponents was unwanted.

Recently on Twitter, a Democrat stooge, still bothered about Trump’s use of Rolling Stones blues-derived, emblematic rock, disingenuously cited the Stones’ song “Brown Sugar” as proof of harboring racism. Silly. Everyone who has ever heard “Brown Sugar” loves it — and loves it, especially, because it confesses the complicated racial dynamics of human sexuality that transcend race and class. It is far superior to the pandering, sentimental “Born in the U.S.A.” So is the Trump campaign rallying cry “You Can’t Always Get Want You Want.” Its refrain (“but you get what you need”) was stolen from black Southern American blues but expresses a political reality that no one can honestly refute. Think-for-Yourself hip-hop artist Kanye West already knows this. Springsteen, Neil Young, Taylor Swift, and Chuck D should also know that bringing old-time blues realism to politics is, truly, a music modernization act.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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