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  • Writer's pictureMadeline Kim

Trump and Pharrell

Artwork by Anna Boyle

Despite the message of his smash 2013 hit, singer and rapper Pharrell Williams was not too happy to hear that his song, "Happy," was played at a Trump rally for Future Farmers of America (FFA) merely hours after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. The following Monday, Pharrell's attorney, Howard E. King, wrote a cease and desist letter to President Trump, stating "On the day of the mass murder of eleven human beings at the hands of a deranged ‘nationalist,’ you played his song ‘Happy’ to a crowd at a political event in Indiana. 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.”

Disappointing musicians by playing their music at his events is nothing new in Trump's political career. Even just by looking at Trump's political career alone, several musicians were not happy to find that their music was played at events like rallies and announcements. Williams, unfortunately, is the latest addition to the list.

Trump is far from the first politician upset artists by playing their music in an unwanted political context. Perhaps one of the most historically notable examples is Ronald Reagan's use of Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the U.S.A." Just going by the name of the song and the lively '80s beat, it's easy to understand why Reagan would think this song was a good anthem to base his presidential campaign. However, scratch below the surface and Springsteen's message shines through. The lyrics paint portraits of different Americans "born in the U.S.A." who were thrown into facing the effects of the Vietnam War regardless of their thoughts on the war; all that mattered was the fact they were born in the U.S.A. and thus subordinate to the government and the nation as a whole.

Not quite a patriotic bop as Reagan might've thought it to be.

In 2016, comedian John Oliver aired an episode of his show Last Week Tonight titled "Campaign Songs". There, he raised the issue of unauthorized use of music in political campaigns. The episode closed with a music video featuring various musicians including top artists such as Usher, Cyndi Lauper, and Carnegie Mellon alumnus Josh Groban. Through the playful tune and comedic lyrics, the artists all effectively convey the message of asking politicians to stop using their songs to "make your campaign stop seem cool."

This contemporary instance would have been considered as any other case where a musician did not want to be attached to a politician he or she did not agree with. However, the fact that Williams' hit "Happy" was played after mere hours of what was described as the "deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States" by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) screams tone-deafness. Trump actually had no say in choosing the music; the organizers of the convention did. A spokesperson for FFA claimed that "our organist performed it earlier in the session as part of the music line up that we played during all of our general sessions. Please know, it was not a request by the White House; it was part of a line-up of music that we played throughout the event." Although Trump's response to the shooting has been insensitive, especially in light of his claims on Twitter that the Pittsburgh protests were "staged" and "fake news," the usage of Williams' song was nothing more than another usual horrible coincidence and copyright infringement.

Trump is far from being the last politician to be under fire for the unauthorized usage of music. With the preparation for the 2020 presidential election that will follow right after the 2018 midterm election, we are bound to see more artists dismayed that their music was affiliated with a campaign that contradicts their personal morals. Hopefully, despite the inevitable infringements, we will find more candidates who are more courteous of intellectual property this time around.


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