Although the official soundtrack to the Republican National Convention was a hornet’s nest of sustained, paranoid screaming, there was also music. Loud, incessant music, as it’s been since the days of brass bands blaring John Philip Sousa marches and—somehow—Booker T. And The MG’s “Hip Hug-Her” to the awkwardly dancing crowds of the late 1800s. Political parties have long understood music’s power to create a feeling of unity in large, fractious crowds and fill the gaps between speeches, so that no one can actually talk or think about what they just heard. And this year’s RNC band, led by Saturday Night Live’s Man Of A Thousand Guitar Faces G.E. Smith, certainly had its hands full there. With a parade of speakers who varied between empty retirement party toasts, “burn the witch” invective, and Ted Cruz oozing his conscience, there was plenty of uncomfortable dead air to plug.
For the most part, Smith’s garage-dad band filled it with the kind of innocuous classic rock and soul songs you’d expect to hear at the wedding of your dental hygienist cousin. The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.” Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love.” Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You.” The Knack’s “My Sharona.” Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “The House Is Rockin’.” The legally required Van Morrison in “Domino”—and of course, “Brown-Eyed Girl,” that irresistible dance-floor siren song of middle-aged white people. All that was missing was “The Funky Chicken” or a more contemporary equivalent, like Pharrell’s “Happy.”
— Sam’s Army (@BarstoolSam) July 20, 2016
There were also some expected regional nods in Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks,” stirring local pride in the city all these itinerant people weren’t really seeing much of from inside the Angerdome. And each day of the convention featured a cover of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” famed as the theme of the Boston Red Sox, yet beloved by atonal louts screaming “Ba-Ba-BAAAA” from sea to shining sea. For the roaring denizens of the Deep South, both real and philosophical, bro-country scourge Chris Janson was personally on hand to sing several of the songs he wrote as part of the genre’s swift decline into readymade beer commercials, including “I Love This Life,” “Back In My Drinkin’ Days,” and the shit-kickin’/shit-buyin’ anthem “Buy Me A Boat” (sample lyric: “I know everybody says / Money can’t buy happiness / But it could buy me a boat, it could buy me a truck to pull it / It could buy me a Yeti 110 iced down with some Silver Bullets”).
He even pulled out his collaboration with Tim McGraw, “Truck Yeah,” rebuking critics who said a song couldn’t possibly get more embarrassing or pandering by changing the lyrics to “Trump Yeah.”
“Trump Yeah”—and the band outside the convention hall that reportedly dumped a version of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Trump” onto the burning embers of 2016—wasn’t the only instance of Trump putting his stamp on the house music like so much mediocre steak. The breakout hit of the convention, soon to be blaring 24/7 from loudspeakers atop the Trump Wall, was “Make America Great Again.” It was the week’s sole original composition—insofar as giving Trump’s vague, repetitive sloganeering a saxophone solo can be considered original.
“Once we get started we’re gonna win / Gonna make America great / We’re gonna make America great again, yes we are / We’re gonna make America great, make America great again / Come on, let’s ride / Yeah let’s make America great, make America great again, let’s make America great again,” go the chorus, verse, and lingering echo in your dreams. Even Fox News’ Shepard Smith and former MTV VJ Kennedy couldn’t work up much genuine enthusiasm for it (though we’ll see how those negative nellies feel after listening to it day and night in re-education camp).
But beyond these compulsory hosannas, there were several questionable inclusions that seemed so incredibly tone-deaf, they had to be chosen purely at random, in the blithe, proudly ignorant manner of their candidate. Then again… what if they weren’t? The Rage Against The Machine/Public Enemy supergroup Prophets Of Rage and the locals playing an “anti-RNC” punk showcase may have staged the most openly hostile musical “takeovers” this week, and Third Eye Blind may have joined Ted Cruz in becoming the most unlikely recipients of your grudging respect. But looking at some of the tunes that snuck their way onto the official playlist these past four days, one begins to suspect that G.E. Smith And The Just-A-Gig Band were staging their own slyly subversive protest, right there in the Quicken Loans Arena.
Granted, it’s always tricky trying to ascribe a deeper meaning to songs written decades ago, under wildly varied circumstances, by artists whose inspirations were wholly personal and probably drug-induced. It’s entirely possible that there was no deeper meaning to anything Smith’s hired guns played —any more than there was when they pulled out The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” to introduce Ivanka Trump, likely because she’s blond and yellow and smiles a lot.
You can likely suggest some allusive intent to their playing REO Speedwagon’s “Roll With The Changes” and even Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back The Hands Of Time,” as both indelibly capture the GOP’s platform of blowing up “the system” and returning to some holodeck time warp where Ronald Reagan is the forever-president of the 1950s. And speaking of Reagan, their trotting out of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” to soothe a savage Chris Christie—the latest in a long line of politicians completely misinterpreting the lyrics—was obviously because it’s still a go-to jingoist jam. But it’s slightly more difficult to say there was any similar forethought to playing AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” other than making Brian Johnson feel better about going deaf.
And yet, “You Shook Me” was one of three rock anthems heard this week about the down-and-dirty joys of the one-night stand. Their love ’em and leave ’em attitudes, pick-up artist negging, and reduction of women to “fast machines” built for sex—all of these faithfully, if unconsciously, reflected a candidate who’s boasted about his many conquests and is known for grading the ladies according to their breasts. There was also the Faces’ “Stay With Me,” one of the cruelest come-ons ever written—and behind the song’s undeniable catchiness, it’s easy to interpret the line, “Please don’t say you love me / ’Cause you know I’ll only kick you out the door” as a subtle warning to Trump voters about his policies for immigrants, or anyone else whose love of the U.S.A. he might find wanting.
The most prominently placed of those was Free’s 1970 hit “All Right Now,” which played after Trump finished yelling and the balloons fell, to be torn apart by the gnashing teeth of the crowd. Written by Free’s bassist Andy Fraser, “All Right Now” is a fairly simple story of boy meets girl, boy coaxes girl into letting him fuck her through repeated vague assurances that everything’s gonna be fine. And unfortunately, Fraser—who wrote and performed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign song “Obama (Yes We Can)” —died last year, so it was left to others to object to Trump’s using it as a similar overture to America.
Those others included Trump’s fellow gleeful trolls in the Stanford University marching band, who adopted “All Right Now” as an “alternative fight song” back in 1972, and who thus felt compelled to send Trump a “cease and desist” on Fraser’s behalf, saying, “For the record—the lyrics to ARN are about a dude trying to hook up with a meter maid. Regardless of the upbeat and encouraging nature of the chorus, we don’t think that’s a message that the 2016 Republican Party really wants to stand behind.”
Stanford’s questionable lyrical interpretation besides, their general sentiment was echoed by Fraser’s former bandmate (and Bad Company frontman) Paul Rodgers, who also threatened legal action on Twitter:
As we noted earlier this week, Rodgers definitely isn’t alone there. The RNC has been pissing off musicians on a daily basis with its unauthorized usage of songs like Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” The Turtles’ “Happy Together,” The Ojays’ “Love Train,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” the aforementioned “Here Comes The Sun,” The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (more on that later), and even Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma”—the writers and estates behind which have all voiced their loud objection at being associated with Trump, some of them even saying he’ll be hearing from their lawyers.
Unfortunately for them, the blanket ASCAP and BMI licenses obtained by large venues will likely protect him. And The Los Angeles Times points out that there’s “no clear-cut legal precedent” for suing over this kind of unsanctioned usage by politicians, with most cases—like Jackson Browne suing John McCain over using “Running On Empty” or David Byrne going after Charlie Crist for using “Road To Nowhere”—being settled out of court with money and an apology. Trump, of course, has plenty of the former, and zero aptitude for the latter. That much defiance of the artists’ wishes for their intellectual property (an ironic choice for the self-proclaimed “law and order” candidate) thus begins to feel to like an open taunt by the house band and the convention’s music supervisors—or maybe even a conscious move to see just how many beloved musicians it can get to condemn Trump publicly.
The Rolling Stones do not endorse Donald Trump. You Can’t Always Get What You Want was used without the band’s permission.
— The Rolling Stones (@RollingStones) July 22, 2016
But admittedly, that edges toward conspiracy theory. If you want a less shadowy, less elaborate picture of the band openly trolling the RNC through rock ’n’ roll, it’s buried in its off-kilter choices like Rush’s “Limelight.” Maybe it’s just that Rush’s hits are comparatively difficult to nail—the guitar lick in “Spirit Of Radio” has felled many an amateur—but why else choose to serenade Donald “Build A Wall” Trump with the lyrics, “Cast in this unlikely role / Ill-equipped to act / With insufficient tact / One must put up barriers / To keep oneself intact” unless you’re making some kind of mocking statement? (On the other hand, why pick a Rush song to cover at all? No one ever nails Geddy Lee’s voice, and they always sound shitty. But I digress.)
Similarly, of all The Who songs you could possibly play, 1982’s “Eminence Front” is such an odd selection that it seems suspiciously pointed. Described by Pete Townshend as a “song about what happens when you take too much white powder,” its lyrics are all about coked-up, wealthy hedonists hiding from all of their real problems behind a façade of self-delusion. And deployed as it was amid Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich’s speeches on Wednesday, the constant refrain of “It’s a put-on!” took on an added resonance—a not-so-subtle commentary on the artificiality of this entire shit-show. “Come and join the party,” indeed.
In fact, hollowness and cocaine became a strangely running theme of the RNC band’s musical selections, kicked off by its widely noted, near-universally derided cover of David Bowie’s “Station To Station.” Again, it’s a notably odd choice. “Station To Station” is hardly a crowd-pleaser; if you want something to get the audience dancing from Bowie’s Thin White Duke album, you’d go with “Stay” or “Golden Years.” Not the 10-minute mini-suite with all the weird time signature changes—not unless you specifically want to get the line about “ the side-effects of the cocaine” in front of the RNC’s paranoid, teeth-grinding audience as an in-joke.
Could that have been intentional also? What about when they played The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah,” another moment that inspired a lot of “rolling over in his grave” comments on behalf of averred socialist Joe Strummer? The RNC crowd certainly seemed excited about hearing funked-up Trump foreign policy lines like, “Drop your bombs between the minarets,” but those who know the song joyously imagines an aspiring free Iranian people defying their Arab king to embrace Western music probably found its placement jarring amid so many rhetorical missiles aimed squarely at Islamic nations.
True, if Smith and his cohorts had really wanted to be sneaky, they could have whipped up “Know Your Rights.” But playing “Rock The Casbah” is still crafty enough, it just might count as them pulling one over on their audience. Ditto kicking off Wednesday night with Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire,” whose inferno imagery felt even more apocalyptically, appropriately hellish in this context.
Obviously, if you were to ask the band whether all these songs were meant to be a sneaky form of musical commentary, the answer would surely be no, of course not. G.E. Smith has said that he’s not a Republican, and hinted as much about his backing band. But as he told Guitar World in 2013 about playing the GOP convention in 2012, “I’ve been a professional musician since I was 11 years old. It’s what I do: work.” So he’s enough of a mercenary that he’s not going to squander the chance at future gigs by admitting to subterfuge, even one as subtle as this. But whether intentional or not, these scattered moments of what-the-fuckery provided such a perfectly ironic counterpoint, they could be read as knowing winks to the audience. And in that sense, Smith’s cover band of the damned came off as the RNC’s secret heroes.
Or maybe it was all coincidence, and no one at this batshit convention knew what the hell they were doing or why. Could there be any such deeper purpose, after all, behind Trump wiping away the spittle from his 76-minute strongman rant to the tune of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—a song (by yet another British band!) about the disillusionment felt amid the dying ’60s dream of peace and love? A song by a group that has also issued a cease and desist on Trump using its music, and who so despised the man, Keith Richards once threatened to pull a knife on him? And a song whose chorus felt like an open jeer to those within the divided convention itself, mockingly acknowledging that a lot of people never wanted this?
Officially, no. A “high-level campaign source” tells TMZ that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was “just a song on the playlist.” But still… If choosing it as his exit theme wasn’t just another case of his campaign making a decision without thinking too deeply about it, then the song was just further confirmation that, when it comes to trolling, no one does it bigger or better than Donald Trump.