Rockin’ in the free world? Inside the rightwing takeover of protest music

“Did you know that Born in the USA is actually an anti-Vietnam war anthem?” Since Donald Trump embraced the 1984 Bruce Springsteen tune throughout rallies, the lyrics have prompted a lot rationalization it now borders on cliche. Yet it’s no much less unsettling for it, turning into a first-rate instance of a startlingly widespread development for the proper wing to co-opt music about battle and progress.

President Ronald Reagan made the first try to gloss over the context of the tune’s paradoxically upbeat refrain after the launch of the Born in the USA album. Reagan name-checked Springsteen throughout a New Jersey rally in an try to attach the musician to a “message of hope” for America. Springsteen’s opposition to its use didn’t have an effect on the fervour for the song from Trump and his supporters. As Barack Obama famous in an episode of his podcast collection with Springsteen this month: “It ended up being appropriated as this iconic, patriotic song. Even though that was not necessarily your intention.”

Neither has the Clash’s standing as leftist punk icons been a sticking point for Boris Johnson, who named the band one of his favourites in 2019; nor has Rage Against the Machine’s socialism and anti-police stance been an issue for anti-mask truthers and Trump diehards, who final yr blasted the band’s Killing in the Name at a Trump rally.

Neil Young needed to weigh in after Trump repeatedly used his anti-America tune Rockin’ in the Free World at marketing campaign occasions. In a since retracted lawsuit, Young mentioned that he couldn’t “in good conscience” permit his music “to be used as a ‘theme song’ for a divisive, un-American campaign of ignorance and hate”.

‘Speaking to the disenfranchised’ … Jay Jay French of Twisted Sister performing in 2014. Photograph: Mark Horton/Getty Images

The newest instance comes from anti-lockdown protesters who, positioning themselves as oppressed, have contorted Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It into an anti-mask anthem. While the band’s guitarist Jay Jay French describes what has been referred to as a quintessential American protest song as talking “to the disenfranchised everywhere”, the band help social distancing, mask-wearing, and vaccination. “The fact that a health crisis solution has been politicised and characterised as a threat to someone’s personal civil rights is just impossible to comprehend,” he says. On their anti-lockdown observe, Stand and Deliver, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison went additional by utilizing the language of liberation to ship their message.

Kevin Fellezs, affiliate professor at Columbia University, is researching “freedom musics”, a convention by means of which artists and their communities “articulate their aspirations for individual or collective liberation”. Stand and Deliver twists the custom, he says, blurring ideas of freedom and slavery with lyrics akin to, “Do you wanna wear these chains / Until you’re lying in the grave?” He accuses Morrison and Clapton of “pursuing self-interest at the expense of a larger social good or need”.

Elliott H Powell, affiliate professor at the University of Minnesota, says that that is particularly troubling given pop music’s use by marginalised artists “to critique systems of domination and subordination … and to imagine life outside of these systems”, citing Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. By hijacking these varieties and their languages, says Powell, the proper wing dismisses and diminishes the social actions that use them. “It attempts to say that the anti-mask and anti-lockdown movement is no different from other freedom struggles,” he says. “It’s obviously a false equivalence when we follow the flows of power.”

Linguistic and thematic appropriation is an element of common music historical past. “Long ago, Americans figured out ways to enjoy Black music while also being racist, while also being white supremacist,” says Jack Hamilton, a professor at University of Virginia. “Being able to separate out these things is an unfortunate feature of American popular music audiences – probably popular music audiences everywhere.”

Van Morrison and Eric Clapton performing in March 2020.
‘Twisting tradition’ … Van Morrison and Eric Clapton performing in March 2020. Photograph: Neil Lupin/Redferns

It’s been that manner for hundreds of years, in accordance with Noriko Manabe of Boyer College of Music and Dance, who says that, in Seventeenth-century England, people songs had been reinterpreted and rewritten by opposing social and political teams. Similarly, in 18th-century America, songs that had been as soon as utilized by loyalist or anti-loyalist teams in England had been tailored by warring federalist and republican factions. Manabe says that common music has all the time been an efficient organising and emotion-rousing instrument.

She just lately studied the sounds made throughout the storming of the US Capitol, the place attackers chanted, “No Trump, no peace”, an inversion of Black Lives Matter’s “No justice, no peace”. “That is such an abomination of my own ideological framework that it makes me extremely mad,” says Manabe.

Beyond the emotional triggers, Hamilton says the co-opting is an element of an effort to hyperlink conservatism to revolt and the concept that to be conservative is to be rebellious. This crops up in youthful conservatives and Trump supporters, and much more visibly in anti-mask and anti-lockdown actions. “The anti-mask movement, at least on its face, is about, ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’” says Hamilton. “You can find that all over popular music. There’s so much pop music about freedom and being able to do what you want.”

The journalist Charles Bramesco, who has analysed hate groups’ attempts to make use of work by the likes of Depeche Mode and Johnny Cash, echoes Hamilton’s evaluation. “The persecution complexes of far-right groups compel them to gravitate toward language about oppression and rising up,” he says. “A lot of the music that touches on those themes happens to be made from a perspective completely alien to their own.”

Benjamin Teitelbaum, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Colorado who research music in far-right nationalist and white supremacist actions, says the far proper’s use of music has deep roots. “The biggest stars in the [far-right] scene, the biggest financial initiatives, the largest gatherings, the ways that people identified themselves, all of those things had to do with music throughout the 1980s and 90s in particular,” he says. “Music often plays an outsize role for political causes that don’t have a lot of parliamentary, democratic or revolutionary options for themselves.” Teitelbaum cites the British National Party’s file label, Great White Records, as a automobile for constructing energy in lieu of institutional acceptance: “If you’re not going to win at the ballot box, you can still gain victory through symbolic expression like music.”

In the 80s and 90s, these expressions had been explicitly nationalist and fascist, with acts akin to punk band Skrewdriver, Norway’s Black Circle bands, and the worldwide music competition Rock Against Communism offering a musical staging floor for skinhead white nationalism and neo-Nazism. But in the 2000s, these actions started a major rebrand, branching into rap (Germany’s Dissziplin), reggae (Nordic Youth in Sweden), singer-songwriter and pop varieties (akin to Swedish singer Saga). Teitelbaum says their songwriting message was: “We just love ourselves, we just want to be ourselves, I love our people so much and we’re dying, someone help us.”

This shift, he says, dilutes the energy and readability of music that legitimately makes use of themes of battle. “We know the chorus of Born in the USA, but we kind of hum through the rest of it.” Even Killing in the Name, written by strident leftwingers, isn’t immune: “If it keeps occurring in these [rightwing] settings and for these purposes, it will acquire those meanings.”

Appropriated by Trump … Rage Against the Machine in 1996.
Appropriated by Trump … Rage Against the Machine in 1996. Photograph: Niels Van Iperen/Getty Images

Teitelbaum, who just lately researched the rising far-right youth motion in the US, says that this dynamic calls for greater than ridicule. “We can be struck by the idiocy of it, but we should also be struck by the traces of intelligibility that are floating around there,” he says. “Calling them stupid isn’t gonna do anything. This act of appropriation is not taking place in a vacuum.”

As Twisted Sister’s French says, “all any artist can really do is to publicly shame the user into stopping the use”. But artist rebukes and social media parody can solely accomplish that a lot to staunch the appropriation – the far proper’s acceleration of this tactic may demand a extra complete, proactive method. Fellezs says higher music schooling may very well be needed. “I don’t mean to teach children ‘good music’ so they won’t want to listen to ‘bad music,’” he says. “What we can do is educate, empower and encourage people to listen with a critical ear.”

Powell agrees. “If we remain committed to following and critiquing the flows of power in how they manifest and operate in these songs, then the power of such music will not be lost.” So let’s bear in mind Born in the USA for what it’s: a portrait of a racist America centered on international wars whereas its financial system flounders. Sound acquainted?

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