by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Donald Trump has been blowing up the old traditional GOP certainties left and right, and this week he overturned another one. In what seemed like an embarrassing rebuke, on February 1, Adele told the Republican front-runner that he didn’t have her permission to use her songs at his massive campaign events. Adele might just be the world’s most popular singer at the moment, and any normal candidate would have folded his tent, chastened. Not Trump. At his rally in Little Rock, Arkansas two days later the crowd of thousands listened to Adele’s “Skyfall” before Trump’s helicopter landed. A day after that, in Exeter, New Hampshire, Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” could be heard blaring behind the candidate when he made his entrance.
The move was classic Donald Trump, shameless and defiant. And this bold handling of a music controversy, and Trump’s creative use of music on the trail in general, marks a complete departure from typical Republican Party practice. Trump is a novel GOP candidate in many ways, but in finally making music work for him, he’s managed to master a problem that has bedeviled the party’s campaigns—from Ronald Reagan 1984 to Michele Bachmann 2012—for decades.
If you’ve been watching Trump rallies, you know The Donald grooms his soundtrack as carefully as he styles his hair. He makes lavish use of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical numbers; he’ll often open and close his events to the strains of Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” He uses pop music in subtler ways as well. When Trump was pushing the issue of Ted Cruz’s Canadian birthplace, he tauntingly played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” When warning of the dangers of Syrian refugees, he read aloud the lyrics of Al Wilson’s 1968 song “The Snake,” about a woman who nurses an injured snake, only to be bitten as a reward.
Some of this is wit; some is pure theater. And some is evidence of plain old dealmaking. The Twisted Sister, for instance: It might seem strange for a real-estate mogul in beautiful suits to rally the crowd with a party anthem sung by a campy hair-metal band from the 80s. But the real surprise is that he actually got permission: Dee Snider, the frontman of Twisted Sister, liked Trump’s confrontational spirit and gave him the OK.
And, perhaps more importantly, as the Adele incident this week shows, when he doesn’t get the OK, he doesn’t seem to care.This is all radical departure from the traditional GOP playbook. Typically—and this problem has plagued the party for more than a generation—a GOP candidate attempting to use a popular song risks receiving a snub from the artist, who not only rejects the candidate but then takes shot at his political stands. Republicans in the past have nearly always kowtowed to the artist’s demands. It’s awkward all around, and it has made GOP candidates gun-shy about trying to use pop music at all, let alone inventively—until Trump.