Why the rock star vs. candidate narrative is overblown

February 3, 2016
AP Photo / Flickr

In one corner, there’s the knock-’em-down and laugh-out-loud Republican presidential favorite Donald Trump. In the other, the new queen of soul, Adele. Got your popcorn? Good. Let the show begin.

That’s how some in the media have portrayed the relationship between Trump and Adele after news broke this week that Trump has played the British pop star’s music on the stump without her thumbs-up. “Adele assures fans she does not support Donald Trump,” reads a headline from Stuff, the online home of three major New Zealand newspapers. “Adele says GOP candidates don’t have permission to use her music,” writes MSNBC, noting that Mike Huckabee has also parodied an Adele song without her blessing. Digital pop-culture site Consequence of Sound goes so far to suggest that Adele is responsible for Trump’s second-place finish in Iowa.



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Those narratives are bunk. They hinge upon a single statement from a publicist, which reads: “Adele has not given permission for her music to be used for any political campaigning.” Nothing about her liberal activism, her disdain for Trump, or her plot to take him down. But something larger is at play here. It’s the media’s willingness to prop up, and assign value to, statements from the campaign trail’s snubbed rock stars, who ultimately aim to protect their images and their wallets. 

While Adele has pledged support for the UK’s left-of-center Labour Party, she has also groaned about climbing to a higher tax bracket. That’s hardly enough evidence to firmly place her on the left. Adele and her handlers more likely want to safeguard her reputation than play politics. Trump, after all, is the most polarizing and abrasive figure in the presidential field. Contrast that to Adele, whose album 25 was crowned 2015’s best-selling record in the US just three days after its debut. If she were to support or denounce Trump, the star with the manicured image would only stand to alienate fans. Indeed, some of Adele’s followers had quickly taken to Twitter to vent their anger over her apparent nod toward Trump.



So it appears her public-relations team set out to put some distance between the two. And much of the media authored stories that went no further than the details of the statement. Journalists who speculated otherwise are guilty of just that: unfounded speculation.

You can see why some news outlets made the logical leap. Musicians have a long history of demanding their songs be removed from the soundtracks of political candidates, especially those in the GOP. Some artists have come out swinging due to their political beliefs. Classic rocker Neil Young, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe all pointed to ideological differences when they asked Trump to stop using their music last year. “Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign,” tweeted Stipe, erasing any shred of ambiguity.

But earnest calls to cease and desist are also made to save face. Outside of Ted Nugent and a handful of others, rock ’n’ roll famously belongs to the left. Musicians don’t claim their music can propel a politician to the White House. They argue that when a political contender–specifically a Republican–hijacks a song, the band becomes linked to that candidate. It’s an image issue.



Of course, these messages have come across as murky since at least 1984. In a still-discussed move, Bruce Springsteen forbade Ronald Reagan from jamming to “Born in the U.S.A.” during the president’s reelection campaign. Mythology tells us that the New Jersey folk hero was a working man’s liberal who had a grudge against Reagan. That tale misses the mark. Springsteen had yet to become the outspoken political voice he is today, and he subsequently rejected the idea that he favored Reagan’s Democratic opponent. Springsteen, it turns out, didn’t want to be lumped in with any politician. 

Searching for cryptic political statements in the music industry seems liked a wasted effort. There’s enough activism in plain view. Take Beyoncé, whose support for President Obama is loud and unmistakable, and Katy Perry, who has pushed hard for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And the “Rock Against Bush” campaign–a series of punk-rock compilation albums and concerts aimed at stopping the reelection of President George W. Bush in 2004–is a perfect example of what it looks like when musicians pick a political enemy. “I think that Bush is fucking the world worse than anyone possibly could,” the organizer, Fat Mike of the band NOFX, wrote at the time. Republicans have received a hand from power ballad singer Meatloaf, who belted one out for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run; vocal Trump supporter Kid Rock; and–no surprise here–too many country stars and Southern rockers to name.


#ImWithHer -Katy

A photo posted by Hillary Clinton (@hillaryclinton) on


If backlash against a candidate doesn’t stem from a musician’s image, there’s a good chance copyright is the real issue. When Republican candidate Rand Paul planted the theme song to the 1990s PBS show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” into a campaign commercial last month, the composer sought compensation, noting that Paul hadn’t been granted a license. Similar beefs over money clouded the presidential campaigns of John McCain in 2008, Bush in 2004, and Bob Dole in 1996.

All of this back-and-forth gives news organizations the chance to put two big names–a politician and a rock star–in their headlines. But what do voters get? The unwarranted politicization of the entertainment section.



Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha