On September 9, 2015 at a political rally in Washington, DC, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump used the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” as his stage entrance music for a speech. Lead singer Michael Stipe’s response? Via bassist Mike Mills’ Twitter page: “Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you – you sad, attention grabbing, power hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.”
Funny. That’s exactly how I felt seeing R.E.M. at Madison Square Garden after they broke big on the 1988 Green tour.
Well, I didn’t feel that strongly. I was more confused and put off by the spectacle and newly-found high-school age MTV audience, after spending the past few years watching a slurring, gentle, hairy Stipe and similarly scruffy band playing college campus arenas and theaters as opposed to stadiums. (The apex of hipness was seeing them play the Bucknell College field house, about the size of your average high-school gym, on a pre-Fables of the Reconstruction tour.)
It’s a strange thing, using music as a triumphant announcement of arrival of the “star” at events. Maybe from the days of gladiators appearing in the coliseum? I don’t know. Music used in this fashion is now irreversibly tied into sporting events (a fairly recent development … watch footage of baseball and football games pre-1980’s to get an idea). Every baseball player has his favorite “walking to the batter’s box” song … these days mostly hiphop and various types of Latin music. I loved former Phillies’ second basemen Chase Utley for the simple reason that his batting song was “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin. My song? I’d pick “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian just to mess with the pitcher’s head. But the best choice I heard was from an older coworker who grew up in the 60’s: “I’m a Loser” by The Beatles. Reverse psychology at its finest!
I’ve written before about the mixed emotions I’ve had about Stipe and R.E.M. after they broke big and left behind their discreet college audience. In retrospect, I was much too hard on R.E.M. While I don’t think all those post-Document albums are on par with their earlier work, I’ve found there are songs on each that add up to an entirely acceptable whole. At the time I felt let down by each album, but when you lay them out end-to-end and listen, you do find threads of greatness running through each, if not the whole shebang. That was the hard realization of the 90’s: no one delivered the whole shebang anymore, not even, maybe especially even, artists who had done so in the past. As a fan, I learned to pick and choose what really mattered, a habit that only intensified in the digital age.
Stipe joins a long list of seemingly liberal-leaning musicians who find themselves offended by conservative political candidates using their songs as theme music for speeches and rallies. This goes all the way back to the hackneyed “Ronald Reagan doesn’t understand anything about what ‘Born in the USA’ means, man” Springsteen issue of the mid-80’s. I got news for you: most of Springsteen’s fans didn’t either, as the song was occasion for fist-pumping and high-fiving during his concerts at the time. And apparently Springsteen himself didn’t either, otherwise he wouldn’t have used the American flag as backdrop on the album cover of the same name, co-opting that symbol to embellish his image with its power and all it implied. It seems to me that if Springsteen took cart blanche to use a powerful symbol for his own personal and political agenda, why not grant the same misappropriation of power to Ronald Reagan and one of his songs? Or at least recognize you're just as full of shit as the other guy?
You know what would be refreshing? If Stipe had responded: “That’s cool. I’m in no way affiliated with Donald Trump or his political party and will not be voting for him. But I understand that people will use our music as they please. Have at it, Mr. Trump. And by the way: YOU’RE FIRED!”
I don’t understand the faux outrage of the musicians, nor why they’re perfectly fine with liberal candidates using their music. Because they agree with their politics? Honestly, who gives a shit? It seems like a petty, shallow qualifier. Frankly, if I was Michael Stipe, I’d be touched and surprised that someone like Donald Trump (or more likely his campaign manager) was a fan of sorts, that he could find some common ground via music. That seems like the whole point of music to me: to find common ground between people. Not to reinforce the artists’ utterly bullshit political credentials, be they left or right. What’s the difference between Ted Nugent pontificating as he does, or what Stipe just did? I don’t particularly care about the political leanings of either musician: I only care about the music.
I don’t recall the exact quote, but I recall when Nirvana made it big and hit the MTV/stadium circuit, apparently Kurt Cobain found it disdainful that “frat boys” were attending his concerts, and it made him feel angry and depressed. Not grasping it was his nature to feel that way, and the whole “frat boy” issue was irrelevant … if not them, he would have focused on something else to bring himself down. But wasn’t that really a victory? Guys who used to pick on and make fun of him were now paying money to listen to his songs and see him perform live. Maybe it’s a glass half empty/half full sort of thing. If he had been better mentally adjusted and less disconnected, he might have grasped this and reveled in it as opposed to feeling threatened.
And that’s what this is, when you peel away the layers. Michael Stipe feels threatened, not by Trump, but by the simple fact that he can’t control how people use or interpret his music. Think back to the movie Reservoir Dogs, the horrifying way Quentin Tarantino used the Stealers Wheel song, “Stuck in the Middle with You.” Was Gerry Rafferty offended? Maybe. I don’t know because it was never publicly reported as being an issue. (I susepct he wasn’t offended by the royalty checks.) But a psychopath sawing off a bound man’s ear? Was that “cool”? And that’s just fiction. Imagine some of the possibly offensive things people must do with rock music as a soundtrack in real life. Stipe himself noted how so many fans mistook “The One I Love” as a heartfelt love song, and not the bitter goodbye note it was. I don’t recall Stipe telling those fans to go fuck themselves, even though many a teenage couple no doubt swooned over each other at the prom with this song as romantic backdrop.
But this is politics. If Stipe doesn’t tell Trump to go fuck himself, all his wonderful liberal friends and acquaintances will think he’s a lesser human being. I made a similar mistake with Stipe when he shifted gears and turned into a bona fide rock star. I felt threatened. Here was this mumbly-peg, weird, Athens, Georgia college-town poet kind of guy in Salvation Army store clothes singing indecipherable, abstract lyrics over Byrds-style musical backing … and we all thought we were the coolest, hippest people on earth … because “the masses” didn’t know or care who we were, we were smart, and we had our own little scene.
Well, Stipe starts to enunciate his lyrics, write more coherently, shave his head (to beat the male pattern baldness beast), wear make-up, take political stances … the band signs an outrageously large and inappropriate major-label deal … and now I hate these talentless rock-star pricks!
I was childish and wrong, like so many of us who were fans in the early days. It’s a college thing … you would think going to college would have made us smarter and more open-minded. And it did, but in some ways, it turned us into fucking idiots. It made us reactionary and sterile in ways that were the antithesis of the artistic freedom we strove to embrace. I see it now, too, in spades in other much younger college-educated folks. It’s bullshit, I know this now. There’s what people expect of you, and there’s who you are. As time goes on, you know who you are, and it has nothing to do with what people expect of you. I suspect that when you’re a celebrity on any level, that line is so blurred that it’s hard to recognize in one’s self. Especially in this age of Facebook friends, Twitter followers and so many other illegitimate methods of self affirmation that are really toxic forms of self delusion.
Something tells me if Hilary Clinton decided to use “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent as theme music for her events, that Nugent would laugh his ass off over the irony and try to arrange a photo op with her. I could be wrong, but as big an asshole as he appears to be, something tells me he’d “get it” on a level someone like Michael Stipe would never allow for himself. That’s not to imply that all conservatives are wonderful, open-minded people. But I’m no longer surprised by conservatives who seem to grasp the finer points of liberalism, and liberals who just seem like reactionary, uptight sour pusses. I was raised believing the exact opposite, and did so well into early adulthood. “Conservative” and “liberal” have lost their meaning for me, and I abandoned identifying with either long ago.
Just relax. When Trump gets elected, thanks to the stirring Republican National Convention speech by Caitlyn Jenner, and the chimp in a Napolean hat he chose as his running mate becomes president after Trump checks out Nelson Rockefeller style ... well, as the song goes, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.