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Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: Music meets political spin

ByAmelia Abeyawardene

Mar 23, 2016

During Black History Month earlier this year, Beyoncé dropped her surprise new track ‘Formation’. Quickly going vial and topping music charts worldwide, the song was intended to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter campaign, drawing attention to the violence towards African-American communities. Accompanied by a music video set in New Orleans, ‘Formation also pays homage to the bounce culture roots of current hip-hop music whilst simultaneously mourning the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

The track was performed at the NFL’s Super Bowl the day after its release, with Beyoncé’s outfit chosen to tribute the late Michael Jackson, featuring backing dancers whose outfits may have been taken to have been in tribute to the Black Panther party. However, controversy was sparked as many misinterpreted the song as promoting ‘acceptable racism’ by glorifying a ‘hate group’, and to some nationalists, as promoting antagonism towards american police departments and law enforcement as a whole. Beyoncé has since responded to these negative claims by defending her song as ‘a celebration of blackness’, intending only for ‘people to feel proud… and have love for themselves’.

A lot can be deduced from this issue about the current racial climate in America, where Beyoncé is being accused of racism, and Donald Trump, who claims to have ‘a great relationship with the blacks’ is a front-running Republican candidate. Ahead of the approaching US  presidential elections, Trump has been banned from using music that several artists believe to be misappropriated for his own deluded political campaign without their permission.

On a playlist entitled ‘Angry Musicians Against trump Endorcement’, the following tracks may be included: Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’, Neil Young’s ‘Rockin in the Free World’ and Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’. Young even went as far as making a statement saying that while ‘Trump was no authorised to use ‘Rockin in the Free World’ in his presidential candidacy announcement’, he supports the Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders – possibly an indication that it would not be an issue id Sander’ campaign were to use Young’s music. Sanders has in fact recently been endorsed by Vampire Weekend, who joined him onstage in Iowa to perform a cover of Woddy Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.

In light of recent events, it is interesting to note that the problem of politically misinterpreting songs is one that been been ever present throughout the history of music. Once an artist has released a song, they have limited control over how it will be interpreted by the public and who is free to use it, although it is important in such situations that the artist grants permission for them to do so. Perhaps most famously, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ was used by Ronald Reagan in his 1984 presidential campaign to promote nationalist values, while the song was actually intended as more of a critique of American human rights policies in response to the government’s allegedly disowning Americans who has valiantly fought in Vietnam.

Although Springsteen did not allow Reagan to use ‘Born in the USA’ in his reelection campaign, Reagan still referenced him in a speech, saying, ‘[America’s future] rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen’. This provoked Springsteen to speak out against Reagan, questioning whether the politician has even listeend to his music, and saying the song was written because he thought that ‘people have a need to feel good about the country they live in’.

In a worl where it may be argued that cencorship of the press has deceased, with growing autonomy to express liberal views via the internet, it is strange that Beyoncé should be able to cause as much of a stir N.W.A’s ‘F**ck Tha Police’ did in 1988. However, it continues to seem appropriate for artists to call out politicians who do not understand their creative intensions, or who purposefully misuse their music in support of their own political agenda.

While the public and politicians may interpret a song however they please, it is up to the artist alone to determine the intentions of their song and who they are to be affiliated with in the public eye. Despite this, it currently seems as thought here is little that artists can legally do to stop someone with different political views from using their music, ultimately begging the question as to whether the use of a song in a political campaign should be considered as a sign of endorsement.

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