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

It’s easy to laugh at hardcore patriots misunderstanding Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, but such appropriation is increasingly widespread – and dangerously twisting the truth

“Did you know that Born in the USA is actually an anti-Vietnam war anthem?” Since Donald Trump embraced the 1984 Bruce Springsteen song during rallies, the lyrics have prompted so much explanation it now borders on cliche. Yet it’s no less unsettling for it, becoming a prime example of a startlingly widespread trend for the right wing to co-opt music about struggle and progress.

President Ronald Reagan made the first attempt to gloss over the context of the song’s ironically upbeat chorus after the release of the Born in the USA album. Reagan name-checked Springsteen during a New Jersey rally in an attempt to connect the musician to a “message of hope” for America. Springsteen’s opposition to its use didn’t affect the fervour for the song from Trump and his supporters. As Barack Obama noted in an episode of his podcast series 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 status 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 a problem for anti-mask truthers and Trump diehards, who last year blasted the band’s Killing in the Name at a Trump rally.

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

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

The latest example 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 called a quintessential American protest song as speaking “to the disenfranchised everywhere”, the band support 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 track, Stand and Deliver, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison went further by using the language of liberation to deliver their message.

Kevin Fellezs, associate professor at Columbia University, is researching “freedom musics”, a tradition through which artists and their communities “articulate their aspirations for individual or collective liberation”. Stand and Deliver twists the tradition, he says, blurring concepts of freedom and slavery with lyrics such as, “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, associate professor at the University of Minnesota, says that this is especially 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 forms and their languages, says Powell, the right wing dismisses and diminishes the social movements 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 part of popular music history. “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 way for centuries, according to Noriko Manabe of Temple University, who says that, in 17th-century England, folk songs were reinterpreted and rewritten by opposing social and political groups. Similarly, in 18th-century America, songs that were once used by loyalist or anti-loyalist groups in England were adapted by warring federalist and republican factions. Manabe says that popular music has always been an effective organising and emotion-rousing tool.

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

Beyond the emotional triggers, Hamilton says the co-opting is part of an effort to link conservatism to rebellion and the idea that to be conservative is to be rebellious. This crops up in younger conservatives and Trump supporters, and even more visibly in anti-mask and anti-lockdown movements. “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 use work by the likes of Depeche Mode and Johnny Cash, echoes Hamilton’s assessment. “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 studies music in far-right nationalist and white supremacist movements, says the far right’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 record label, Great White Records, as a vehicle for building power 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 were explicitly nationalist and fascist, with acts such as punk band Skrewdriver, Norway’s Black Circle bands, and the international music festival Rock Against Communism providing a musical staging ground for skinhead white nationalism and neo-Nazism. But in the 2000s, these movements began a significant rebrand, branching into rap (Germany’s Dissziplin), reggae (Nordic Youth in Sweden), singer-songwriter and pop forms (such as 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 power and clarity of music that legitimately uses themes of struggle. “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 recently researched the growing far-right youth movement in the US, says that this dynamic demands more 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 only do so much to staunch the appropriation – the far right’s acceleration of this tactic could demand a more comprehensive, proactive approach. Fellezs says better music education could be necessary. “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 remember Born in the USA for what it is: a portrait of a racist America focused on foreign wars while its economy flounders. Sound familiar?


Luke Ottenhof

The GuardianTramp

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