On Thursday evening, an estimated 5,500 people packed into a Freeland, Michigan aircraft hanger to see President Trump in the flesh. Just before the president debarked from Air Force One, “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival blared on the rally speakers, amusing reporters on the ground. Whether the timing of the song was purposeful or accidental—simply Boomer-era classic for a crowd full of them—is unclear, but the irony is glaring regardless, and it’s just the latest chapter in a long tug-of-war between politicians and musicians.
Rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival released “Fortunate Son” in 1969, and it quickly became a cultural touchstone of an era riven with conflict over the Vietnam War. The song addresses the class divide that allowed the sons of the rich, powerful, and well-connected to avoid the draft and the so-called patriots in charge of the war effort who exacerbated the carnage. It even eviscerates the wealthy who cheat on their taxes. There was no subtlety to its message, no clever euphemisms, no secret code just for those in the counter culture or the anti-war movement. Its lyrics are simple and cutting, especially the chorus: “It ain’t me, it ain’t me/I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no, no/It ain’t me, It ain’t me/ I ain’t no fortunate one, no.”
Trump is, of course, the very person born “silver spoon in hand” that CCR derided. Trump inherited money from his wealthy father, and it’s been suggested that a Queens podiatrist diagnosed Trump with bone spurs in his heels in 1968 as a favor upon Trump Sr.’s request. (The podiatrist was also renting his medical office space from Trump Sr. at the time.) Fortunate son, indeed.
While Fogerty has not released a statement about the use of “Fortunate Son” at the Michigan rally, he has commented on false interpretations of the song before. In response to criticism over his performance of “Fortunate Son” during a Veterans Day event in 2014, Fogerty said, “I do believe that its meaning gets misinterpreted and even usurped by various factions wishing to make their own case.” He added, “Years ago, an ultraconservative administration tried to paint anyone who questioned its policies as ‘un-American.’ That same administration shamefully ignored and mistreated the soldiers returning from Vietnam.” Certainly a contrast to both the Trump administration’s nationalist agenda and Trump’s alleged derisive comments about disabled veterans.
(“Fortunate Son” was also repurposed as a protest song against the Iraq War. In 2004, the band Sleater-Kenny dedicated a cover of the song to “ultimate Fortunate Son, George W. Bush.” Somehow, it didn’t make its way onto the Rock Against Bush Volume 1 and 2 compilation albums I bought as a teenager.)
There’s a long, storied history of musicians condemning the use of their songs at political campaign rallies, often Republican ones. Tom Petty forbid George W. Bush from playing “I Won’t Back Down” in 2000; ABBA allegedly lost their shit when John McCain used “Take a Chance On Me” at his rallies in 2008; Earth, Wind & Fire objected to “September” being played at the 2016 Republican National Convention. And musicians respond to inappropriate use of their music in different ways. Upon hearing that her song “Please Don’t Stop the Music” was “blaring” at a Trump rally in 2018, singer Rihanna tweeted, “not for much longer!” and sent the Trump camp a cease-and-desist the next day. Others have taken a more passive-aggressive approach: Bobby McFerrin, who wrote and performed the 1988's “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was very unhappy when George H.W. Bush—a big fan of the song—used the song at his campaign rallies that year. McFerrin’s manager sent the following message to the Bush campaign in response:
“We were quite surprised at this unauthorized appropriation of Mr. McFerrin’s rights. Indeed if anyone were to recognize the value of personal property rights, one would expect it to be the Republican Party. While we are amused that the Bush campaign would find its political philosophy reflected in the song, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ we do not wish to have the composition associated with any Presidential candidate.”
But when it comes to campaign rally songs that don’t match the politics of those who wield it, nothing beats Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A,” which has the distinct honor of being one of the most misunderstood rock songs of all time.
It sounds like a patriotic anthem to anyone who only listens to the booming chorus. The verses, however, act as a scathing critique of—like “Fortunate Son”—the Vietnam War and the absence of support for downtrodden veterans from the very government that sent them “to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.”
But “Born In The USA” has been claimed by the right ever since its release in 1984. After seeing Springsteen in concert that summer, conservative columnist and Regan advisor George Will wrote, “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”
Reagan’s speechwriters got the president to drop a Springsteen reference in a speech during a New Jersey campaign stop soon after. “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen,” Reagan said. “And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”
While Springsteen is now regarded as a politically active musician with little qualms about sharing his ideology with the press (he called Trump a “moron” in 2016 and accused him of not knowing what it means to “be an American” in 2019), this wasn’t the case in ’84. Springsteen kept his left-of-center leanings close to the vest. At least—as Politico Magazine noted in a 30 year retrospective of “Born in the U.S.A.”—until Reagan name-dropped him.
From Politico Magazine:
When asked about the [Reagan’s] compliment between concerts that week, Springsteen tried to shrug it off. But when you have the No. 2 album in the country, publicity tends not to go away. By the time the singer next took the stage, two days after the president’s Hammonton name check, it was clear that Springsteen would have to address it head-on and in the only place where he totally controlled the message: onstage. “Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day,” Springsteen told his Friday-night audience in Pittsburgh, “and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”
He then launched into “Johnny 99” from Nebraska, his last album before Born in the U.S.A.—much lower profile and much less “poppy.” It’s an austere set of songs about loners and criminals that Springsteen recorded himself in an empty rented house over a single night in the dead of winter.
Since Springsteen began endorsing Democrats in the 2000s, his music might be less of a red-white-and-blue go-to for conservatives to turn to (unless you’re Chris Christie), but its legacy as a misunderstood patriotic anthem lives on. Trump even played the song during his 2016 campaign rallies—a move his supporters eventually booed following Springsteen’s “moron” comment.
You would think, after all these years, that political campaigns would keep a closer watch on their playlists. But, of course, at this point, it’s not like the Trump campaign is all that concerned with the reality of what various songwriters were actually trying to convey with their music. Anguished critiques of the American experience become a substanceless slop of adrenaline-pumping guitar riffs and power vocals. If that’s not the perfect metaphor for the politics Trump is dishing out to his base, I don’t know what is.