There are rules about when and how a politician can use music. Technically Republican primary combatant Vivek Ramaswamy had actually followed them before he performed Eminem’s self-hype anthem “Lose Yourself” in a half-viral moment at the Iowa State Fair on August 12. In May, Ramaswamy’s campaign signed an agreement with the performing rights organization BMI, giving him the rights to play songs from the thousands of artists they represent. But there are also a few unwritten codes that supersede the licensing business, and something about the biotech entrepreneur turned MAGA stan’s lackluster performance must have violated them in the rapper’s eyes. Less than two weeks later, BMI asked the campaign to stop using Eminem’s music. According to the letter, which Deadline obtained, the artist reached out to his longtime licensing company and asked them to exclude his music from the agreement with the Ramaswamy campaign. (ASCAP, another rival rights organization, advises campaigns to seek permission from the artists’ management before playing a song to ensure the use doesn’t infringe on the artists’ rights to publicity or represent a false endorsement.) Ramaswamy’s campaign spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin said the campaign will comply with the request to stop using Eminem’s music. “To the American people’s chagrin, we will have to leave the rapping to the real Slim Shady.”
Eminem’s politics surely had something to do with the complaint, but I would be surprised if “don’t be cringe” wasn’t an equal part of the subtext. It’s likely a coincidence that the letter went out the same day that Ramaswamy’s profile rose significantly in the first GOP presidential debate of the 2024 election cycle, but it’s fitting. Perched in the center of the stage, Ramaswamy’s lively performance impressed the likes of Matt Gaetz and earned attacks from his fellow debaters. In any case, the Eminem letter was its own strange mark of legitimacy. In Republican politics, you’re no one until someone is beseeching you to please, for the love of god, stay away from their back catalog.
The tussles between right-wing politicians and left-leaning musical artists are nothing new. In the wake of the 1984 Reagan campaign’s appropriation of “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen quipped about the president missing, well, the whole point of the song. The visibility of these technical and legal matters changed after Donald Trump’s 2016 run for president, if only because celebrity outcry against Trump was loud and the campaign had the bad habit of continuing to use music long after rights organizations tried to intervene. “Musicians who oppose Donald Trump’s use of their music” now has its own Wikipedia page and entries ranging from Adele to the White Stripes, with Elton John, Neil Young, and the Village People among the names in between. Despite intervention from the rightsholders, performances of “Macho Man” were still taking place at Mar-a-Lago as recently as May, and that’s unlikely to change. Trump is set in his ways.
Eminem’s quiet rebuke of Ramaswamy recalls the sad saga of Springsteen and his former number-one fan, Chris Christie. Ever the New Jersey man, Christie was devoted to the artist, never mind their obvious political differences. But Springsteen rebuffed his invitation to perform at a state event and publicly criticized his policy positions. It’s not just that Christie wanted the songs, he wanted an embrace from the man himself. He wanted to be cool enough for Bruce. Christie soon switched his allegiance to another son of the Garden State and struck up a friendship with Jon Bon Jovi.
If stars were once hesitant about rebuking politicians they disagreed with, the Trump era broke the seal for good. Though close observers know that Eminem circa 2023 is a fairly progressive guy, the contingent of his fan base who might remember him, approvingly, as the avatar of early 2000s homophobia got a shock when he used his 2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards performance to announce his proud membership in the Resistance. In a rap, he called Trump a “racist 94-year-old grandpa” who would “probably cause a nuclear holocaust.”
Sure, there were a few fans who expressed outrage on Twitter, complaints from the type of person who might also find themselves in Tom Morello’s mentions lamenting that Rage Against the Machine got so political. For many sectors of the culture industry, the lesson of the Trump era was that Republicans do buy sneakers too, but not that many of them, and not the ones the trendsetters want to wear.
Now that we’re in the middle of another election cycle, more Republican presidential campaigns will inevitably face headlines like this. We’re also in the middle of a ferocious backlash against the vaguely liberal urban consensus over racial equality and tolerance that coalesced in the 2010s. While its most dire consequences have been laws that criminalize abortion or gender-affirming care, it’s also been waged widely in the culture, from the war on Disney to uproar about rainbows at Target. The right is now realizing that the decades-long groundwork they laid to capture American politics did little to net them the cultural supremacy they desperately crave.
This is quite clearly a part of what motivates Ramaswamy. In a profile by The New Yorker’s Sheelah Kolhatkar which labeled him “the CEO of anti-woke,” he lamented conservatism’s image problem on Ivy League campuses. “He mentioned a white, heavyset conservative male classmate at Harvard who was considered uncool,” Kolhatkar wrote, “and argued that the social pecking order was stacked against him ‘more than some athletic Black kid who came and got a place on the basketball team.’ Ramaswamy blamed affirmative action and similar policies for forcing élite institutions to lower their standards.”
For the most part, the attempts to change the tide have the quixotic air of Ben Shapiro’s efforts to make Nashville a conservative Hollywood. But there have been a few successful campaigns to seize the means of popularity, from a depressingly effective boycott of Bud Light over a single influencer’s sponsored post to the lackluster Jason Aldean provocation that spent a few weeks on the chart this summer.
So it was darkly hilarious to hear the newly minted folk hero Oliver Anthony react with dismay after his song “Rich Men North of Richmond” was played before the Fox debate last week. Anthony’s would-be corporate media boosters had impeccable right-wing bona fides, but Anthony still has the muddled, anti-establishment centrist politics of a regular guy. “It’s aggravating seeing people in conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them,” he said in a YouTube video. “It was funny seeing my song at the presidential debate. Cause it’s like, I wrote that song about those people. So for them to have to sit there and listen to that, that cracks me up.”
The brand is strong—just turns out even their own hand-selected standard-bearers don’t want to be associated with it.
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