Neil Young, Donald Trump Spar Over 'Rockin' in the Free World' Use

Young claims campaign was not authorized to use track, but Trump spokesperson says song was legally obtained

Neil Young and Donald Trump are sparring over the use of "Rockin' in the Free World" in Trump's presidential announcement. Credit: Tommaso Boddi

UPDATE: Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders appeared at a Denver rally over the weekend with Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" playing in the background. Amateur footage is available (5:00 in). 

When Neil Young released his anthemic track "Rockin' in the Free World" off 1989's Freedom, the song quickly became a rallying cry in post-Reagan America for "American values" and the fall of communism. With George H. W. Bush still settling into his presidency, Young criticized the president's ideology, specifically referencing Bush's "thousand points of light" comment and blasting Republicans for what he felt was a disregard toward the lower-class.

More than 25 years later, Republican Donald Trump, announcing his run for president Tuesday at Trump Tower, used the track as part of his kickoff, sparking condemnation from the rocker.

"Donald Trump was not authorized to use 'Rockin' in the Free World' in his presidential candidacy announcement," a spokesperson for the rocker's Lookout Management said in a statement. "Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America."

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign told Rolling Stone that the candidate was a fan of Young's music, despite their differing views, and that the track was used legally. "Through a license agreement with [performance-rights organization] ASCAP, Mr. Trump's campaign paid for and obtained the legal right to use Neil Young's recording of 'Rockin' in the Free World' at today's event," the spokesperson tells Rolling Stone. "Mr. Trump is a huge fan of Neil Young and his music and will continue to be regardless of Neil's political views."

According to an ASCAP document called "Using Music in Political Campaigns," for a song to be used properly, "the campaign will need to contact the song's publisher and possibly the artist's record label to negotiate the appropriate licenses with them." It's unclear whether the Trump campaign contacted Young, his management company or record label to use the track. (Editor's Note: As The Hollywood Reporter notes, that usage applies only to the use of a song in a campaign ad. A representative for ASCAP declined to comment when asked for details about the case.) 

Young shares a co-writing credit on "Rockin' in the Free World" with Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro through Young's Silver Fiddle Music and Sampedro's Poncho Villa Music, according to ASCAP.

ASCAP addresses artists' legal rights and criticisms in their document on political campaigns under the question, "Can the campaign still be criticized or even sued by an artist for playing his or her song at an event?"

"Yes. If an artist does not want his or her music to be associated with the campaign, he or she may be able to legal action even if the campaign has the appropriate copyright licenses," ASCAP says. "While the campaign would be in compliance with copyright law, it could potentially be in violation of other laws, including "Right of Publicity" and "False Endorsement."

The use of Young's song is just the latest in a perpetual controversy that comes around every presidential cycle, with politically minded artists coming out against specific campaigns and parties. In 2012, Mitt Romney used Silversun Pickups' "Panic Switch" at at least one event, causing the band to issue a letter through their lawyer refuting any endorsement of the candidate. Four years earlier, after Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin used Heart's "Barracuda" during her campaign, the band issued a statement noting that they "did not and would not authorize the use of their song at the RNC."

More recently, Massachusetts punks Dropkick Murphys tweeted at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker asking him to stop using their song "I'm Shipping Up to Boston." "Please stop using our music in any way," the band wrote on Twitter. "We literally hate you!!!"

Ironically, this is not the first time Trump and Young have crossed paths inside the the politics-music venn diagram. In 2006, Trump attended a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young show at the Theater at Madison Square Garden during the group's Freedom of Speech tour. At one point, Trump and author Salman Rushdie stood up and sung along to the 2006 song "Let's Impeach the President," written and produced by Young.