Who Can Add Meaning To A Work Of Medium?

When Donald Trump was campaigning to become president in 2015, he played Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World at one of his rallies, which did not please Young himself who demanded that Trump no longer use that song in his political campaigns, even though Trump’s campaign paid for the rights to use it. Though, later on, Young stated that had no problem with Trump asking permission to play his songs, even though he himself was a Sanders supporter.

While that controversy settled a while ago, it does bring up an issue about who assigns meaning to a work of medium. The artist? The buyer? Or the work itself?

A similar issue arose when John McCain played John Mellencamp’s Our Country and Pink Houses at his 2008 Presidential campaign. So since Young and Mellencamp did not want Republican politicians playing their songs at their rallies (in the case of Young, without his explicit permission), does that mean that they have anti-Republican sentiments simply because the authors themselves says so?

If we were to historicize Rockin’ in the Free World, which was written in 1989, it would absolutely have an anti-Republican sentiment because it was written in response to George H. W. Bush’s presidency. Of course, the issue of authorial intent was one that was always avoided during my English graduate study, because it does not offer any in-depth analysis since the meaning beneath the work can always default to “It’s whatever the author intended.”

Of course, a way to truly analyze the work is through its own components which comprise it as a whole. In the case of music, the lyrics would be analyzed in order to see what side the subject of the song is taking when it came to Bush Senior’s presidency.

Young evidently holds the song as politically valuable, because if one were to actually read the lyrics, the song holds the “free world” in utter contempt with its prevalence of homelessness, drug-addicted mothers, and tone-deaf politicians. These stanzas are juxtaposed with the refrain (and title of the song), making the patriotic undertone darkly satirical.

Though, as for how it pertained to Bush Senior specifically, the only connection the song itself has to him is the reference to his “Thousand Points of Light” speech, which was about emphasizing the patriotic importance of volunteering. Trump and his supporters seemed less concerned about historicizing it because it does mention “the free world” and it belongs in genres that would be characterized as Americana or heartland. So, it would be understandable to Trump to use a song that would appeal to the working class.

However, does the genre itself ultimately dictate who the audience is and what the song ultimately means?

Perhaps, not dogmatically. Rather, it would be the case if it was a business model.

Of course, it would be understandable if the buyer is paying with his own money for a work of medium and assigns it a meaning it should have, rather than a meaning it already has in itself. That is especially the case if not only is the work itself purchased but also the publicity and commercial rights as well.

Of course, there are cases when the copyright itself can be sold to any party, who would have been given complete authority to change the work as much as they want, whether altering the original work itself or creating derivative components of that work. One such case is the acquisition of Lucasfilms and the Star Wars franchise by Disney. Since they now have complete ownership of the entire series, including the Expanded Universe, that bequeaths upon them the right to make any changes that they want to the original. Whereas George Lucas would have approved of any inclusion into the Star Wars canon, now it is Disney. It was Disney’s choice to include a sequel trilogy and any spin-off shows.

This is so long as Disney holds on to that copyright, whereas any works would not be protected under copyright 70 years after the author’s death without notice. So it would stand to reason that the people who add meaning to public domain works would be everyone. Anyone can create derivative works based on these types of works.

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