Rock & Roll and Republicans (Part One)

Last July my family and I made a pilgrimage to Cleveland to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We happened to be there a week before the start of the Republican National Convention. Security measures were already being installed. Black Lives Matter had already mobilized. “Make America Great Again” pins adorned the well-ironed shirts of many white, male, clean-cut delegates strolling around downtown Cleveland.

We stood out for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the uplifted voice of my wife: “Vote your conscience!” “I’m with her!” Tory is every bit the provocateur (and I love her for it).

Somehow we made it to the Hall of Fame without being tarred, feathered and driven from town. As we entered we noticed that the special exhibit was entitled “Louder than Words: Rock, Power, Politics.” The exhibit focused primarily on politically active rockers.

We couldn’t help but observe a marked dearth of politically conservative musicians on display. To be precise, we found only two highlighted in the entire exhibit: Kid Rock and Trace Adkins. (Contrast these two to the maybe fifteen to twenty times that number on the liberal side of the political spectrum.) Kid Rock I could understand in part by virtue of regional affiliation: he’s not only a southerner but a Confederate flag-type southerner, a Lynyrd Skynyrd type southerner. Trace Adkins left me scratching my head. I felt like maybe the exhibit’s curator had confused the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the Country Music Hall of Fame. Maybe Trace Adkins was just a charitable inclusion. Maybe the curator realized that conservatives needed some representation in the exhibit, so let’s appease them by throwing Trace in there and hoping that non-conservatives either don’t notice or don’t care.

Inclusion of other conservative iconography and images in the exhibit came across to me as either misleading or gratuitous. For instance, there is a big photo of Bono arm-in-arm with George W. Bush. Although W did in fact join Bono in the international fight against AIDS, the two are not exactly political kindred spirits. Consider the fact that Bono and his bandmates distributed free condoms to audiences during the Zooropa tour. (You can still find some—now for sale—online; just don’t try to use them anymore.) How would W explain this to the Christian conservatives who helped get him elected? And by the way, Bono recently came out as fully supportive of legalizing same-sex marriage in his home country of Ireland—as if that came as any surprise to those who have been listening to Bono’s impassioned plea for love over the last thirty years or so.

The recent (and hilarious) confrontation between Rage against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and conservative Paul Ryan was indicative, I believe, of a larger phenomenon; the blow-out between the two read to me like a parable about Republicans and Rock & Roll. Evidently at some point Ryan had identified Rage against the Machine as either his favorite band or—at the very least—a band he liked a lot. When Morello heard this he was livid. He catalogued with disgust Ryan’s conservative positions on a host of issues and proclaimed, “Paul Ryan is the embodiment of the machine our music rages against.” One does have to wonder if Ryan ever actually listened to the lyrics of pretty much any Rage song. Or if he did, wouldn’t he at least have experienced some cognitive dissonance?

Ryan later clarified that Rage against the Machine was not his favorite band. That honor belonged to Led Zeppelin. But here too one has to wonder. I would love to watch Ryan sit down with the formidable family-values contingent of his political party and listen to, say, “Whole Lotta Love” as Robert Plant simulates sexual orgasm with Jimmy Page’s guitar. (Plant and Page’s instrument experience a similar tryst in the song “In My Time of Dying.”) Or what about the occultic themes and sounds in their music? I thought Democrats were supposed to be the party of the heathens/atheists/New Agers/Godless.

Given his credentials, does Ryan have the right to love Led Zeppelin? If he is so committed to conservative principles and values, shouldn’t he delete most of the music on his I-pod? Given his track record of partisanship, and if his Republicanism carries over into all aspects of his life, shouldn’t he listen to likeminded rockers? If he did, the track listing on his I-pod would dramatically shrink, leaving him with the likes of Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, and maybe Kiss. His listening options would not only be small, but would pretty much suck.

And over the years, the list of musicians who pull the plug on Republicans or Tea Partiers playing their music on the campaign trail grows, a list that now includes Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, the Foo Fighters, Heart, Van Halen, John Mellencamp, Rush, Al Green, David Byrne, and Tom Petty.   

In my next post, I will explore the liberal bent of Rock & Roll and defend the following contention: Liberals can say they listen to Rock & Roll because of their political affiliation, conservatives only in spite of their own.