Why do musicians endorse candidates?
Dave Matthews stumping for Obama at the President's grassroots rally in Aurora this past weekend
There's probably a certain amount of sincerity involved when a famous musician endorses a political candidate. But even the most un-cynical, democracy-loving patriot will have to admit that there's a hell of a lot more to the rock star/candidate public union than just fiscal policy. Endorsing a politician can either be used as an attempt to revive a stagnant career (Meat Loaf/Romney) or to inflate the cultural relevance of a mid-level artist (will.i.am/Obama). But ask the Dixie Chicks or Vincent Gallo: Politics and music can sometimes make bitter bedfellows. So unless they've got nothing to lose (Meat Loaf), entertainers would do themselves a favor to look at the history of this dangerous game and tread lightly when climbing onto the campaign stage.
More than almost anything, a person's identity is often wrapped up in what kind of music he or she listens to. More than movies, fashion or even wealth, people's cultural anatomy is often informed by what's on their iPod. And this is a goldmine for any politician looking to convince voters that he is just like them, that he sees the world through the same lens as they do and will legislate accordingly. This is why Paul Ryan went out of his way to point out during the GOP convention that "my playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin."
Despite the alphabetical fallaciousness of the statement, Ryan made a safe bet in his choice of bands that night. AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, while perhaps not the ideal face of the Republican Party, are pretty innocuous in 2012. It's probably safe to say that a majority of the audience was, if not hard-core fans of the bands, at least on good terms with them, which probably wouldn't have been the case with the proBama Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj or the Foo Fighters.
When Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z endorsed the president, it was as unremarkable as when Rodney Atkins endorsed Romney. It made sense for them to do this -- it was an essentially risk-free form of major publicity. If you've made it to Jay-Z's level of success, you most likely have just as much career moxy as any presidential candidate, and therefore you know when casting yourself politically is a good or bad PR move.
But sometimes musicians surprise us. Take punk icon Johnny Ramone, whose love for Zeus-like GOP cowboy Ronald Reagan caused a significant rift in his band. Particularly over the song "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," which singer Joey Ramone had written as an attack on the Gipper's visit to a German military cemetery that contained SS soldiers.
As a Jew, Joey Ramone was disgusted with the event, and expressed his disdain in the song's lyrics -- though this upset Johnny, who not only collected Nazi paraphernalia (he reportedly kept a picture of Hitler above his fireplace), but felt Reagan was "the greatest president of my lifetime."
Johnny Ramone never cared that, aside from a small fringe movement, almost all fans of the genre he helped create despised right-wing conservatism. Same with filmmaker and musician Vincent Gallo, who considered Ramone his "best friend" -- the two used to attend Rush Limbaugh's early-'90s TV show together, most likely bonding over what it was like to be hipster icons publicly endorsing candidates their audience actively hated.
The Dixie Chicks wore their politics on their sleeve.
Though more than Gallo or Ramone, the most unlikely moment of a band sinking its boots into political cement and jumping in the river of public derision came in 2003 with the words: "We don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States [George W. Bush] is from Texas."
After dominating the record collections of Bush-loving, country-fried conservatives -- becoming one of the best-selling bands in the history of the genre -- the Dixie Chicks made an enemy of their fans when they publicly criticized our war-time President from a stage in London. Protests, boycotts and death threats followed, but the Chicks pressed on, reinventing themselves and supporting John Kerry in the historical Vote For Change tour in 2004, performing next to lefty liberals like R.E.M., Neil Young and Bright Eyes.
Though crossing socio-political boundaries as a musician isn't always a bad career move. There are plenty of non-country rockers who have chased elephants into GOP convention halls. And while these artists come from a variety of musical genres and cultural backgrounds, they inevitably all have one thing in common: They're old.
Sean Hannity is fond of falsely quoting Winston Churchill with the line "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain." And while Churchill never actually said the line, you could make an argument for it by simply looking at aging rock legends Alice Cooper, Sammy Hagar, Gene Simmons and Moe Tucker (of the Velvet Underground), all of whom have all aligned themselves with conservative candidates.
It's hard to imagine Ted Nugent having a 21st-century career if it weren't for his political leanings. The Motor City Mad Man had a decent run as a classic rock riffmaster throughout the 1970s, but outside of Damn Yankees, he has yet to make a fingerprint on the music-history landscape of the past few decades.
Yet he continues to sell out auditoriums and keep his name in the headlines, primarily due to incendiary public remarks like: "Obama, he's a piece of shit. I told him to suck on my machine gun. Hey, Hillary, you might want to ride one [of my machine guns] into the sunset, you worthless bitch." For the more extreme end of the conservative party, Nugent is a hero, and therefore his music has taken on an anthemic dimension, becoming the unofficial soundtrack in the fight against liberalism.
Kid Rock stumping for Romney/Ryan at Red Rocks
This fact was not lost on rap-metal turned family-friendly elder statesman Kid Rock. Once known as the "early morning stoned pimp," the trailer-trash hero began to soften his image around the turn of the century with a Sheryl Crow duet, a USO tour and an album titled Rock and Roll Jesus.
By the time the 2012 primaries rolled around, the "Bawitdaba"-era Kid Rock was almost completely forgotten, replaced now with a handsome, sober, pop-country musician with new-found concerns about the national debt. It was then that he publicly endorsed a pre-nominated Mitt Romney, an alliance that brought the Kid onto the stages of campaign rallies and into the consciousness of a new audience (coincidentally just in time for his new album to drop), who had no idea he used to repeatedly sing the line "now get in the pit and try to love someone."
With any luck, he'll be a guest on Fox and Friends in no time.
The real elder-statesman of this genre is Bono. Taking a hardline on nothing other than the NRA and the IRA, Mr. Africa has somehow managed to be on the winning side of almost every political argument of our time. He's a Christian, yet he's a humanist; he hangs out with George W. Bush and does Free Tibet concerts; he's incredibly preachy on stage, yet is loved by both liberals and conservatives. He's Billy Graham and Allen Ginsberg.
Nihilist hipsters may see Bono as a hokey caricature -- but they don't vote. The voting public are at an age where the rockers of their youth hold a sentimental influence, and the warm feelings of songs like Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" or Tom Petty's "American Girl" can be just the ticket to softening up a voters heart. And let's be honest, what is a presidential campaign without sentimentality?
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