Proxy Music

Electing the Pop Star in Chief

Simple. Neither Gore nor Bush has the guts to unleash him. A Clinton speechwriter told Marcus: "That night on the Arsenio Hall show might have won him the election, but it also ruined his presidency." To many Americans, Clinton never seemed fully presidential because he'd proven he'd do anything to get elected. He was an illegitimate commander in chief. It's not just that, as Marcus suspects, the hint of rock and roll made Clinton seem low class. He was violating a historic taboo. Rock, or its Uncle Sambo ancestor blackface minstrelsy, has been used to sell presidents ever since Jackson dispelled the notion that presidents should manifest the patrician dignity of the Founding Fathers. But there's an enormous gulf between a rowdy, pandering campaign and a candidate wearing blackface.

Minstrelsy, filtered through vaudeville and ragtime, galvanized politics through the 19th century and beyond. As Irwin Silber recounts in Songs America Voted By, the Whigs endlessly recast the minstrel hit "Old Dan Tucker," not so much outarguing their opposition as outsinging them: "If a Democrat tried to speak, argue, or answer anything that was said or done, he was only saluted with a fresh deluge of music," one newspaper editor wrote. But the Democrats sank much lower: Jean Baker's Affairs of Party documents a workingmen's party united on the principle of white supremacy. When the Republicans emerged, they were greeted with serenades like "Free Speech, Free Niggers, and Fremont." The pattern continued even after the Civil War; in the Democratic songbook, Zip Coon now worked for the Freedmen's Bureau. On the Republican side, in 1900 blackfaced singers performed "Hooray for Bill McKinley and That Brave Rough-Rider Ted" in coon dialect. The first Hound Dog was Champ Clark, who ran for the 1912 Democratic nomination to a chorus of "You gotta stop kickin' my dawg aroun'."

But the crucial distinction is that the candidates themselves weren't presented as comical, "Get on the Raft With Taft" excepted. "You're All Right, Teddy," for instance, cowritten by James Weldon Johnson, makes a simple claim: "You're a man indeed." It's the oldest line in presidential song: "Monroe Is the Man," "McClellan Is the Man," "McKinley Is the Man!," "Harding, You're the Man for Us," even Tricky Dick's finally outdated "Nixon Is the Man for Me" in 1960. As McCain's pop- rather than organizationally driven rise should remind us, Americans still seize upon war heroes to reconcile their need for someone both extraordinary and common. While Grover Cleveland survived an 1884 song accusing him of fathering a bastard ("Ma! Ma! Where's My Pa?"), proving that our sexual tolerance goes way back, he was bumped from office in 1888 amid musical accusations that he'd been a Civil War draft dodger—paying to hire a replacement, as was legally but not politically permissible.

Patti, Ralph, and pals at the Garden: People might have power after all.
photo: Michael Kamber
Patti, Ralph, and pals at the Garden: People might have power after all.

So Clinton's Elvis act (long before he started referring to himself as our "first black president"), coupled with his own draft-evading past, raised hackles even though the pop presidency had been building for decades. Theodore White noted "the jumpers," teenybopper JFK fans: "Thousands of bodies would, helplessly but ecstatically, be locked in the rhythmic back-and-forth rocking. One remembers the groans and the moans." Jimmy Carter quoted Bob Dylan in his acceptance speech and hung with Southern rockers and country singers. Reagan's military duty was limited to war movies, though he blurred the difference, but he went out of his way to try to seize rock's mantle for himself in 1984, embracing Bruce Springsteen, who quickly demurred. Raffish Republican strategist Lee Atwater engineered Bush Sr.'s win in 1988, then fitted the president with a guitar at an inaugural ball. The famous photo of the two, lips stuck out, pretending to play the blues, is minstrelsy at its worst: I'm surprised Spike Lee didn't stick it into the history lesson at the end of Bamboozled.

Trying to differentiate themselves from Clinton, the candidates in 2000 don't wish they were rock stars—they wish they had war medals. The vice president never ceases to cite his Vietnam service; the governor is all about leadership. Still, Gore, who claims to have thrown jelly beans at Ringo's drum set at the first U.S. Beatles concert, wastes no opportunity to prove he's hip. A Being John Malkovich fan, he hired Spike Jonze to direct a campaign biography shown at the convention, wherein he looks fondly at Tipper and sings, "I don't have to speak, she defends me," a line from the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek." Lucinda Williams and Thelonious Monk admirer or no, sometimes his instinctive blandness defeats him: Asked on MTV what CD was on his stereo, he said Sister Hazel, a lesser-known Hootie and the Blowfish; he also named Lenny Kravitz as a top choice for the inaugural balls. But he fields questions about MP3 downloads like an insider, raising the possibility of online micropayments and telling Red Herring that "the American democratic system was an early political version of Napster."

Bush is a cultural cipher: Responding to an Oprah question about his favorite song, he said, "Wake Up Little Susie," credited it to Buddy Holly, then caught himself. Otherwise, he keeps mum, concerned he's already perceived as too shallow to be president. He's been trained to hold down his inner Elvis and play the debates "smirk-free," though features like Nicholas Lemann's New Yorker piece (now up on Slate) capture his teasingly arrogant social interactions, which surely resemble Presley and the Memphis Mafia.

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