Proxy Music

Electing the Pop Star in Chief

Elizabeth Mitchell, who recently published W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty, says she heard stories of him buying a guitar or drums as a kid and joining a vaguely rock "clapping band" at Andover called the Torques. His frat at Yale fit the Animal House model, with blues bands on weekends. His party the night of his 1978 congressional primary victory had to be shut down because the rock band was too loud. There are accounts of him cackling John Anderson's "Swingin' " over the phone to Texas buddies during his oil days. Take it all for what you will. Until John Kasich, the Radiohead-worshiping, corporate-welfare-bashing, stridently right outgoing House Budget chair, runs for prez there's unlikely to be a national pol with bravura taste.

Obviously, rock fans don't have a horse in this race. Tipper Gore cofounded the Parents' Music Resource Center in the '80s after daughter Karenna had questions about Prince's "Darling Nikki," which led to "voluntary labeling," which led to labeled records being banned from stores like Wal-Mart. Al Gore called the PMRC-inspired Senate hearings a "mistake" in 1987, prior to his first presidential run, and "not a good idea" in 1992, but expediently revived the issue this year to distance himself from Slick Willie, picking a vice presidential candidate who along with Bill Bennett gave out "Silver Sewer Awards" to pop culture they didn't like. W. signed a toothless but symbolic 1997 bill banning Texas from doing business with corporations tied to music with violent or graphic lyrics; Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne, is a pop-bashing moralist on a par with Lieberman—both testified at McCain's recent Senate hearings. Ralph Nader's views are the anticapitalist equivalent. "This poison has got to stop," he wrote after Littleton. "Corporations [are] governed by profiteering that impels them to respect no boundaries in their exploitation of teenagers' vulnerable minds."

Still, what about Nader? At a packed Madison Square Garden October 13, he called out minstrelsy for what it is: "I'm sick and tired of white politicians like Clinton and Gore going to black churches and, with that rhythmic cadence, pandering to them." Great sentiment, though one couldn't help noticing the near-total whiteness of the Naderite flock. The Nader campaign is funny that way. His message is outright populism. "It's time for people to take control of the commonwealth they already own," he thundered. "Our country has been sold to the highest bidder." But the reason he could run isn't just his record of commitment. It's his long-standing, well-tended celebrity: Early in the evening, video screens showed his '70s appearances with John and Yoko on Mike Douglas and hosting Saturday Night Live; he'd promoted the MSG event by bantering with Rob Lowe in an October 7 SNL skit.

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.

When Nader stoops to pop, though, it doesn't come off as minstrelsy, because he never deviates from his obsessively issue-oriented, monklike persona—isn't he really a civilian soldier? He hasn't even learned how to pump his fists when thousands cheer. Anticommercialism is his commercial identity, and he assumes it with telegenic expertise. You'd never think to inquire what Ralph Nader listens to: It'd be beneath him to answer. Asked at the MSG press conference for his thoughts on Napster, he sniffed, "Of all the thousands of issues, there are a few that I know nothing about."

Yet his campaign has made the most effective use of popular culture of all. The Rage Against the Machine video "Testify," directed by Michael Moore, which uses Bush and Gore footage to prove they're really one person, is brilliant agitprop and a belly laugh. And the Garden rally, featuring Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Ani DiFranco, Bill Murray, Ben Harper, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Phil Donahue, and local rappers Company Flow, and culminating in a marching band that escorted cartons of voter registration ballots across the street to the post office, had a rah-rah-rah to it that blew away the Rolling Stone-, VH1-, and Miramax-sponsored, suits-dominated, corporate-rock Gore-Lieberman benefit at Radio City Music Hall. The Nader finale was Smith's "People Have the Power," which finally seemed other than impossibly corny in a political context where popular participation was essential.

"Nader Rocks the Garden," the Green Party called it, but at its heart the event was a folk rally, hearkening back to the Henry Wallace events Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger led in 1948, when "The Same Merry Go-Round" was the song of the day. There's a huge appeal to that tradition all of a sudden, the tradition of abolitionism and progressive farmers too, because rock's minstrel legacy isn't offering much to democracy right now—just more shuck and jive. And not even the kind of shuck and jive that redeems itself with its own contradictory exuberance, the way America sometimes has. Timid tidbits, when only the right niche audience is watching. Rock and roll shares one thing with politics: They're both almost always better when they're messy.

Research assistance: Amber Cortes and Tyler Kord

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