Proxy Music


In 1822, Noah Ludlow dressed himself in a buckskin hunting shirt and leggings, donned moccasins and an old slouch hat, put a rifle on his shoulder, and changed American politics forever with a song called ”The Hunters of Kentucky.” As his audience let out Indian war whoops, Ludlow retold the story of Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans:

But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared of trifles

For well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles

So he marched us down to “Cypress Swamp”

The ground was low and mucky

There stood “John Bull,” in martial pomp

But here was old Kentucky!

Never mind that the battle was fought after a treaty resolving the War of 1812 had already been signed (news traveled slowly overseas), or that it was cannons, not backwoods marksmanship, that finished off a misdeployed British force. When the legend becomes fact you print the legend, and “The Hunters of Kentucky” blared everywhere as Jackson took office in 1828. (You can hear it, sounding like the Beverly Hillbillies theme, on Oscar Brand’s excellent Presidential Campaign Songs.) Twelve years later, in 1840, the Whig Party overcame the forces of Jacksonian democracy by aping its methods: “Tip and Ty,” set to the minstrel song “Little Pigs,” made “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” a national slogan, and former general William Henry Harrison swept into office.

The two-party system as we still know it, umbrella parties co-opting each other’s strategies in a sometimes gripping, sometimes bogus barrage of democratic rhetoric, was born to an essentially rock-and-roll backbeat. With their intoxicated parades, raucous theme songs, and manic get-out-the-vote crusades, presidential campaigns were the birthplace of national popular culture: The party that made the biggest splash usually won. In the 20th century, naturally, they became consumerist and spectatorial. Woodrow Wilson’s campaign tune mimicked a whiskey ad; Al Jolson sold Harding; Hoover’s 1928 song was a Lindbergh endorsement, his 1932 flop an attack on FDR as “that slicky wacki wicki Bolsheviki Mickey Mouse.” A president now represents a pop-cultural base as much as an electoral one: When Frank Sinatra, whose Rat Pack had helped Kennedy win in 1960 to a rewritten “High Hopes,” switched his allegiance to Reagan in 1980, it spelled the end of the New Deal coalition.

Rock too much and you’re not presidential; don’t rock and you’re not only “stiff,” you’ve left grave doubts about your tastes.

In this, the first election to feature two baby boomer candidates, America is called upon to pick not just a leader, but a successor to Bill Clinton as rock-and-roll president. But the wildness that draws people to rock runs the risk of bringing scandal and disreputability down upon politicians. Rock too much and you’re not presidential; don’t rock and you’re not only “stiff,” you’ve left grave doubts about your tastes. So Bush and Gore dance around the issue like radio stations afraid to play a nervy song that would turn off as many people as it turned on.

Except as a whipping boy like R-rated movies and violent video games, music has factored negligibly in this campaign, as when Tom Petty asked W. to quit using “I Won’t Back Down,” or Republicans accused Democrats of hypocrisy after a stickered record by the Eels, with a song on it called “It’s a Motherf#&!@r,” was handed out at a Nita Lowey event. Gore’s use of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” seems no more or less absurd than the Fatboy 2000 campaign poster that’s up on Norman Cook’s Web site. It scarcely matters that Bush recruited Tejano singers as governor (Republicans wrote campaign songs in Spanish as far back as Ford), or that the Zappa kids made up with Tipper and Al after dad’s PMRC battles.

Greil Marcus argues in his new Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives that Clinton won the 1992 election when he went on Arsenio, picked up a saxophone, and blew “Heartbreak Hotel.” America couldn’t resist electing Elvis, the baby boomers had their first presidential icon, and the Clinton-Gore ticket found the perfect theme song: Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).” The tune was mainstream but not hackneyed, lightly on-message, reaching Garth Brooks suburbanites and MTV’s Rock the Vote cohort alike. Clinton evoked it in his farewell address at this year’s convention, but Gore should have found some way to recycle it, the way the Democrats drew on “Happy Days Are Here Again” for decades.

Because the Gore-Lieberman theme, “Let the Day Begin” by ’80s U2-wannabes the Call, is a nonstarter: not only completely unfamiliar, but a litany that’s the musical equivalent of an overstuffed Gore stump speech, the way the tune he usually exits to, BTO’s moldy “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” parallels his comic attempts to seem like a guy who stands tough politically. Even worse is Bush’s campaign tune, Billy Ray Cyrus’s “We the People,” a would-be Chevy ad that goes out on a godawful voice-over of the Preamble. Cyrus admitted to the L.A. Times that he offered the song to the Democrats first and isn’t sure who he’s going to vote for. Another track on Cyrus’s new album, Southern Rain, says it all: “Hey Elvis, where the hell are you?”

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.

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.

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.

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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