Two guys march into the Victor Recording Company office one summer day in 1922, mad flossing all the way: one dressed like a cowboy, the other like a Confederate soldier. Either the music they’re selling or their unforgettable getups pique the record company man’s interest, and a deal is quickly assembled. Thus goes the founding myth of how the first country music record was made, and from this flow Hank and Gram and Jimmy Dean sausages, and now, round about now, it evens leads us to one Kid Rock.
Eighty years later, with Cocky, Kid is doing his own Civil War reenactment: He’s “Kid Cowboy, baby,” and he’s draped himself in the Confederate flag. Kid’s reinventing country music as Southern rock, and Southern rock as the true sound of America, and America as, well, the South imagined by a guy who grew up on the outskirts of Detroit. Kid Sings is one story line here, like Hank Jr. even, and somewhere in the middle Kid anticipates the criticism, using David Spade (billed as “Smart Ass”) to ask between verses, “What is this, K-Snooze?” “Who knew the Kid would be everything from old George Jones to Jay Z?” Kid brags on the title cut, and it’s true: He raps better than the country singer and croons better than the rapper. Which is probably the point. That he’s not the best at anything is a concept Kid exploits to his advantage: For Kid Rock is somebody his fans think they could be. He’s able to play a fuckup/loser and a rebel/winner at the same time, and on Cocky he brings the two together in the guise of the redneck, the Detroiter bringing dirt to the dirty South, “rolling through the city like General Lee.” Cold mackin’ like a Duke of Hazzard on Mack Avenue, Kid bonds more intensely than ever with the stoop-shouldered tattooed white underclass. He wraps them in his arms, wraps them in Old Glory, and just when he has you singing “The Star Spangled Banner” the band plays “Dixie.” Like Pabst Blue Ribbon, it’s simultaneously appalling and awe-inspiring.
Kid’s speaking to an audience whose grandparents built the honky-tonks and then burned them down, a group that, especially at this moment, feels yanked by invisible strings—”We can make it through the storms and the winds of change,” he croons in “Lonely Road of Faith,” a song that is the square root of the Marshall Tucker Band times Bad Company. And it’s more than rhetoric or good marketing; his genius is to make a working-class appeal and then to include everybody in the mob. The mob is for heroes, for the digger of bones, for those who drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.
As you can guess from the cowboy and Confederate costumes—way anachronistic in NYC even in 1922—country music has always been about dress-up notions of the American past. Country looks back lovingly, and through trick lenses, at the past. With Cocky, Kid’s good old days are the 1970s, when he was barely born. There are references to Earl the Pearl, Foghat, Fonzie, Suzanne Sommers, AC/DC, and his ’71 supercharged hemi, all by song four. Most of all he’s thinking about Lynyrd Skynyrd on Cocky, no more than on “You Never Met a Motherfucker Quite Like Me,” where he gives the estate of Ronnie Van Zandt a cowriting credit just so he can play the “Free Bird” lick once. That’s love, bro.
The mid to late ’70s were particularly weird days in Detroit, where I grew up. The freak-out MC5-era ’60s were somebody else’s Utopia. Detroit was one of the most racialized cities in the nation, a place where a white kid growing up in Kid’s distant suburb of Romeo could reflexively identify with African Americans when the Man was after them, but as easily would band against them when it came to issues like court-ordered busing or affirmative action. The black mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, was a master at playing the race card, and those whites who grew up on the outskirts of town like Kid developed an exquisitely deep and shifting sense of us vs. them.
Since World War II the city had been flush with white Appalachians who flocked to the auto factories; by the ’70s it was clear the gravy days were over, and a Southern “Don’t tread on me” blue-collar libertarianism that meshed well with hippie vibes a few years before had curdled into something angry and resentful. Hippies morphed into bikers, or else cut their hair.
Know why Kid Rock ain’t hip-hop? His shows start on time. And however much he proclaims hip-hop as a driving force in his life, this white rapper seems even more affected by the hillbilly hangover of the Detroit ’70s. He’s resentful of anybody who would challenge his Right to Be Me—even Mark McGrath and Radiohead. Like Confederate soldiers, he’s even got his very own lost cause now, the personal wound that defines him for life: Joe C. Kid evokes his late friend’s name in the very first song, and you’re never really allowed to forget he’s gone. Before he died last summer, Kid’s knee-high pal was an important part of his posse and show; since then, he’s only become more crucial.
“It took too long, but I stood my height/ you could say I’m wrong, but you ain’t right”: Kid Rock said that. “I’ve never kissed an ass or licked a boot and I won’t ever compromise what I believe in”: Johnny Paycheck said that. But what if what you believe in is kissing asses if not licking boots? What if you believe in boasting about meeting the president while stoned and dating Pamela Anderson all while you proclaim you Just Don’t Give a Fuck? What if you brag about “slapping the gardeners and fucking the maids” to people who might just be gardeners and maids?
It is possible to love the creed “I Fought the Law and the Law Won” too much. Fall for it hook, line, and sinker and you end up needing the law—you need it to hit you upside your head and grant you your status in the trade-off, ultimately to justify your very existence. You end up loving the law, in a perverse sort of way: You love the way it kicks your ass and then gives you your name. Kid Rock is a most confusing motherfucker: desperate to show you how little he cares if you care. Kid Rock is a most crafty dog as well. Just when bling bling seems bankrupt, he brings out the flag, and he gets his bling too. Motherfuck the arena circuit: I can’t wait for the USO tour.