For those people who adore Kelly Clarkson and hate Ron Paul supporters, the inaugural American Idol‘s Wednesday night endorsement of Paul’s presidential candidacy was especially painful. The move might have been merely confusing in years past, when Paul was a web-specific phenomenon—the equivalent of Carrie Underwood using a ragecomic as her next album cover, or Perez Hilton having a record label—but the recent exposure of Paul’s startlingly racist and homophobic newsletters from the 1980s shifted Kelly’s gung-ho Paulophilia from quirky to offensive. It turned out that Clarkson (apparently honestly) didn’t know about Paul’s issues, but the course of excusing her endorsement raised a host of other problems. The resulting Twitfit played out like a weird kind of crossover special, including a co-sign from Michelle Branch, a sullen @-reply to music critic Matt Cibula, and Clarkson’s revelation that she is a pro-Obama Republican. The stormy response was heartening, if also predictable (what books will Ron Paul supporters recommend I read in responses to this post? Leave your answer in the comments!), and both Clarkson’s and Branch’s responses to the criticism—that whether or not Paul was prejudiced, they certainly weren’t—were helpful little distillations of the issues inherent in collectively supporting a presidential candidate who doesn’t believe in doing things collectively.
In retrospect, though, the endorsement makes a depressing amount of sense, and not just because Clarkson and Paul are fellow Texans. For all the supposedly progressive politics of rock and pop, the structure of the business is incredibly entrepreneurial, with musicians required to front a remarkable amount of their own money for instruments, travel, and recording before they see any sort of return on their investment. There’s no large-scale structure that can provide steady employment (and health insurance) while nurturing innovation, just a produce-or-die ethos that receives no subsidies or grants. In America, at least, one of the few areas of life in which government really does have minimal involvement is pop music.
This is especially true for Clarkson, whose story at times sharply parallels that of Howard Roark, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s libertarian erotic novel The Fountainhead, a book well-loved by Paul’s fanbase. Like Roark, she was stymied by the establishment, and had to take her appeal directly to the people on American Idol. Just as Roark was vindicated by a jury at the novel’s climax, Clarkson was ultimately successful through a powerful display of her talent to the masses, who rallied behind her when the powers-that-be would not, voting her into freedom. Bands are at least nominally collective affairs, but as a solo artist, Clarkson is a fierce sole proprietor, a creative who, like Roark, refuses to compromise. Her songs frequently sound the theme Roark summons in his courtroom speech: “A man’s spirit, however, is his self…the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures.” This is, basically, the idea behind “Miss Independent.”
The strongest parallel can be found in the incidents surrounding Clarkson’s third album, My December. Following a rough patch brought on by the pressures of being so entrepreneurial (“I was 24, and that is pretty young to be the boss of so much,” she said), she produced a dark, personal album largely without help from the songwriters-for-hire who had brought her such success in the past. But pursuing this single-minded vision caused her to butt heads with legendary label boss Clive Davis, who handily already looks like a supervillain, and a particularly Randian one at that. Davis, depending on who you believed, either wanted Clarkson to shelve the album entirely, or to replace five of the songs with professionally-penned ones—and was willing to give Clarkson $10 million for her trouble. But just like Roark when he finds his design for the housing project was corrupted, Clarkson refused to compromise, and essentially dynamited the album rather than see it altered. The label generally under-supported My December, and sales were so weak that she had to cancel an upcoming tour after low ticket sales. Of course Kelly endorsed Ron Paul—she’s a stauncher libertarian than he is at this point.
That this comparison comes so easily is a little distressing for fans of pop, who are generally not Ron Paul supporters. (For reasons I have never entirely been able to discern, libertarians tend to gravitate toward instrumental music.) Music is a warm and human thing, far removed from the cold-eyed rationalism of Randian thought. But while the strict objectivist tendencies may crop up in the nature of pop as a creative enterprise, they don’t seem explicitly present in the lyrics, which even at their most cutthroat tend to be more about love as a transaction than will-imposition as the highest good. What you get instead is the soft libertarian language of Oprah-speak (a worldview perfectly expressed this year on HBO’s Enlightened); it takes the mercenary calculus of traditional libertarianism and changes the concrete goal of achievement to the more nebulous idea of creating your “best self,” in the process turning the worldview’s explicit hostility to traditionally feminine qualities and finding room for emotive and empowering language. You don’t see this everywhere in pop, which is still primarily about romantic, stylistic, and fraternal connections, but it’s cropping up increasingly as more singers, like Clarkson, embrace the popular narrative of success as something personally willed rather than collectively achieved (“I don’t know if you want this enough“). There’s still an important line there between the naked libertarianism so beloved by young male computer programmers and the OWN incarnation, which comes cloaked in therapeutic language and scented candles. But as pop increasingly moves in that direction, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more artists traverse that line. Kelly Clarkson may be the first major pop star to endorse Ron Paul, but she won’t be the last.