The Republicans need your help. It’s the music. See, they love rock ‘n’ roll—almost as much as the bands loathe them.
It’s not a new phenomenon. In 1984, President Reagan’s reelection team famously mistook Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” for a patriotic, fist-pumping banger. Springsteen was less than impressed. “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been,” the Boss quipped. “I don’t think he’s been listening to [Nebraska].” Twenty-eight years later, at last week’s Republican National Convention, Governor Chris Christie, a diehard fan, referenced the singer during his speech. Never mind that Springsteen has refused to back Christie or appear at his 2010 inauguration.
That hardly matches the sting of Tom Morello’s attack on Paul Ryan. When it came out that the Wisconsin rep loves Rage Against the Machine (he did attend college in the early ‘90s, after all), Morello didn’t stick to folksy barbs or polite declinations. He took to Rolling Stone with a scathing op-ed, declaring Ryan’s vision “antithetical to the message of Rage”. Ryan, the guitarist wrote, is “the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades”.
That same week, Silversun Pickups sent Mitt Romney a cease-and-desist order after his presidential campaign used “Panic Switch” at a rally. “We don’t like people going behind our backs, using our music without asking, and we don’t like the Romney campaign”, the band wrote. The incident stirred some déjà vu: Tom Petty sent Michele Bachmann a similar letter after she marched onstage to the tune of “American Girl” in 2011. And, of course, there where Heart’s rough words for Sarah Palin, who appropriated the band’s aptly titled “Barracuda” in 2008.
The point? The Romney campaign needs new songs—tracks that fit the candidate’s message (“Panic Switch” seems ill-advised), by bands that won’t issue public denunciations. Here’s my list of five potential options. It does not include the Beatles’ “Taxman” (too obvious), Iggy Pop’s “I’m a Conservative” (too sarcastic), or the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” (too gruesome). Instead, most of my choices, I noticed, are inadvertently from the ‘80s. A coincidence? I suspect Reagan would say no.
5. Elvis Costello - “Human Touch” (1980)
The Romney campaign’s greatest challenge? Portraying its candidate as a real flesh-and-blood human, with human sympathies and human emotions and a human heart—not some cold, sleek, number-crunching finance machine with a sharp jaw and a calculating smile and a picturesque wife. That’s why Ann Romney spoke about meeting him at a high school dance; that’s why she described him as nervous, recalling how he made her laugh. (Romney? Nervous? “Laugh?”) Costello understands. “Give it to me, give it to me,” he pleads in this speedy 1980 rave-up. “I need, I need, I need the human touch!” The first verse is especially apt: “I can’t stand any more of that mechanical grace,” the singer rants, because “it looks like luxury and feels like a disease”—pitch-perfect analysis of Romney’s connectivity glitch. Campaign commentary is best when accidental. (Would Costello issue a cease-and-desist? No promises.)
4. Beach Boys - “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” - (1971)
Speaking of conservative-minded rock icons—Governor Romney, meet California’s finest. Beach Boys singer Bruce Johnston recently drew ire for calling Obama a “socialist asshole”. But his bandmate Al Jardine was penning right-wing paeans as early as 1971. Tucked behind a trio of Wilson masterpieces that close Surf’s Up, “Lookin’ at Tomorrow” is a bizarre little ditty. “I’ve been laying on my back… trying to find a job to fit my trade,” Jardine laments over honey-sweet arpeggios—but “I don’t need nobody to pay my aid.” Romney’s been harping on welfare policy lately, falsely accusing Obama of dropping the work requirements. He has also lambasted Obama’s promises of “free stuff” from the government. “Lookin’ at Tomorrow” is on the same page, and it’s not quite as obvious as “Taxman”.
3. Aerosmith - “Monkey on my Back” (1989)
Between Springsteen, Petty, and RATM, you could be convinced all rockers are left-wingers. Not so. Along with Dave Mustaine, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry is among the most notable rock stars with conservative leanings. In 2008, he threw his support behind Republican presidential nominee John McCain. “Seeing so many people come out for Obama, I just felt like ‘What the hell, I might as well raise my hand for this side,’” Perry told the Boston Herald. “I’ve been a hardcore Republican my whole life.” So why hasn’t Romney tapped into the one band that might actually back him?
“Woe is me, I been dying,” Steven Tyler snarls in this 1989 rocker, from the largely underrated Pump. “Got to get that monkey off my back!” Get it? It’s the government. He’s talking about taxes. Debt. The Ryan plan! A perfect theme song! Just call them “Aerosmallgovernment”, because Obama’s about to take a Permanent Vacation.
2. Oingo Boingo - “Capitalism” (1981)
Romney is rich, the Dems recite. He can do one thing well: make fabulous money—at the expense of jobs, personal integrity, and the American economy. Bain Capital stands for everything slimy and slick about America’s financiers. How can someone with so much wealth possibly relate to the ordinary citizen?
Romney needs to stop pussyfooting around Bain Capital. Instead, he might consider donning his slickest black shades and reciting the first verse of this herky jerky Oingo Boingo gem, a tirade against liberal guilt that appeared just a year before the founding of the company: “There’s nothing wrong with capitalism / There’s nothing wrong with free enterprise / Don’t try to make me feel guilty / I’m so tired of hearing you cry.” And then: “There’s nothing wrong with making some profit / If you ask me, I’ll say it’s just fine.” Even with its hints at satire, it’s a pitch-perfect postcard from the early Reagan ‘80s—even funkier than the Devo track railing against Romney’s dog treatment. (For the state of the union from the other side of the pond—yuppie-era Thatcherism and its discontents—consider substituting Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities [Let’s Made Lots of Money]”.)
1. Starship - “We Built This City” (1985)
Here it is: Rolling Stone’s near unanimous Worst Song of the ‘80s—and the 2012 Republican National Convention’s thunderous theme song that never was. When the GOP centered its convention around a mystifying cascade of “We built it!” chants, it made its campaign about a catchphrase, not an idea. And like this 1985 anthem, that catchphrase is tedious, trying, and infuriatingly relentless, a similarly ceaseless rhetorical chorus of breast-beating bravado: “We built this city / We built this city on rock and roll / We built this city / We built this city on rock and roll / Built this city / We built this city on rock and roll.” If you’re going to harp ad nauseam about something the President never really even said, you may as well do so with slap bass and glossy Roland synths.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.