Are We the Rockstars We’ve Been Waiting For?

Barack Obama isn’t a rockstar, and Sarah Palin ain’t one either. The reason why is that the rockstar is dead. Once a proud tradition of rebel artistic vision — think Keith Moon, Sid Vicious, or even a pre-cornrowed W. Axl Rose — in 2008, rockstars have been transmogrified and trivialized, forced to limp into our living rooms as cartoon Guitar Hero avatars or haunt our televisions as Bret Michaels’ bloated, permanently behind-the-music mug. Even the word “rockstar” has been demoted, reduced to a sappy superlative applied equally well to quota-making used car salesman or anyone happening to be wearing Carmen Electra’s DNA.

So while it’s easy to paint Palin and Obama’s stadium-sized crowds and hyper-active fans as the resurrection of rockstardom — so easy, in fact, that seemingly every journalist in America has done so — it’s also pretty far from clear what this actually means. Are Palin and Obama a re-run of rockstars past? Have they pulled-off becoming post-rockstars for a new age? What species of politician-rockstar is it that we want the Illinois Senator and Alaska Governor to be?

Stripped to their true, Platonic essence, rockstars are people who live in a way that people cannot live so that we can all pretend that people can live that way. When you’re a kid you don’t quite grasp all the mechanics of this, but you instinctively know that a John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, or Janis Joplin posseses a purity of motive, clarity of vision, and penchant for hotel room defenestration that is in a very real sense supernatural. Quite simply, true rockstars — like the Founding Fathers or Friedrich Nietzsche — are cooler and more one-dimensionally genuine than any living person could ever hope to be.

Of course, true rockstars are also deader than any living person could hope to be, which is more or less where the “rock” part of the equation comes in. Hordes of fans, gobs of talent, and mountains of coke & je ne sais quoi may make stars (Fall Out Boy, Paul McCartney, and Tommy Lee are exhibits A, B, and C), but the secret ingredient for a rockstar is menace, the martyrdom-in-waiting that hangs over those oscillating in the combustible friction between sublime artistic purpose and stale, status-quo reality.

Whether it’s the Son of Man sent down to Earth, or Jim “Lizard King” Morrison staggering shirtless along Venice Beach, the tragedy of rockstars is the tragedy of any mythical being forced to inhabit the frail sarcophagus of our mortal coil. It’s the sexy as hell aura of inevitable demise that makes Lincoln and Kennedy — the only two American Presidents who stood for enough that we can even pretend they were shot down for something — 1600 Pennslyvania Ave.’s only undeniable rockstars. And it’s why to imagine a rockstar halo on Obama’s head is — unavoidably — to envision a target flickering on his back.

Sacrifice and human futility are bummers, however, so it should come as little surprise that in the Me Decade mid-’80s, old school messianic rockstardom got washed away in a sea of pyrotechnics, power ballads, and Aqua Net. And this was just the second Reagan inaugural. The 40th president was many things, but he was a hair-metal frontman extraordinaire above all of them, just as Jovi, Winger, Warrant, Cinderella, et. al, were Ciceronian politicians to the core. The common bond between the Great Communicator and Great White was total commitment to, and reliance upon, rhetorical self-fashioning. Reagan was a great president because he said he was, and because he photographed majestically well in front of Mount Rushmore. Trixter and Faster Pussycat and Nelson rocked — despite all evidence to the contrary — because they told you they did (over and over and over again), and because their stretched-spandex layouts in Circus magazine could make your eighth-grade girlfriend swoon.

This unholy blend of empty machismo, high-spectacle hedonism, and acid washed jeans is hilarious in hindsight, but it would be a whole lot funnier if it wasn’t so damn successful. At the end of the day, glam rock sold more albums, and Reagan grabbed more votes, than anything that has come since, and the reason why is a principle of human communication that we might as well call the Tao of Motley Crue. It goes like this: Sing about champagne and supermodels, when all you can afford is Taco Bell and the girl who sold you your Taco Bell, and peroxide blondes holding Dom Perignon will soon be yours; wax eloquent about Trickle Down Economics, when you’re chin-deep in stagflation, and a reinvigorated superpower you shall soon be. All you need is a slogan, something catchy and seductive and ambiguous and self-actualizing like “Girls, Girls, Girls” or “Pour Some Sugar on Me” or “We are the Change We’ve been Waiting For.” And the only trick is to avoid the inevitable tipping point, the moment when an anthem’s intoxicating hollowness becomes unbearably freakin’ banal.

If Sen. Obama’s Achilles’ heel is glam rock’s larger-than-life egomania (it’s always a short leap from rockstar to rock God), and rockstar hubris is always a bubble waiting to be burst (which is why the Ramones so easily punctured Led Zepplin and Nirvana effortlessly pulled the zeitgeist out from under GN’R), Sarah Palin is whip-smart to take her cues from the punk rock playbook. Punk rock, like Gov. Palin, is the living, breathing embodiment of democracy’s egalitarian ethos, proof that anyone — anyone — can pick up a guitar, play three chords, mayor a town, shoot a moose, land a record deal, and move into the Oval Office. And the masterstroke of Palin’s D.I.Y./P.T.A. shtick is that it not only sticks a big middle-finger into the core gaping contradiction of U.S. politics — our burning desire to be led versus our abject hatred of the elitist pricks who lead — but it also ties Obama up in the all-American judo-logic of punk rock: the better you are, the more you know how to play your instrument, market yourself, and reach a mass audience, the more you so totally and utterly suck.

This celebration of mainstream marginalization makes the connection between punk rock and identity politics as plain as Johnny Rotten’s “I hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt. Whether it’s the Black Power movement or Black Flag, the basis of punk-politics is always the equation “us versus them” and it always operates on lowest common denominator signals of solidarity: scenes, clubs, codewords, and fashion, be it stovepipes and devil-locks or pantsuits and rimless eyewear. The end goal is group catharsis, the united underground’s howling assertion of pent-up aggression. The modus operandi is undiluted identification. This is why the women’s movement’s first move was to eliminate the distinction between followers and leaders. This is why punk rock’s first principle is eradicating the distinction between audience and performer (they didn’t call it Kill Rock Stars, or the Dead Kennedys, for nothing). This is why Hillary Clinton — Columbia grad, First Lady, sitting Senator — will forever be hopelessly Lilith Fair to hockey mom Palin’s riot grrrl. When your politics and aesthetics are pure, uncut democracy, you can’t afford to look like someone who clamored onto the stage, let alone someone who put themselves on a pedestal. Your only option is to be one of the masses, a fellow traveler who just happened to find themselves thrust up under the limelight.

Maintaining this sort of punk cred is a bitch. Luckily, then, for Gov. Palin, we are thoroughly over it. The fossilized left will forever gnash its teeth over Palin’s faux-feminist bona fides, but a full generation has passed since Kurt Cobain committed suicide to atone for selling out, and the interim has seen the rise of the popstars, those glorious synthetic constellations of polling data, style, and consumer desire. The obvious examples — so obvious, you feel stupid even pointing them out, which is, more or less, exactly the point — are Britney Spears and her Gemini twin G. W. Bush, both the Golem dividends of market savvy and focus-group acumen. As popstar-politicians, they are virtually gaffe-proof –true believers in that they believe in nothing but the demographics — making them perfect for the YouTube and paparrazi age. Asking Ms. Spears whether there was a disconnect between her espoused piety and her jailbait stageshow — or Mr. Bush if there was a contradiction between his beloved federalism and No Child Left Behind — is like asking an animatronic creature at Disneyland why it shakes it head like that. Or seeing Alice Cooper on the golf course and asking him why he isn’t carrying a guillotine.

It is this issue of authenticity — or rather, post-authenticity — that unites Obama and Palin as political innovators, and that ultimately distinguishes their approach to rockstar politics. The distinction is not that one or the other is somehow more quantifiably pure, genuine, or “real”; after all, for all of Palin’s diva-caliber media-manipulation, it is the Illinois Senator who takes popstar plasticity to stratospheric heights: more stagecraft than Spinal Tap, more message discipline than Karl Rove ever dreamed possible, and a viral marketing strategy closer to the KISS Army than a presidential campaign (Barack’s your Facebook friend, your daily email buddy, and your ticket to an “exclusive sneak peak” of his VP pick). But while Palin trends punk, espousing the Federalist principles of faction and plurality — and also, ironically, embracing a kind of liberal-democratic populism — it is Obama who utilizes a future-looking retro-brand of rockstar civic republicanism.

Or, in plain English, and without the Poli Sci mumbo-jumbo: it’s Obama who acts a helluva lot like Radiohead.

Go see Radiohead — or the Flaming Lips or Arcade Fire — this fall, and the first thing that hits you is the silence, the absolute church-mouse, pin-drop quiet of the gathered crowd. Then the creepiness of the music, the huge, swirling, sing-a-longs and ethereal caterwaulings about cosmic loneliness, technological dread, and urban gothic ennui. Then the creepiness of standing sandwiched in an open-air amphitheater with 30,000 thoroughly rapt and transfixed bodies. Then the uncreepiness of it all. Because just when it becomes unbearable, when your cognizance of being surrounded by a Civil War battalion’s worth of raw, mesmerized bio-power becomes too terrifying to take, you notice — not a look, not a glance — but a vibe coming off Thom Yorke, or Wayne Coyne, or whoever the Paul Bunyon-looking dufus is in the Arcade Fire. A vibe that says, “Ok, this is the part where I act like a rock star and you act like a rock audience.” A vibe of performance that reverberates through each and every wagging white ass on the stage and in the lawn seats. A vibe of sincere collective pantomime, all without a trace of cynicism, irony, or anyone ever worrying for a moment whether any of it might be in the least bit true.

If there is a secret to Obama’s success — his popstar transcendence, his Phoenix resurrection of the rockstar-politician — this is it. In an era where ProTools turns every kid into a band and MySpace makes everyone into a public performance of personhood, everyone is in on everyone else’s act. By acknowledging the inescapable fakeness of rockstar politics — acknowledging with a smile and a laugh and a glance that he ‘gets it’ (whereas Jim Morrison didn’t want to get it, Reagan got nothing, and Cobain couldn’t take it) — Obama not only exudes honest inauthenticity, but also lets us admire the aesthetic beauty in its craft and technique.

This simultaneous recognition of and respect for the brute stupid miracle of rock-politics is huge; doubly so since it is premised on Obama not only being a rock star but a rock cause, a concept album unto himself. Unlike other candidates, Obama is the song he is singing, but not in an autobiographical, identity politics sense. For starters, his biography is so alien as to be almost impossible (Kenyan dad, welfare mom, WWII grandparents, Harvard law review editor). For finishers, his story, by itself, is meaningless.

Like the rickety, skeleton arpeggios of “Stairway to Heaven”, Obama’s rhetoric is only remarkable once the flesh of an audience is added, and only powerful once that audience is metastasized into grandiosity. Play “Paradise City” or “Master of Puppets” on a guitar in a suburban garage and it sounds puny and ridiculous; play it to the screams of 50,000 fans on a football field, and it is terrifying and thunderous and sublime. The difference is a crowd not only participating in something bigger than themselves, but actively creating something bigger than themselves, a chemical reaction of cellphones and lighters and chanting which catalyzes the transformation of Mr. Barack Obama, born August 4, 1961, from a polite, skinny black guy into “The One”, the embodiment of the American Dream — the same way an auditorium full of mods makes David Bowie Ziggy Stardust, instead of just a British dude in a leotard with his package hanging out.

These theatrics and bombast were not supposed to work anymore — what with the rockstar being dead and all — and it is only Obama’s regular guy routine that gives them a fighting chance. Like Springsteen before him, by not being too cool to unselfconsciously rock, Obama gives his audience the green light to be rocked along with him, without feeling like suckers or rubes or those sad hippies who still put Grateful Dead stickers on their Hondas. And this green light allows millions of disaffected hipsters and cynics and minorities and citizens to act upon what they already know: that majestic, redemptive rock songs, the sort that can momentarily conjure an imagined interconnected humanity and pit it against the abyss — or at the very least win battleground states — that these songs work in their weirdly sublime way only if you can get 30, or 40, or 50 thousand-million people behind them, and that sometimes it takes laser-lights, hand-puppets, bumper stickers, drum solos, publicly professed Christianity, waffling on ANWAR, and inflatable beach balls to make that happen.

But, oh, this post-authentic, rockstar-friendly politics is a hard pose to hold. And given that the shelf life for political style is so fleeting, it may be all for naught. Today’s New Wave innovation can always become tomorrow’s passé techno fad, and in a blink of the cultural eye, calls for post-partisan national unity can go the way of ecstasy and the glow-stick (or worse yet, congeal into some sort of queasy, quasi-fascist, über alles hootenanny) just as the community-building of punk-politics can easily slide into the mediocrity of mullets, Mohawks, and name-your-poison xenophobia. The only question then, is this: Are we willing to be the rockstars we’ve been waiting for? Can we still be rocked, or has self-consciousness about rockstar hokiness already set back in? Will November 4 rock or reaffirm the 50-50 stalemate of 21st century American politics? Staring down the last days of the campaign, Palin and Obama — our last, best, would-be rockers — must be wondering.

Aaron McKain is a speechwriter and Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric at The Ohio State University. This fall his new book, Commonplace: A Citizen’s Guide to Persuasion in an Age that Desperately Needs One (co-written with Scott Lloyd DeWitt and Michael Harker), will be published by McGraw-Hill.