A fun sideshow in every election cycle is Republicans feigning musical awareness. You know how the story goes. It’s always the same. It’s a relaxed human interest interview, early in the campaign, and the candidate tries to get relatable by paying lip service to a working-class pastime but can’t stick the landing. The candidate is then roasted on a spit in the arts section.
This allows us to feel aesthetically superior to the powerful, which is a great feeling, but damn it, country music doesn’t always have to get railroaded in the process. It is not Republican campaign music and it needs to stop being treated as such. Historically, the best work in the genre is made by people who are too disenfranchised to have any political allegiances at all. Or by those whose public politics consist mostly of messing with audience expectations. (See: Merle Haggard’s 2007 endorsement of Hillary Clinton.)
The latest example of country music railroading on the national stage comes to us from the Canadian candidate for President of the United States, Ted Cruz. Like clockwork, he got asked the usual music question, and instead of providing an answer, poison came dribbling out of his mouth for exactly one hundred words.
Music is interesting. I grew up listening to classic rock. And I’ll tell you sort of an odd story: My music tastes changed on 9/11. I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded. And country music — collectively — the way they responded, it resonated with me. And I have to say just at a gut level, I had an emotional reaction that says, ‘These are my people. And ever since 2001, I listen to country music. But I’m an odd country music fan because I didn’t listen to it prior to 2001.
This is very insane. And it’s probably a lie or, more charitably, a performance. A convenient fake anecdote that allows him to talk about his political platform. But I’m not angry. That’s just part of his job as a presidential candidate – the made-up anecdote that speaks to a bigger ideological concern. Sure, after 2001, country music became infused with a jingoistic and anti-intellectual element so culturally ruinous that people made fun of me for enjoying the genre for years; sure, after 2001 I suddenly had to justify and explain and apologize for my interest in a great American art form; sure, after 2001 I couldn’t talk about the music I liked for fear of being branded a fascist. But I’m not angry. Anger is the wrong word for it.
A better word to describe my feelings is broke. Anger is for people with leisure. Yes, the Canadian candidate for President of the United States Ted Cruz gave an unfortunate answer to the music question, but anger isn’t what I see. What I see, brothers and sisters, is dollar signs.
I’m always on the lookout for a good racket. Writing is fine enough if it’s supplemental income, but it’s my only income, and that throws my moral compass in the gutter. I’m desperate and never proud and I’ll do what I need to do to survive. And after Mike Huckabee playing bass with Ted Nugent, who makes the worst music on earth, and Paul Ryan pretending to enjoy Rage Against The Machine, and the Canadian candidate for President of the United States Ted Cruz demonstrating untempered affection for the most toxic trend in country music since Audrey Williams bore a son who shared his father’s name, pause for breath and make dramatic eye contact with the front row for two beats before bringing the volume down, after all these sinful deeds, brothers and sisters, I see a job opening in the political marketplace – a job that will make me very wealthy. Get ready, hold your breath, here comes the big one.
Music consultant to Republicans.
All presidential candidates eventually end up having to talk about music, and when they do, New York City produces a dozen articles or so about how foolish they sound. That’s the sideshow. I cannot stop the sideshow altogether, no one can, but I can eliminate New York City’s upper hand. I have the skills to do this. I can tell Republicans what to say about music in a whistle-stop crisis to avoid one-day-turnaround ridicule. I would provide the same service for Democrats, but I think they have social media types who coach their candidates on the highlights of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. They don’t need help. There’s no racket there.
Consider the Canadian candidate for President of the United States Ted Cruz. Let’s dissect his comment. He approached it with the correct amount of populism. Lots of enfranchised voting types enjoy classic rock and country music. Country music is, after all, the music of the working man. That’s all fine. So where exactly do his words become poison?
They become poison the second you realize he has no idea what country music is and would not recognize it if he saw it. When it becomes obvious that our friend from the north would be terrified at a Waylon Jennings concert in 1974. Once you realize this, you’ve figured out, just by tone, how his bullshit methodology will function in contexts that actually matter.
As a music consultant, I could fix this. Now, I wouldn’t be one of those “cool” music consultants who drink boutique vodka and sneak Specials songs into Hyundai commercials. My job would be to bring some verisimilitude to the fake music preferences of Republicans. Because let’s face it, anybody copmpetent on the national political stage has never listened to a song. You can vaguely imagine Ronald Reagan smiling at a Gene Autry number, or Bill Clinton doing bad things in a car with Parliament/Funkadelic on the radio, but that’s about it.
Here’s what I would tell our friend from the north. It was the right idea, to bring up country music. It was the wrong idea to bring up its most divisive strain. It makes you sound like you tear up at Sean Hannity’s bumper music. It’s embarrassing and makes you seem like what you are. We can’t have that. We have to do better.
Better, unfortunately, does not mean mentioning most of the great country singers. Namedropping Townes Van Zandt, for example, would make you seem like a lonely autodidact with a self-destructive streak, which is to say a fringe candidate. Besides, he’s too obscure and doesn’t appeal to your base. Sure, flag-wavin’ music appeals to your base, but you can’t aim for the bottom. You must put your sights squarely on the middle.
What you need to mention, Canada, is credentialed performers who are famous and talented and can survive being associated with you. Dwight Yoakam and Lee Ann Womack are workable answers here. In all likelihood, they won’t appreciate the mention, but that’s actually a win-win. You look credible and open to dissenting viewpoints. They can then go to the press and say “this man, being as he is from Canada, is not presidential material” and their Amazon sales ranking will go through the roof for about 12 hours, which they can then leverage into adding a couple more tour dates when they’re back east.
And in the future, keep the answers short and vague. You like singers who sing about love, loss, and individuality; singers who speak to “the American character.” But that’s it. Don’t back yourself into a corner where you have to admit you don’t know who wrote Wichita Lineman.
But I should stop giving away all this work in a public setting. I need to save some of it for my clients. My rates are extremely low. One hundred thousand dollars a session. Pretty reasonable, considering it’s blood money.
Follow Kaleb on Twitter: @kalebhorton