For years, Republican presidential candidates tried to borrow songs or prestige by left-leaning rock musicians only to get publicly slapped down. Newt Gingrich has been dissed by both British group The Heavy and “Rocky” soundtrackers Survivor for poaching their songs for rallies. Tom Petty and Katrina and the Waves ordered Elvis-loving Michele Bachmann to stop using their stuff. There is a similar degree of revulsion behind the arm's-length at which Bruce Springsteen holds Chris Christie's enduring, unrequited love.
But now we’re getting the second wave of this strained relationship between popular music and the GOP: Republicans who rap.
The latest is the Ted Cruz-loving song by Christian hip hoppers We Are Watchmen, who hail from the Chicago suburb Westchester, most notable until now as home for several important Chicago mafia members.
Their paean to Cruz, which is musically pretty generic, compares our nation’s current plight to the late ‘70s.(“Labor force is dead, emboldened enemies/ Can you hear the voice of Reagan saying the fed is not the remedy?) “Set it On Fire” continues:
The true solution is
Return to the roots of our Constitution
Remove this monster boot off the neck of our sovereign union
Select Ted Cruz and let’s get through this, the movement
Reignite the promise
If you’re conservative, then prove it
There's also talk about “Reds,” a coming conservative ascendancy, our imperiled liberty, and so on. Anna Merlan at Jezebel finds herself a bit stumped as it tries to offer some Robert Christgau-style close reading:
There’s a lot to dissect here: does the Soviet Union (“reds”) pose quite the threat the Watchmen seem to believe, given that the USSR dissolved in 1991? Why might lead vocalist Joe Salant, who comes from an affluent New Jersey family, affect the black American vernacular when he’s rapping? (Is he seized by the spirit?) How, physically, does one “put our hands up on the granite and grind for righteousness” without falling over? Is Ted Cruz merely Christlike or in fact a Christ figure himself? I mean... Cruz. Whoa.
It’s hard to know what the Canadian-born, Cuban-descended reactionary from Texas thinks of this rap number from the heartland. But the issue of connecting to younger voters – always a struggle for the GOP -- has become more acute since the generational guard seems to be changing. Two of the last three Republican presidents came of age before rock n’ roll – rockabilly-era Elvis and Chuck Berry, even, seem alien to Reagan and George I. Today’s conservative young guns are Gen Xers who were in high school when Public Enemy, Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash were surging, and in college when rap crossed over to the suburbs.
So it’s not surprising to see that candidates trying to define themselves as young, especially in contrast to the Fleetwood Mac-loving grandmother they are likely to run against in 2016. (Emphasizing their youth is also, of course, a way to bat back Jeb Bush.) What better way than to rave about the stuff “the kids are into.” A lot of rap also has a materialistic spirit, love of "entrepreneurialism," and fondness for display that connects it to the Reagan revolution that still fires young conservatives.
But Marco Rubio – the candidate of “the new American century” -- found out the hard way how this could work out. After advertising his love for Tupac Shakur’s music and lyrics – the rapper, he said, “gave us insight into a time in our country and really gave a voice to a people in America at that time who were facing different struggles” – he found himself having to walk it back. Tupac not only came from a black-revolutionary family – his godfather was Panther Geronimo Pratt, his godmother went into exile in Rubio’s native Cuba, etc. – many of his lyrics were politically revolutionary, criticizing mass incarceration, Dan Quayle, and the War on Drugs. Seems almost as bad a fit – or as bad an ear – as corporate tool Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine, who hardly keep their lefty politics a secret. As Matt Pulver wrote last month, Rubio calls upon 2Pac in absentia, "appropriating black cultural expression and stripping it of its inherent socio-political dimension in order to gain power in the Republican Party" and enact policies that Shakur would have found abhorrent.
It’s hard to imagine anyone buying Rubio’s defense that, “I don’t listen to music for the politics of it,” after he’s told us how much how “insightful” Tupac’s lyrics were and described details about the Tupac-Biggie feud. (Rubio’s line that “rappers were like reporters” is very similar to Chuck D’s famous line about rap as “black CNN” – clearly he’s been paying attention and not just bobbing his head.) He’s also into Eminem, thinks Jay-Z needs to “get informed,” and calls Pitbull – a fellow Cuban-American from Miami – a friend and “a very a successful businessman.”
Maybe these guys just really love rap? With a politician, you never can tell. But their attempt to co-opt rap’s rebellious signifiers seems fraught with peril.
Do these lame attempts at bridge building help the Young Republican cause? Will the songs get better or will they get even worse? We can’t tell yet – but we suspect that however the 2016 race twists and turns, we’ll see more of this before it’s over.