Paul Ryan and the Tragedy of Conservatives and Rock 'n' Roll

The new Republican nominee for vice president loves Rage Against the Machine and the Grateful Dead. How can that be?


Updated, August 14

In the middle of The New York Times' excellent, long profile of Paul Ryan on Monday, the reporters bestowed this nugget:

The nation's first Generation X vice-presidential candidate, he is an avowed proponent of free markets whose family has interests in oil leases. But he counts Rage Against the Machine, which sings about the greed of oil companies and whose Web site praises the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street movement, among his favorite bands.

Elsewhere, Ryan told CNN his iPod includes, along with "a lot of grunge," music from the Grateful Dead, Metallica, and Led Zeppelin.

Wait, really?

Ryan's affection for grunge makes sense, since its heyday corresponded with his early twenties, which remains for most people a defining era in music. If grunge's slacker aesthetic is quite the opposite of the aggressive, ambitious "personal responsibility" that Ryan espouses in his politics, its apathy at least means that it's not directly at odds with him. (That said, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament is helping Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester in his tough reelection campaign, and the band appears to lean left.) Metallica's a mostly apolitical band; lead singer James Hetfield has expressed his disdain for politics. On the other hand, the band was a prominent crusader against Napster and other file-sharing, while Ryan (eventually) opposed the SOPA bill backed by the record industry.

It's almost impossible to reconcile Rage Against the Machine with Ryan's ideology, however. The band's politics are as inseparable from its music as Woody Guthrie's leftism was from his own songs. Responding to the band's criticism of George W. Bush, Ann Coulter sneered, "They're losers, their fans are losers, and there's a lot of violence coming from the left wing." (Ann Coulter, call your office.) Rage guitarist Tom Morello has also been a frequent presence at Occupy Wall Street events. It's tough to imagine what must go through Ryan's head as he listens to songs about the evils of the capitalism system.

The Dead and Zeppelin are also problematic, though less so. Ryan is a devout Catholic; Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page famously dabbled in Satanism, and the band was crassly libidinous at its peak. "Stairway to Heaven" seems to express skepticism about the value of material things, a view at odds with Ryan's hero Ayn Rand. "When the Levee Breaks" is fairly clearly about failing infrastructure, but Ryan wants to cut investments in bridges, levees, and the like.

In addition to the freewheeling, flower-child aesthetic with which the band is associated, the Grateful Dead has loudly espoused liberal causes; surviving members of the band played a benefit for Barack Obama in 2008. But the band also had a strong libertarian streak that resonates with Ryan's political views. Take this rather pointed critique of federal power from "U.S. Blues," sung from the perspective of Uncle Sam:

Shine your shoes/light your fuse
Can you use/them ol' U.S. Blues?
I'll drink your health/share your wealth
Run your life/steal your wife

The third line, in particular, seems aimed squarely at Obamacare.

Ryan, of course, is not the first right-of-center politician to proclaim his love for bands that staunchly disagree with him. The most famous incidence is probably Ronald Reagan's tin-eared adoption of Bruce Springsteen's stinging "Born in the USA" as a campaign song. In 2007, sometimes-musician Mike Huckabee named outspoken liberal acts John Mellencamp and Creedence Clearwater Revival as members of his musical pantheon. But that's not as bad as British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was "forbidden" from liking the Smiths by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, in an exceptionally rare moment of unity from the former bandmates.

Perhaps this is healthy. After all, rock 'n' roll is about rebellion against social norms. Even politicians need a chance to cut loose sometimes, and no one ought to begrudge them that small act of getting out of line. Listening to left-wing bands may simply be an irresistible, forbidden fruit for people like Ryan. But here's some bad news for the gentleman from Wisconsin: As half of a Republican ticket for president, he better get ready to hear a lot of pop-country at events across the nation between now and November.

Update: A reader writes to suggest that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain anticipated this phenomenon on the classic 1991 album Nevermind. From "In Bloom":

He's the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say

Ryan, it should be noted, is a hunter.