Why do musicians endorse candidates?
Dave Matthews stumping for Obama at the President's grassroots rally in Aurora this past weekend
There's probably a certain amount of sincerity involved when a famous musician endorses a political candidate. But even the most un-cynical, democracy-loving patriot will have to admit that there's a hell of a lot more to the rock star/candidate public union than just fiscal policy. Endorsing a politician can either be used as an attempt to revive a stagnant career (Meat Loaf/Romney) or to inflate the cultural relevance of a mid-level artist (will.i.am/Obama). But ask the Dixie Chicks or Vincent Gallo: Politics and music can sometimes make bitter bedfellows. So unless they've got nothing to lose (Meat Loaf), entertainers would do themselves a favor to look at the history of this dangerous game and tread lightly when climbing onto the campaign stage.
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More than almost anything, a person's identity is often wrapped up in what kind of music he or she listens to. More than movies, fashion or even wealth, people's cultural anatomy is often informed by what's on their iPod. And this is a goldmine for any politician looking to convince voters that he is just like them, that he sees the world through the same lens as they do and will legislate accordingly. This is why Paul Ryan went out of his way to point out during the GOP convention that "my playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin."
Despite the alphabetical fallaciousness of the statement, Ryan made a safe bet in his choice of bands that night. AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, while perhaps not the ideal face of the Republican Party, are pretty innocuous in 2012. It's probably safe to say that a majority of the audience was, if not hard-core fans of the bands, at least on good terms with them, which probably wouldn't have been the case with the proBama Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj or the Foo Fighters.
When Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z endorsed the president, it was as unremarkable as when Rodney Atkins endorsed Romney. It made sense for them to do this -- it was an essentially risk-free form of major publicity. If you've made it to Jay-Z's level of success, you most likely have just as much career moxy as any presidential candidate, and therefore you know when casting yourself politically is a good or bad PR move.
But sometimes musicians surprise us. Take punk icon Johnny Ramone, whose love for Zeus-like GOP cowboy Ronald Reagan caused a significant rift in his band. Particularly over the song "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," which singer Joey Ramone had written as an attack on the Gipper's visit to a German military cemetery that contained SS soldiers.
As a Jew, Joey Ramone was disgusted with the event, and expressed his disdain in the song's lyrics -- though this upset Johnny, who not only collected Nazi paraphernalia (he reportedly kept a picture of Hitler above his fireplace), but felt Reagan was "the greatest president of my lifetime."
Johnny Ramone never cared that, aside from a small fringe movement, almost all fans of the genre he helped create despised right-wing conservatism. Same with filmmaker and musician Vincent Gallo, who considered Ramone his "best friend" -- the two used to attend Rush Limbaugh's early-'90s TV show together, most likely bonding over what it was like to be hipster icons publicly endorsing candidates their audience actively hated.