During the 2008 presidential campaign, guitarist Tom Scholtz of the band Boston blasted Mike Huckabee for using Boston’s song “More than a Feeling” on the campaign trail, saying that he, Scholtz, was an Obama supporter. John McCain stopped using populist rocker John Mellencamp’s “Our Country” at rallies after Mellencamp pointed out that he supported John Edwards.
As a proud bohemian conservative (or “boho-con”) and former rock critic, this was the moment when my thoughts about the aesthetics of the right coalesced. Boston and Mellencamp are not exactly cutting-edge acts. (“More than a Feeling” dates from 1976). Yet even they didn’t want to be associated with my party. You’d have to be from Mars not to know that it’s hard to find pop stars — other than those in country music — who are on the right. But why, exactly? Why can’t it be hip to be conservative? Or, put another way, why are conservative tastes so weary? Why do I have to be represented by awful campaign logos and songs and websites? I certainly don’t want the dark glamour of fascism or anything militaristic or violent. But why can’t a Republican campaign be more like, say, a Gorillaz concert?
Some answers are close at hand. Post-World War II American politics has always hearkened back to a frontier past, the image of the cowboy or rancher (Reagan, the Bushes) gaining prominence even as the reality behind it is lost. And quasi-agrarian wholesomeness has also gained currency in political campaigns, even though almost no Americans still farm for a living. But frontier can be hip, as Robert Altman showed in his movie “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” or as Dylan and The Band demonstrated when they re-imagined frontier myths for the avant garde of their day. Today there are worthy if not equal examples. I think of the Arizona band Calexico, whose song “Sunken Waltz” muses “washed my face in the rivers of empire.” I wish McCain had had a campaign song written by them.
What makes the hip deficit in conservative politics more of a mystery is that today’s hipster culture isn’t our parents’. It’s not so clear what it’s oppositional to. It’s not popular to be anti-military today, even among the cool kids, and as “The Social Network” shows, entrepreneurship can also be cool, as long as you keep your hoodie.
And, oddly enough, hipster culture today isn’t opposed to older people. Many people I know in the 18-to-24 age group consider their parents their friends and genuinely enjoy spending time with them.
Of course, more radical hipster culture — represented by, say, the more political devotees of the Burning Man festival — attacks “the patriarchy,” racism and capitalism in far more extreme terms. But this is a fringe group in the United States, and I wouldn’t expect to find even the furthest-left Democrat embracing Burning-Man-style shamanistic imagery or trance music.
Two years after the election of our first hipster president, whom I didn’t vote for and won’t, I’m still puzzling over these facts. So far I can do little but lament that we Republicans seem to be boxed into being the tepid, sedate party: the party that’s no party.
What about the Tea Party? I went to one of its first rallies in the early months of 2009, and it didn’t look like a group I wanted to hang out with, worthy though I found its ideas. I understand that they are populists and all. But still, they were so badly dressed.
Hoping some answers, or even a solution, might emerge from solidarity, I’ve discussed my worries with other Republicans whom I suspect of being boho-cons. This is a furtive matter, for if New York is the place where gays are out and Republicans are in the closet, within the N.Y.-D.C. right-wing-media world, it’s the bohos who are closeted. Sometime I realize I’ve gone too far, by assuming that a fellow Republican has, say, a passing familiarity with electronic music, or would know not to wear a suit to dinner in the youthful Brooklyn enclave of Williamsburg. Or perhaps by assuming that he or she would have been to dinner in Williamsburg in the first place. There’s a look I get then, the look that brands me as potentially unreliable, maybe a secret supporter of higher tax rates or socialized medicine. I’m not. But just for a moment, I wish I were.