Kid Rock Is Soul-Fucking AmericaS

The last thing I wanted to do on Memorial Day was think about soldiers. As Chris Hayes discovered, there are no good outcomes to examining American soldiery with more than one opinion: Awesome!

There's My Lai, Haditha, Abu Ghraib, torture in the Philippines at the turn of the century; the list goes on, and it is long. But there's no room for that on American party days. Mentioning it is like muttering Eric Clapton's "wogs speech" to a dude air-guitaring with white-man's-overbite to "Wonderful Tonight." That overbite guy is America; he does not care, bro.

That's why I wanted to spend the day listening for Kid Rock. There are lots of opinions about Kid Rock. Many of them are that he is fucking terrible.

At first glance, this might seem like a non sequitur, but over the last few years, Mr. Rock has tried to assume the Mellencamp mantle of balladeering about some campaign-ad version of middle America. So far, it's worked. In 2008, he campaigned for Obama. This year, his song "Born Free" is Romney's "stump rock" song. Mr. Rock performed that same song at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

Mr. Rock's origins don't initially suggest such a trajectory, but looking back, maybe they make sense.

Born Robert James Ritchie—perhaps deliberately given the same initials as the cigarette manufacturer that would later be responsible for his ferret-with-leukemia robustness—Mr. Rock grew up on the hard streets of 40 Miles North of Detroit, on an apple orchard. Evidently these are the stomping grounds of a cowboy, baby—a distinction with which I am completely fine, as someone who grew up as a desperado from Watts, in an orange grove in Riverside.

Some critics have pointed to this origin story, saying it invalidates both of his personae, but this is very simple. If you are in a convertible or rapping, you are from the streets. If you are explaining, "If it's clear and yella, you got juice there, fella; if it's cloudy and brown, you're in cider town," you are a cowboy.

Regardless, in 1999, Mr. Rock took the country by storm with his brand of rap-rock. People had done rap-rock extremely well before—Faith No More comes to mind—but Mr. Rock was a new force. At a guess, the purpose of combining rap and rock in his case was to obscure each's shortcomings in his hands—like blending two mediocre wines, or pouring a pint of Old Smuggler Scotch or paint thinner into a 40 of an experimental malt liquor with a name like Night Velvet.

He didn't stop there, broadening his demographic appeal wherever possible. He tried his hand at acting, and paired with noted country singer Sheryl Crow to release a song that sounded like the guitars could have been picked with authentically shitty belt buckles. He maintained his stranglehold on the 14-year-old boy market by refusing to shave his mustache. Last, he allowed his song "American Badass" to be used as a pro-wrestling entrance theme—pairing his 8th-grade-bully physique with the image of a man over 40 gingerly walking a motorcycle around the ring and wearing eyeliner and a neck tattoo reading "SARA" to create a new American synergy of badass.

Most importantly, during this period, Mr. Rock began his steady crawl away from the demographic of young white guys who wear baseball caps backward and yell "faggot" at cars going too slowly on US 98 during Panama City spring break, and toward the demographic of older white guys who wear baseball caps forward and yell "faggot" at pictures of Osama bin Laden while going to the toilet in the sorts of bars that have novelty urinal cakes.

His 2001 album The History of Rock, part of Time-Life's "Album Titles Without Enough Winking Plausible Deniability Series," featured a rerelease of his song "Abortion." As is the case with any rock song that contains a whiff of conservatism, Republicans tried to absorb the track as a "movement" statement. The National Review included it on a list of "conservative" songs whose reasons for inclusion are frequently unintentionally hysterical. (Then again, what would you expect from the same people who play the first two lines of "Fortunate Son" at rallies for conservative candidates and hope you don't remember the lyrics when they fade out instantly? You know what's a great conservative song? Peter Gabriel's "Family Snapshot." It's about a politically active young man who asserts his second amendment rights and wants to keep families together.)

Mr. Rock followed that up with "The Lonely Road of Faith," a song that cleared up the ambiguity of the word "faith" by muttering a generic nod to the 23rd psalm before the rapping starts and including the lyric, "Allahu akbar" "God is indeed great." Indeed. Great like a car or a fedora or Hanes undergarments. Real transcendent shit. Anyhow, the song was also marketed to America by repeated appearances on WWE TV, where it was introduced by a Kid Rock quote referencing marketing, before being set to a video of confirmed steroid- and wife-abusers and dead people.

(Or, instead of watching that version, you could watch this version of the song, "acted out" in Runescape, because Jeet Christ, shit like this is why America is never going to win another war.)

But Mr. Rock finally reached his current schlock Americana apotheosis with "I Was Born Free" (pronounced BAWRNFREE) in 2010, a song that reads like someone trying to rewrite a Springsteen song to be about the American geography textbook he got carsick reading in the backseat. It ends by invoking God, who is in many ways the sky's cowboy.

Tonally, though, it sounds exactly like what you might produce if your sole goal in life was to spend the next 10 years listening to your jingle sell Chevrolets. When it was recorded, all the instruments were put through an Ameri-Tune, and Kid Rock had to read the lyrics off the sides of dozens of cargo vans that were driven slowly through the studio, the words airbrushed onto the sides of airbrushed leopards that big-titted airbrushed girls were using to jump over airbrushed Hitler, dropping airbrushed butt-Scuds onto Saddam Hussein. There's a thudding on the record because of the engineer's erection repeatedly bouncing into the mixing board. That engineer's name was THOMAS JEFFERSON.

It's the ideal vehicle for pimping America because it feels instantly like that's its only purpose. This is why I was looking for it all Memorial Day: it's the perfect bumper music when you throw to commercial between innings, while the cameraman does a closeup on the flag in center field. And that has already happened.

TBS, whose operating budget is apparently "Craig Sager's suits, Dennis Eckersley, a Ripken, 10 sober days of David Wells, and a few decent announcers" sent America to commercial with "AHWUZ BAWRNFREE" during virtually every break of every broadcast they covered during the 2010 MLB postseason. NBC had Kid Rock kick off the 2011 NFL season with a live performance. NFL broadcasts played it on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, before the commercials where the CGI Budweiser Clydesdales got on their knees to weep for New York, as is their equine duty.

At this point, Kid Rock is like John Mellencamp without gravitas. Having set out to be bigger and ballsier than an easy listening staple and breakup-dedication on "The Delilah Show," he has failed to be even the thing he overlooked. He tripped over the low-set bar. Kid Rock is the Untermellencamp.

The thing is, Mellencamp might be kind of a dip, but he's an honest dip. His music tonally flattens out and feels emotionally tepid because its trammelled by its own earnestness. Only a mostly guileless person writes about someone "sucking on a chili dog" as a depiction of heartland innocence without once worrying about the picture it conjures. And it's sort of tempting to believe Kid Rock is that earnest.

At some point, you just want to assume he's like any other rock star: he solipsistically believes he's the first person to really, like, grok what it's like to be free and own a car and see roads and lakes and mountains and HOLY SHIT, CLYDESDALES ARE REAL??? A song so shallow that it works as a cash grab for Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Labor Day and Secretaries Day could just be the work of a guy so vacuous that he genuinely suspects his work enters profound uncharted territory.

But that wishful thinking falls apart when you look at anything else he does. As David Thorpe pointed out in the Boston Phoenix, Kid Rock's letting Romney campaign with his music, despite pulling for Obama in 2008 and dismissing the 2012 GOP field with, "All of them are a bunch of idiots."

This is the kind of totally disingenuous stance you can take when you're just a country-fried rock-and-roll cowboy from the big-city orchards who spits dope rhymes over the illest plangent ballads while riding a car-horse into a pimp hat made of flags. This is the soundtrack sales pitch you can make to two political parties growing together like fused tree trunks sucking the last potable water out of the American soil. The two great things about selling Generic America are that you can use it to sell any part of America, and any part of America will buy it. Living soldiers can pay for a song that can celebrate dead ones, and they can listen to it on the way to worship a non-denominational God.

With any luck, many people were able to listen to it Monday, at peace, in wait for the time we can hear it played over the heartwarming "A CITY REBUILDS" footage following our next national disaster.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?

Image by Jim Cooke.