2019 American Music Awards

Guns, Unions and Globalism: The Evolution of Kid Rock's Musical Populism

Courtesy of WBR
Kid Rock

“I will serve no rhymes before their time,” Kid Rock rapped almost two decades ago -- back when he actually used to rap, referencing Orson Welles for Paul Masson on his breakthrough album Devil Without A Cause.

Not strictly an accurate claim: Even then, he was already recycling songs from several pre-superstardom albums that barely made it beyond the Great Lakes. Yet there was some truth in the brag, and still is, in the sense that the 46-year-old exurban Detroiter born Robert James Ritchie has long instinctively grasped when the timing was right to switch gears, giving increasing emphasis to some element of his white-trash aesthetic that had always been there, even if not many people had noticed.

This has happened more than once: When his high-top-fade hip-hop “went metal” on 1998’s umpteen-platinum Devil -- even though trippy AOR samples had been part of his sound at least since 1993’s obscure The Polyfuze Method. When he “crossed over to country” with the 2002 Sheryl Crow-then-Allison Moorer duet “Picture," then even more so with 2008’s Warren Zevon-and-Lynyrd Skynyrd-sampling “All Summer Long," years after his Southern-rocking top 20 2000 pop hit “Only God Knows Why” inspired a David Allan Coe cover. Maybe even back in his tween years, when he first crossed the line of demarcation from covering Jim Croce hits in his Lincoln-Mercury dealer dad’s Romeo, Michigan barn to breakdancing and turntabling downtown; heck, if Bad Bad Leroy Brown wasn’t gangsta, who was?

You get the idea Kid Rock’s shoveled his way through enough Macomb County winters to know how to give his career a good opportunistic jump start now and then. The guy’s got an uncanny knack for pulling rabbits out his fedora — it may be no coincidence that his biggest hits have all tended to be third or fourth singles off their albums.

Still, his album sales and visibility have been tobogganing downhill for the past decade or so — give or take in Detroit, where his astounding six (!) concert dates unveiling Little Caesars Arena this September will prep the pizza-branded venue for the Red Wings and Pistons. But now, as of last week, at least according to a web page featuring some anatomically correct deer taxidermy and revolving slogans like “Welcome To The Party,” Kid Rock has announced a run for the U.S. Senate – presumably as a Michigan Republican.

Or maybe it’s just a marketing gambit, since the news coincided with a tour announcement and two new singles — that’d explain why he hadn’t officially registered his candidacy, and why the “Buy Now” button links to a Warner Bros. URL peddling paraphernalia such as yard signs and T-shirts. The type of right- (or at least libertarian-) leaning upper Midwest populism that Kid personifies has clearly turned a hot commodity in the past year; within four months of the election, he was selling backyard barbecuers an American Badass Grill, "made in the USA — for American workers, by American workers. Tough. Hardworking. Built To Last.” A month after that, in April, he dropped in on Donald Trump, along with Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin.

But none of that’s a surprise. This decade alone, he’s filed verses for soldiers (2012’s AC/DC-riffed “Let It Ride”) and down-on-luck auto workers (2010’s “Times Like These” and the regionally released, explicitly union-nostalgic 2010 EP track “The Midwest Fall”); he’s railed against globalization (in ‘60s-style 2012 frat-rocker “3 Catt Boogie,” also suspicious of big banks and Wall Street) and against guns being taken away (in 2015’s “Ain’t Enough Whiskey,” also suspicious of the N.S.A. and notably swiping its groove from Bob Seger’s pre-superstardom 1974 “U.M.C.,” which stood for “Upper Middle Class”). “God Save Rock n Roll” in 2012 had an aspiring musician who “grew up fightin’ for the upper end of lower class” losing his Motor City grounding in L.A.; real men stay true to the Rust Belt, see, even if they own a few houses elsewhere. The windswept “Born Free,” the title cut of an uncharacteristically polite and profanity-free 2010 album produced by Rick Rubin, wound up Mitt Romney’s campaign song in 2012, maybe because it’s vague enough to let people interpret “freedom” however they want.

Thing is, the ideological bent of Kid’s lyrics doesn’t necessarily always land where you’d guess. He’s had his moderate moments: On Born Free, he collaborated with the odd couple of Martina McBride and T.I. in the rather wishy-washy “Care,” shrugging his shoulders at feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless but saying they still mattered to him, while all three artists took turns fretting about “screamin’ on the left, yellin’ on the right, I’m sittin’ in the middle tryin’ to live my life.” Later he told Billboard “somebody’s gotta smack the f--k out of Congress and get them to start working together,” thus placing the burden for making America great again on not the executive branch, but both parties of the legislative. He doesn’t trust preachers either, and good luck finding an alt-right troll who’d second his SJW confession from 2007’s “Amen”: “Our nation’s race relations got me feelin’ guilty of bein’ white.” Not to mention, from way back in 1998’s (and before that, 1996’s) “Where U At Rock": “Ayn Rand couldn’t stand me, so she banned me.” Somewhat cryptic, but still -- take that, Paul Ryan!

It’s worth mentioning that the two singles hitched to Kid Rock’s congressional declaration eschew political commentary, unless you count the shotgun-wedding identity politics of boogie-fevered hillbilly elegy “Po-Dunk” (“house fulla youngins and a yard fulla junk”). “Greatest Show On Earth,” as heavy a track as he’s recorded since Devil Without A Cause, is concert-ready ringmaster fodder. It also sounds kind of like Rob Zombie, and both tracks dip a toenail or two into ‘70s Aerosmith, albeit amid workin’-in-a-coal-mine-or-chain-gang clanks (“Po-Dunk”) and rubbery blubbery bleacher beats (“Greatest Show”). So basically, where potential Senator Ritchie stands on health care remains to be determined. Perhaps he needs to talk to his constituents.


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