Saturday, June 09, 2012

Kid Rock as Synthesis

How can someone be superficial, banal, and yet fascinating?  That's the question I find myself asking about the entertainer known as Kid Rock (who is in his 40s and has never rocked).  What makes Kid Rock fascinating to me is not anything to do with his personal ethos or his artistic output, but the way that he, in this era of fragmentation, synthesizes so much in and of our culture.

It fascinates me that while I was at a high school softball game this last week, the between innings music played over the P.A. system was this snippet from the 2008 Kid Rock song "All Summer Long": "She was seventeen and she was far from in-between/It was summertime in Northern Michigan/...And we were trying different things/ We were smoking funny things/ Making love out by the lake to our favorite song/Sipping whiskey out the bottle, not thinking 'bout tomorrow/Singing Sweet home Alabama all summer long."  So, as actual 17-year-old girls completed their warm-up throws, they and the crowd on hand were regaled with Rock's savvy ability to narrate a tale of (underage) sex, drugs (and alcohol), and rock and roll within the span of a single chorus.

Now, it's nothing new for a popular recording artist to smuggle transgressive content into song with an innocent top 40 hook and end up getting mainstream exposure.  But Kid Rock has never tried to smuggle anything.  He has always been overt in his entire persona.  And in any of his songs, including "All Summer Long," his enunciation is such that, in opposition to most pop music, it is difficult to ignore the words.  Actually, maybe I should say it is not difficult to hear the words.  It may be easy to ignore most of what actually comes out of Kid Rock's mouth, because his mass appeal has never been about his language (his breakout hit song after all, was named "Bawitdaba.")

When Kid Rock emerged, he was very much a part of the rap-rock or "aggro rock" trend of the late 1990s, right alongside Fred Durst and his ilk.  Like Eminem, he played up his Detroit roots. He had been on a record label named "Jive," he had toured with Ice Cube and people with names like Too Short and D-Nice.  In short, he was very much a product of a particular time, a time that has since passed, and with it the relevance of people like Fred Durst and Eminem.  And as of the turn of the millennium, there was no reason to believe that Kid Rock had any more prospects of long-term relevancy than the rest of this cohort.

But we should have known.  Kid Rock didn't wear a backwards baseball cap.  He wore a fedora.  Regarding his background: True, he was "forced" into drug dealing by a gang that he associated with at age 15...but prior to that he grew up picking apples in his family's orchard in little (lil'?) Romeo, Michigan.  His dad owned multiple car dealerships.  I didn't know any of this 10 years ago.  If I had, I wouldn't have been as surprised as I was when Kid Rock started duetting with country singers and getting airplay on country stations for his song "Picture" in 2003.

In a Hegelian sense, perhaps it was inevitable the genres of rap and country would somehow synthesize.  These were the two dominant genres of the time, and in some ways they represented opposite cultural experiences.  If a Hegelian synthesis was inevitable, it would be also inevitable that someone like Kid Rock would be the unifying avatar.  With a background simultaneously urban, suburban, and rural, he would know how to put it all together--not necessarily in terms of creating a potent new art form, but in presenting the signifiers of the various art forms in a way that would be palatable to the largest possible cross section of mass culture.  Eminem's biography was celebrated in his day, but he was never destined to be boasting of his teen-age delinquency between innings of a high school softball game.  He never wore a fedora and he never picked apples.

It was around the time that Kid Rock first began branching out that I saw him for the first and only time in my life.  I don't mean that I saw him in concert--rather, I saw him in the tunnels of Lambeau Field.  I was a sports reporter covering a Packer play-off game, waiting for the players' locker room to open.  All of a sudden, Kid Rock and entourage walk by.  If I blinked I would have missed him.  Pamela Anderson was not with him.  She would not be in Green Bay, Wisconsin in January.

Since that time, I haven't been surprised by anything that Kid Rock has done or not done.  This certainly includes his getting into a fight in a Waffle House in 2007--in between trips to the Middle East to entertain active duty military troops.  Moreso than any recording, these events may exemplify why Kid Rock is now an icon.

And how many people who have been in fights in a Waffle House are afforded a personal visit by a presidential candidate?  A couple months ago, Mitt Romney drove to Kid Rock's house in order to seek an endorsement (which came in the form of a Kid Rock performance at a Romney appearance prior to the Michigan primary).  Some might have found such a meeting incongruous.  Imagine trying to tell someone ten years ago that one day a Mormon presidential candidate would go out of his way (literally) to win the support and favor of a guy whose resume includes an appearance on the Insane Clown Posse's album Carnival of Chaos.  But in reality, this meeting was no more incongruous than the playing of "All Summer Long" at a high school sporting event.

How can either of these events be anything but incongruous?  A few years ago, New York Times writer David Brooks made the provocative statement that the culture wars are nearly over.  "Today's young people...seem happy with the frankness of the left and the wholesomeness of the right," he wrote.  To the extent that frankness and wholesomeness can coexist without incongruity, Kid Rock continues to fascinate.


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