Saturday, August 18, 2012

Politics and Brand: Paul Ryan and Rage Against the Machine

I came across this rather amusing story this morning on Crooks and Liars. What you have here is the rather strange story of how GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan says that one if his 'favorite' bands. The piece then goes on to quote Tom Morello, one of the guys from the band, writing in Rolling Stone. In short, the values and the message expressed by Rage Against the Machine is not well aligned with Ryan's message and GOP values. Here's a snippet.
Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn't understand them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn't understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine.

Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.

I wonder what Ryan's favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of "F*ck the Police"? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!
Music and Identity
Music is something that we all have a strange relationship with. For many people, it's not something that they think about very deeply. Often people's tastes are shaped by the endless repetition of radio and television. How many men out there found themselves singing lyrics from "My Humps" -- I'll bet the demographic is quite a bit larger that you might guess. In that way, much of pop music isn't about message, it's about repetitive association with other activities, moments and places. All that being said, I'd bet that few of those same men in the "My Humps" demographic would claim it to be their favorite song.

Politics and branding is different. Things are done with intent, with purpose. Stated values contribute to positioning. Knowing that, we're left to wonder, why would Paul Ryan claim Rage Against the Machine to be one of his favorite bands? I mean, I don't follow them nor do I know much about their music, but I do know enough to know that their values don't appear to align with Ryan's. This isn't like Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen -- in New Jersey, that would be kind of like saying you don't like the national anthem.

Remember back in the eighties when heavy metal hair bands were all the rage. For whatever reason, the sound and the imagery appeals to the teenage spirit. Suddenly Christian parents found their kids listening to devil music and looking at imagery that scared them. Suddenly, Christian rock bands came into being (I think it was on the eighth day, but I don't recall any particular big bang). Now Christian kids could listen to music that sounded similar to the popular music of the time, but it was safe. Sort of. The reality was that you'd be hard pressed to remember a band name that really competed with Motley Crue, Metallica, or Iron Maiden. Embracing a Christian rock band meant embracing a odd-ball brand -- definitely not cool.

So there are lots of safe 'favorites' you can claim, but that don't help you out with your brand. Mitt Romney could claim Pat Boone as a favorite, but it wouldn't reinforce anything other than how white he is. In the same way, can we really imagine Romney driving down the road blasting NWA or Snoop Dog through the speakers?

So, for Ryan, we want something young. Something edgy. Something that makes a statement. That's in your face. Rage Against the Machine's music certainly fits that. Of course, there is that little problem with content, but how many traditional GOP constituents actually know Rage Against the Machine's music anyway?

For most of his constituents, they probably won't listen to it or question it. So whose to say they aren't 'Raging' against the metaphoric bad guys of the GOP? In that same way, "My Humps" could be a political ballad celebrating economic growth or perhaps a recipe for surviving austerity like a camel...

In that way, the positioning probably works well for Ryan, even if it's a disconnect from the core values of the music. But it's too bad that candidates don't have to eat their own dog food as the saying goes. Imagine if Tom Morello got to help them select the best Rage Against the Machine tunes to play during all of Ryan's campaign events.

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