Culture

The Punk and the Princess

Henry Rollins (Reuters/Max Morse)
Celebrities and their silly politics.

You wouldn’t think that pop princess Taylor Swift would have that much in common with punk-rock elder statesman Henry Rollins . . .

A few right-leaning Taylor Swift fans in my life expressed a little dismay — but no surprise — about the gifted singer and songwriter (and pretty good banjo-picker) and her decision to dunk herself in the muck of the upcoming election with a dopey and illiterate diatribe against Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.). Swift had previously kept quiet about her political opinions, possibly in keeping with Michael Jordan’s advice (“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” he said) and possibly in the knowledge that there isn’t any particular reason anybody should given an especial damn about the political views of celebrities. She had been from time to time criticized for declining to use her celebrity as a pulpit for warm-mush chardonnay liberalism of the familiar variety offered up by American celebrities. The ego can only resist so much temptation.

I kept that in mind last night at the Kessler Theater in Dallas, where Henry Rollins — the punk-rock wild man who has in his fifties evolved into something somewhere between stand-up comedian and lecturer (I cannot write the words “spoken-word artist” without wincing) — was putting on a peculiar performance. Rollins has concluded his career as a musician: “I put up my fists and there was no longer anything there,” he wrote in LA Weekly, where he is a regular columnist. “It was heartbreaking, but it was clear. Music had moved on.” But it has been a long time since music was his primary outlet. He has been an actor in films of varying quality (from Heat to Johnny Mnemonic), a writer of bad verse and good prose, and a much-admired public conversationalist. At the moment, he is touring with a slide-show presentation about his extensive travels over the years, from crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express (he edited Johnny Ramone’s memoir, Commando, during those long stretches of monotonous tundra) to enduring a North Korean propaganda junket, and venturing into Afghanistan and Iraq as a USO performer.

It is difficult not to like Henry Rollins. He’d bristle at the wording, but he is an all-American success story, as good an example of the Protestant work ethic as you might ever hope to encounter. He is bracingly straightforward about what made the difference in his life: “I don’t have talent. I have tenacity.” And one bit of good fortune: When he was a young man scooping chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream into cones at a Häagen-Dazs shop in Georgetown, his favorite band, Black Flag, found itself with an opening for a singer, and invited him — an enthusiastic fan with little performing experience — to come up to New York to audition for the role. He ran through the set and had the job ten minutes later. He is probably the closest thing to a genuine rock star as the American punk scene ever produced. The most radical thing about him is that after spending his life marinating in a pop culture thick with jaded knowingness and ironic distancing, he remains entirely earnest.

The usual contradictions are there: Rollins is an anti-capitalist who has paid the bills with everything from Hollywood movies to modeling for the Gap, a creature of the underground who made it big on MTV, back when MTV was a thing. The son of an economist (Paul Garfield, the author of Public Utility Economics), Rollins grew up in Potomac, Md., attended a pretty fancy prep school (Bullis, current tuition $43,131/year), and enrolled briefly at American University before dropping out. That’s a pretty familiar curriculum vitae, that of the socially alienated youth with enough of an education and well-heeled background to enjoy his social alienation, and to make something of it. But there was real suffering, too: The long dark shadow over his life was a mugging outside of his California home in 1991, during which his best friend, Black Flag roadie Joe Cole, was shot to death.

“I survive America,” he says, “in spite of what it wants to do to people like me.” One cannot help but note that “people like me” in this case means beloved, widely admired, well-off celebrities. There’s a bit of a blind spot there for him, as there often is for similar celebrities. He took a moment to piss on Brett Kavanaugh and to heap praise on the performer he most admires: Iggy Pop. You’ll be familiar with the thin allegations against Justice Kavanaugh. Iggy Pop is indeed a gifted performer. He’s also a man who maintained a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl and then recorded a song, “Look Away,” mocking her family for their inability to do anything about it. Another of those blind spots, I suppose.

It is difficult to get outside ourselves, and to understand our own biases. Rollins, playing to the Dallas hipster crowd, praised Senate candidate Robert Francis O’Rourke — he goes by “Beto” for campaign purposes — who is running against Senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke, like Rollins, is a prep-school kid with good family connections. His father was a politically important judge in Texas, which must have come in handy when he was arrested for drunk driving after careering into a truck and attempting to flee the scene. (O’Rourke still denies that he tried to run; witnesses told police otherwise.) O’Rourke, too, is a familiar type: The rowing-crew captain protected by daddy’s position from bearing the full consequences of his misbehavior. You think the sons of tomato pickers named Roberto Gonzalez or Perez or Guzman get sent into courtrecommended misdemeanor programs after driving drunk into oncoming traffic and trying to flee the scene? Nope. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is a bookish nerd, the son of an immigrant from Matanzas, Cuba, a guy who busted his ass at Princeton and who will talk your ear off about Hayek and history and constitutional theory. And yet he’s somehow the entitled jerk in the race? Another of those blind spots. O’Rourke may be a bass-player, but he’s about as punk-rock as my Brooks Brothers pajamas. The ties of tribe run deep, and they are not always obvious to us. I wonder what, if anything, Henry Rollins actually knows about Ted Cruz, or “Beto” O’Rourke.

On the same theme: Does anybody really think that Taylor Swift sat down and marked up a copy of Title IV, sec. 40001-40703 of Public Law 103–322, taking note of the ACLU’s historical objections to the law and the findings in United States v. Morrison, which ruled part of it unconstitutional? Do you think she carefully considered the provisions of the law that Republicans objected to, such as the process for extending temporary visas to illegal aliens who claimed to have been victimized by certain crimes? Or do you think she saw the words “Violence Against Women Act,” took a good hard look at Senator Blackburn, and let that be that?

It’s not that I don’t get it. I have spent a little bit of time with Senator Cruz, whom I like and admire, and I often have the same reaction to his campaign performances that I had to those of George W. Bush: “Who is this Howdy-Doody m———-r on my television? Because he sure as hell bears scant resemblance to the man I met.” I don’t know why Senator Cruz does that Elmer Gantry thing on the campaign trail, and I am a native Texan. I suppose it works. It must. Or, at least, it must have. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, things change, even in Texas, where the increasingly urban population is going to make things complicated for Republicans such as Senator Cruz.

Republicans are not cool. Never have been. The hipsters in Brooklyn may be aping Abe Lincoln’s facial hair these days, but President Lincoln was not cool in his time. Neither were Dwight Eisenhower and Senator Taft. Hollywood thought that Ronald Reagan — one of their own — was the devil incarnate. Rollins’s pals the Ramones satirized him in “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” and Johnny Ramone was a Republican. Barry Goldwater? Those glasses are fashionable now (cf. Rollins, Henry) but Senator Goldwater was not cool — not in 1964, not thereafter. Cool is carefree. Cool doesn’t try too hard. Cool is not overly concerned about being responsible. Cool is just cool.

I don’t need Republicans to be cool. I need them to try to govern like adults.

(Alas.)

But the cult of cool is a faith without mercy — Ego, too, is a jealous god. Celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Henry Rollins swim in the sea of cool, which is invisible to them for the same reason that water is invisible to a tuna. It isn’t that they are stupid (some celebrities are genuinely stupid — looking at you, Sean Penn — but I do not think that there is any reason to believe that Swift or Rollins is among them), and it isn’t that they are incurious: Rollins is one of the most inquisitive people walking upright, one who consumes books and documentaries and experiences with real intellectual hunger. (You might call him “civilized.”) Like John Watson, they see, but they do not observe. And one of the reasons they do not observe is that they don’t have to. There isn’t any price for being intellectually irresponsible. Taylor Swift can make poorly informed and shallow political statements all day, and I can explain here why they are poorly informed and shallow, and, after I do that, she’ll still be Taylor Swift. Of course it is folly to think very much about the political opinions of pop singers and movie stars — except for the fact that they exert a good deal more influence over the political discourse than do the arguments and meditations of more responsible parties. This morning, one of the local right-wing talk-radio hosts was going on in something like rapture about Kanye West’s recent appearance in a MAGA hat. We conservatives are pretty cheap dates when it comes to celebrity.

A funny story from last night: Rollins has appeared as an interviewer in a bunch of documentaries, including one about New Orleans residents who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. There was a woman he was scheduled to interview, and she clearly did not want to be interviewed. He told her that he understood, that he just wanted to hear her story, and that he’d try to get the whole thing done in ten minutes or less. I had the same experience about 20 years ago with a famous punk singer who had spoken often about how much he hated being interviewed, about how put-upon and probed the process made him feel. Henry, his name was.

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