For much of 2008, I wore either a punk rock shirt or an Obama shirt. I prided myself on starting the "Yes We Can" chant at an Obama rally and the mosh pit at Warped Tour. Both moments made me feel so alive with purpose. At both, I had shown up for simplified anthems and the feeling of being a part of something big. On a rally floor and a dirty festival ground, both times, I had come for a rock show.
Over these last two weeks, we've experienced political conventions that feel and sound more like rock shows than policy discussions. The Republican and Democratic conventions provided dramatic moments, endless emotional appeal, and lots, lots, and lots of applause.
All this has made one metaphor very clear: Today, politicians are rock stars, and most of their supporters are just the fans in the amphitheaters. When you understand this metaphor, you start to see the underlying motivations driving politics and start to understand why people show up, why people vote against their interest, and why people get so tribal.
Just look at the crowd at these political conventions, and the first thing you will notice is just like at a rock show . . .
Most people don't come for logic, they come for the affirmation.
The punk rock band Sum 41 shouts, "Fuck elitists," in their affirming populist anthem "Underclass Hero," and to some degree, that's all audience really wants to hear at a concert or rally.
In an insightful analysis, Emma Lindsay explains that voters just want to feel dignified. People want to feel that they are good people, that the haters are wrong, and that they themselves are actually better than everyone else.
If rock stars give us anything, it is sex appeal. If they give us anything else, it is an assurance of our dignity. From T-Swift's "Shake It Off," to punk rock's elitism of anti-elitism, to country music's explicit self praising with lines like, "We're the fabric of this nation and we're a nation all our own," in different tunes the singers say the same thing: we are good people, and we are better than you.
Voters can be lead to vote against their own economic interests because a politician on the stage might make them feel good about themselves. The masses don't come for an economics lecture; they really come to hear someone tell them, "you're a shinning star," "you're a firework," and "you're fucking perfect."
But it is not enjoyable just because it is affirming. It is enjoyable because . . .
It's exciting entertainment.
The 2008 college me never read Obama's books or studied the full discographies of the punk bands. I was highly uneducated about really what Obama or these bands really were about. But I went to see them on stage, because they excited me. I showed up to feel, not learn.
Ask anyone why they like a candidate, and so many will, in between incoherent policy defenses, give you their truthful answer: "The candidate is exciting."
This might leave us thinking that this cannot possibly explain all politicians. A politician's appeal can't be about excitement when so many politicians are completely unexciting. But, if you look around any amphitheater, even a laid back Dave Matthews concert, you will realize that . . .
Even Dave Matthews is a badass rock star to someone.
Back in 2008, I was standing at the back of an event. Latter that day Obama would speak. But early in the day I found myself listening to John McCain drone on through talking points without segue or cadence. Setting aside his politics, I first and foremost found him boring. But, when a fellow overwhelmed volunteer leaned in and whisper-shouted to me, "Isn't he just doing great!" and I nodded to be polite, I began to notice how many people were entranced by the least artistic speech I could possibly imagine.
John McCain was their rock star. He was playing at their speed and saying the things they loved. Some of us may like the Sex Pistols or Skrillex, but some like Dave Mathews Band. Whoever we are, these bands are equally badass rock stars to us.
And so I began to look around at the people cheering and oddly enough they all didn't look like the stereotypical Republican, in fact I found . . .
There are a lot of different types of people looking up at that stage.
At rock shows, compared to the "fiery" lead on stages, many fans are dressed in boring khakis topped off with a $10 trim from Supercuts. Next to them stand the crazy fans with even crazier haircuts. But most fans just like the general personality of the band; they don't know the whole discography. They like most people at concert or rally are just waiting for their favorite hit, be it "Satisfaction," "Feel the Bern," or "Make American Great Again."
As with music, trying pin down the "average" fan leads us to a stereotype that doesn't work. Go to a Kanye, Bad Religion, Tim McGraw, or a Taylor Swift concert, and you will of course find that those people share certain characteristics, more so than the average American. But categorizing them all as "punk" or "authoritarian" misses the point and exaggerates differences.
The same goes for politics. University of California Professor Jesse Graham and colleagues find that the average liberal views the average conservative as a more extreme conservative, and vice versa. This false perception of polarization can actually lead to polarization.
But regardless who is staring up at the rock star, no matter what they say, we are going to love it because . . .
Everything our rock star does is great.
When the rapper Drake sings, "You only live once," his fans lose it and say things like, "so true," or "no doubt, no doubt." But when these same Drake fans hear Nickelback sing the exact same idea as, "Live like it's your last day," they probably call it trite. When a band we like gets emotional, we call it "art," and when a band we don't like gets emotional, we call it "crappy emo."
Same goes for politics. We get angry at other politicians for being negative or just appealing to emotion. We become furious at their protesters who march and disrupt an event. But when our politician appeals to emotion, it is "inspiring," and when our protesters' shut down an event, it is "punk rock."
This extends so far into the moral domain. With my colleagues at Duke University, Dan Ariely and Heather Mann, we find that partisans judge immoral actions (such as using shady election practices to having a romantic affair) committed by politicians of their own party as less wrong than the same actions committed by the opposing party.
In politics and music, we join a tribe, and then we proceed to glorify and forgive tribe members incessantly. If we like the rock star and they have a sexual affair or get money from Wall Street, we say, "That's just part of the rock star game." However, if someone we don't like does it, we shout, "Liar, cheater, sellout!"
Sometimes when we defend something crazy our rock star does or says on stage, we are just being biased. But, sometimes, we actually have good reason to defend them because we, as expert fans, know there's actually more subtlety to the catchy slogans. That's because . . .
There's a stage version and an album version to every rock star, and true fans know both.
The stage show is different from the album. On stage, the rock star doesn't get to the deep cuts. The rock star keeps on the hits, the crowd pleasers, and the simple songs that are easy to chant along with, even if you've never heard them before. A live show never has the nuance of Muse's conceptual album or the arc of Sgt. Peppers (or even American Idiot). It is just mostly the hits. These hits can often misrepresent the artist, as many cannot see the subtle social commentary in a pop song like Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" or Beyoncé's "Formation."
On stage the rock star must be the crowd-pleaser, but with the album, the rock star can be the artist. On the album the rock star has more time to create and less political pressure to entertain and get an applause break every minute.
Yet, as shows get bigger and hits take over setlists, we can see the fracturing in communities. The original die hards, the special vinyl-edition-owning, Piketty or Freidman reading fans start to break. They complain that back in the day, "the community was better," "that it once really meant something," that "it wasn't so watered down." But don't fret "Scientist"-era Coldplay fan who just can't understand all this new happy Coldplay music, your day will come again.
A decade or two from now, when the enthusiasm and the hatred for this rock star has died down and there are no recent hits, the rock star will return for an album anniversary show with a small audience of just the in-the-know. They'll play that one entire album straight through. They will pause and discuss nuances and how happy they are to "just "get back to basics." Or maybe they will completely sell out. We never can fully tell in music and or politics.
However, we can, through reflection and metaphor, at least better understand the world and trends of politics. We can realize that politicians are rock stars, and that this fact, unfortunately, explains a lot.