If there’s one song I could choose to represent this presidential campaign, it would have to be Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square.” Ultimately, that song tells the story of this election- it’s not about red or blue, white or black, Democrat or Republican. It’s about two contrasting sides of a similar coin, the coin of cool. Each man in this election has distinctive cultural tastes and viewpoints, ones that may seem frivolous at first but ultimately provide a revealing glimpse into his politics. And I sincerely apologize in advance for the extreme use of the words “cool” and “hip” this post will contain.
In one corner we have the incumbent, who is considerably more hip at first glance, at least in a conventional manner. Known for smoking marijuana and sporting a slight afro in his youth, Barack Obama has a crucial advantage over Mitt Romney- he’s smooth, funny, “cool,” and can connect with young people better. But Romney is “cool” in another manner, at least in a way that many white middle-class folks see as cool. He has the allure of success.
But ultimately, these two guys aren’t that different. Both are, in reality, hip in a way that has only very recently been deemed so. In essence, they are nerds, owning up to their love of Star Trek, and in Romney’s case, L. Ron Hubbard. But unfortunately for Romney, Obama knows how to use this nerdiness to his advantage. And this is where Huey Lewis comes in.
While he’s not a plastic soul-possessing white guy who borrows his swagger from Phil Collins on the weekends, Obama is the Huey Lewis of Back to the Future, the Huey Lewis who could hold his own with the worst songs of the Talking Heads and Devo and the best of the Cars and the B-52s. He’s the self-aware Huey Lewis who recognized his squareness and used it to become “hip.” Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is what Huey Lewis has become- an embarrassment relegated to performing karaoke-ish albums and releasing singles with Garth Brooks. He’s the grandfather at the family reunion trying to impress the young folks by peppering his vernacular with chat-room acronyms and cringe-worthy “hip-hop” slang. The word “hip” itself, coming from a part of the body, refers to movement, particularly those movements associated with jazz, and Romney’s robotic demeanor has made it difficult for him to be coooool. Especially because he’s white, and therefore automatically just seems awkward. There are only two ways a white nerd can become cool: a) he can become a hipster or b) he can become successful. And since Romney is advancing in years and has no chance of becoming a hipster, his success is the only way he can be cool. It’s like in the last episode of Freaks and Geeks, in which the AV teacher gives an inspiring speech about how the nerds will become cool and have more success later in life due to their intelligence. So Romney has to tout his wealth as a sign of his coolness. However, this success isn’t nearly as appealing to the majority of America as it is to his base (white upper-middle-class voters), so he has to take a page from Obama and try to engage the youth. Being a white male, there are two avenues he can take to appear cool- he can engage in self-deprecation, which he has tried semi-successfully at several of the debates, or he can push his whiteness to such an extreme degree that he ends up being cool by default. However, this is something Romney has had an extremely hard time doing, and it’s mostly just ended up making him look bad, as when he sang “Who Let the Dogs Out” to a group of black kids.
Both of these two paths were straddled by Huey Lewis, and these lanes essentially overlap. Huey tried his hand at the jazz revolutionized by black artists, but ultimately created a weird white New Wave-y version of it that wasn’t nearly as cool or appealing in a conventional manner. Actually, the saxophonist was probably about as cool as the love-child of the horn section from Chicago and Kenny G. It takes a little shot of irony and Bret Easton Ellis for most to enjoy it. Therefore, he pushed his “whiteness,” whiteness having become a synonym in popular culture for being square and uncool.
Actually, let’s go back to the roots of some of these words, as most of the come from a jazz vernacular. The three most important terms to understand in this argument are hip, cool, and white. Hip, as I defined early, refers to how someone moves, but it also means that they have an inner groove. Cool was previously more of a jazz term, but now it has been appropriated by, well, everyone as essentially a synonym for “neat.” White, finally, pretty much means everything that is not cool, not happening, not hip, not moving. Seeing that most white people were slow to accept jazz, and most of these terms arose from jazz origins, it makes sense, and that’s essentially how it is used today, and I know from experience as someone who is constantly accused of being “white.” But it’s interesting, because when we think of the stereotypical “white” person today, the person we do not want to be, it’s the denim-wearing, glasses-clad hipsters that are supposedly the direct descendents of jazz fans, although I’d disagree with that lineage. That’s an argument for another time, though, and I digress.
What really sets apart Romney from Obama, though, is Obama’s ability to walk down the first Huey Lewis path, the path of irony, self-awareness, and self-deprecation. Remember the scene in Back to the Future when a school official, played by Mr. Lewis himself, told Marty McFly that his music, which was in reality a pumped-up version of Lewis’ own “Power of Love,” was “too loud”? He offered up his own work for slight jest, as he realized that McFly’s rendition was significantly cooler than his own. Similarly, by appearing on a “Slow Jam the News” segment on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Obama has essentially parodied the inner nerd he really is. While he definitely has more “hipster” qualities, he’s also very much a nerd, but because he recognizes it, he is able to avoid the label and connect with youth. Romney, on the other hand, cannot leave the association behind, and just ends up looking ridiculous. Mitt Romney’s squareness is also perpetuated by his running mates’ love of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister, an anthem dutifully shouted by Catherine Zeta-Jones’ turn as a rock-hating, Tom-Cruise-loving pundit in this year’s Rock of Ages. As both Romney and Zeta-Jones’ character are uptight white political figures, you can sort-of see how this makes him look in terms of how “cool” he is. Plus the fact that Mitt Romney said “thanks, but no thanks” to Ted Nugent’s support reveals some of his disdain for rock and roll, or at least for the most interesting man from Michigan who has an opinion on American politics (although I suppose RoboCop could also be a close contender for that title). Actually, once we factor in Zeta-Jones’ adoration of Cruise’s sleaze king and Romney’s fanboy-infatuation with Battlefield Earth, maybe their whole campaign is really a secret takeover plot master-minded by The Church of Scientology? You can really never know for sure.
If we wish to further understand each candidate, is also important to look at what he likes. Obama has pretty solid taste, but something in the lists of “favorite things” he has given to reporters feels generic and, well, lacking. According to an article by The Guardian, Obama’s favorite films switch between Casablanca, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all great films I love dearly which are better than Romney’s offering, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is also a great film, but in its own right. Yet as The Guardian puts it, “there’s something curiously dispiriting about seeing Obama’s favoured titles listed for the masses like a series of leather-bound classics displayed on a shelf.” Actually, taking all these films, the artists who have played for him (Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor), and his favorite television shows (Homeland, The Wire) into consideration, Obama may even be “whiter” than Romney. But then again, Romney loves Friday Night Lights, Battlefield Earth (the book, not the movie, but still), and no popular music that anyone is aware of, and his name is “Mitt,” so I think he takes the cake. Ultimately, these choices seriously reflect the views of each candidate. Many who enthusiastically supported President Obama in 2008 are hesitant to do so this time around, as like his taste he is solid but cautious, while Romney’s slightly unusual choices reflect his constantly shifting, and sometimes non-existent, opinions. Romney gets many of his views secondhand and watered-down from Ayn Rand, which is interesting for many on the evangelical right in general considering she so militantly hated Christians, but then again, that’s also an interesting parallel to Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine. Considering that both Rage Against the Machine, Silversun Pickups, Twisted Sister, and basically any other rock bands that have gotten a smidgen of support from the Romney camp (much like the Glenn Beck/Muse feud) are openly in opposition, it’s a wonder that this campaign hasn’t turned into, well, Rock of Ages, with loud and proud rock-and-rollers on one side and housewives on the other. Which just even further intensifies the Zeta-Jones/Ryan parallel, as they both privately adore artists pretty much against everything they stand for.
Since I already picked a song for the campaign, I might as well pick a movie to represent it as well. And since we’ve already mentioned Battlefield Earth, I might as well go for another Travolta feature, Saturday Night Fever. Actually, this is probably a good metaphor for many elections. It is a story firmly-rooted in the concerns of working class individuals and the struggles of ordinary Americans, yet thirty years down the line, all one remembers is the dancing. And that might be the case with this election. We might just remember the useless, superficial bits after its all done. All of what I’ve just spent the last 1584 words talking about really isn’t what matters in this election; in fact, it isn’t important at all. What matters are the issues, and considering you only have a few hours left, I’d encourage you to get out and vote. It doesn’t matter who you choose, Republican or Democrat, Romney or Obama, Flashdance or Saturday Night Fever, “We Built This City” or “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” so long as you make your voice heard. And remember, no matter what happens to our country, at least we’ll always have Huey Lewis and the News.