Republicans make lousy music. It’s bad enough that right-makes-might old hoofers like Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar, Wayne Newton, Lee Greenwood, Mike Love, and Charlie Daniels still thrive at red-state summer fairs, despite not having one decent song to show for the new century. Even worse, ever since Republican Party chairman, Southern Strategy devotee, and mediocre guitarist Lee Atwater enlisted legit R&B stars for a blues album in 1990, GOP operatives and funders have regularly been forming rock combos in the garages of their McMansions.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee plays bass when he’s not tweeting from the Ayn Rand Book of Dad Jokes. Lately, we’ve learned about Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow’s Fogelberg-goes-creationist brand of folk rock, and current White House counsel Don McGahn has a band.
Republican senators John Ashcroft, Larry Craig, James Jeffords, and Trent Lott sang as a corpse-stiff a cappella quartet — a reverse boy band I wish they’d called One Erection. Devin Nunes looks like he had a ska band in college.
Now, Joe Scarborough — former Republican congressman (albeit from Florida) and co-host of Morning Joe on MSNBC — has a new EP, Mystified, and he’s threatening to release “an EP every month for the next four years.”
Joe Scarborough debuts his EP, “Mystified,” at The Cutting Room.
Already, even before releasing his maiden EP at the age of 54, Scarborough had a musical legacy, which includes his band’s plodding Eagles covers, interviews where he courts cred by mentioning REM and the New Pornographers, and “Reason to Believe,” a clunky Americana antiwar ballad, sung from the perspective of a 9/11 widow. So it’s absolutely no surprise at all that Scarborough’s EP is —
Huh. It’s not awful! It’s decent. All five songs are pretty okay. Which means it’s basically the Sgt. Pepper’s of politico vanity-rock albums.
One of the things we learn about Scarborough is that he likes bad girls — that’s the clear message of “Girl Like That,” where he describes his love for the depressed, alcoholic Jenny (“gave me what I needed in a pickup truck” — DAAAAAD! STOP IT!), and for Sandy, a frankly pretty basic-seeming student from Sagaponack “doin’ bumps down at NYU.” When the female chorus’s vocals warn him, “You don’t wanna live with a girl like that,” Scarborough defies common sense, and asks, “What the hell is it to you?” (In an earlier draft of the song, he sang fuck instead of hell, but Joe might be scared of the current FCC chairman, a Republican lawyer who opposes net neutrality and, wattayaknow, was in-house counsel at Verizon.) No one tells Joe Scarborough who he can have sex with.
Surprisingly, the theme of the EP is decadence. “Superbad” introduces us to Joanie, a drugged-up fashion model who lives in a world of “disco boys, cocaine, and sex-shop toys,” and her stoner pal Jerry who is also on the drugs, and, while lying in bed, “hums a tune from ’75/When three of his brain cells were still alive.” It’s as though “Walk on the Wild Side” were being sung by a light-blue gingham shirt.
On “Time Rolls On,” over some sturdy, two-chord Tom Petty rock, Scarborough wryly and unflatteringly portrays his fellow baby boomers as an aimless and self-regarding generation who will not shut up already about “their glory days, when peace and lust was just a hit away.” One of the song’s wayward dudes is a banker who loses the plot so badly, he “followed Fugazi for a year.” Points for originality.
Scarborough acknowledges that “Mystified” is about the aftermath of his divorce — his second rather than his first, presumably — and he pairs his self-loathing with some kicky, Cars-style new-wave pop. (By double-tracking the lead vocal, he sings both the flat-affect Ric Ocasek lower part and the more pleasant Benjamin Orr harmony.) Even in a song about himself, he sees libertines: “speed freaks” and “east side bankers.” (The EP’s other theme, evidently, is bankers.) It sounds like he disapproves of both cohorts, but the song is kinda what a banker would sound like while freaking out on speed, and that’s a compliment.
Except for one conventional love song, “Let’s Fall In Love,” which, context tells us, is about Morning Joe co-host and future third wife Mika Brzezinski, these are weird songs full of unexpected imagery — visions of America sunk into decay. Hooks don’t exactly roll off Scarborough or his band, whose evident skills never coalesce into a sound, and the best part of his pleasant voice is a scratchy lower register. When he brings in horns or soul background vocals, he brings back memories of Hue and Cry or Swing Out Sister, which is not a compliment. I said his music was surprising. I didn’t say it was great.
Democrats make better music because rock is an intersection of different cultures, a kind of loose and unregulated village where, as in West Hollywood or Brooklyn, Republicans will always feel uneasy. Lee Atwater, for instance, loved black culture, but hated and exploited black people in service of getting Republicans elected, and his music suffered for it.
Being a greedy and ungenerous person will hurt not just your soul, but your music, too. Assholes can make great music, as can liars, hypocrites, mooncalves, illiterates, teenagers, and borderline personalities, but right-wingers cannot.
Yeah, sure, liberals can stink up the joint, too. CNBC reporter Steve Liesman has a Grateful Dead cover band, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley croaked a Taylor Swift cover for the cameras, and, as a tenor sax player, Bill Clinton made Kenny G sound like Cannonball Adderley. Your left-leaning correspondent has also toiled in some dodgy groups, but I’m sure not gonna link to them. So don’t start in with your #bothsides nonsense — if the fight is the Dixie Chicks and Martin O’Malley against Mike Huckabee and the Oak Ridge Boys, it’s not close. Even Scarborough knows the score.
“It’s one of the great tragedies of my political life that Democrats get all the great musicians,” Joe recently told Billboard. His EP doesn’t change that imbalance. And even if it’s mostly a triumph over low expectations, there’s an additional pleasure in knowing Mitch McConnell would find it unbearable.