Kid Rock, Real American Rock Star

by Julian Hattem

Have you listened to Kid Rock lately? Probably you have. Although he has been culturally irrelevant for the last half-decade, his songs are always playing whenever you turn on the radio. Slowly, he has turned himself into the turn-of-the-millennium answer to the Monkees or, maybe even the late Rolling Stones: quintessentially shallow, timeless pop music that does nothing new and enforces old clichés, forever recapitulating them until, at the end, we can finally come around to enjoying it.

As far as pop music goes, he’s staked out his position like a land-grab. Kid Rock has managed to take the ethos of everything that classic rock-apostrophe-n-apostrophe-roll should be and then coat it in slick layers of immaculate radio-ready production. Even his earlier, more rap- and metal-influenced songs like “Cowboy” and “Bawitdaba” are exquisitely produced with Phil Spector-esque walls of sound, resounding backing vocals, reverb-heavy guitar lines and driving synth melodies. They’re time capsules from the Lou Pearlman era of artist creation, and some of them actually sound pretty good.

At a show a while back, harpist Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold performed a cover of the Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow duet “Picture,” a twangy ballad that could pass for a Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton tune.

It’s a good song, morose and, like the best country songs, a little too saccharine to be truly depressing. At the concert the audience giggled a bit as they recognized the melody, and hooted perhaps ironically — but I don’t think it was played as a joke. They used “Picture” as a simple pop song that carries a fair amount of emotional resonance, and reproducing it for a slightly less mainstream audience only demonstrates its universal appeal. Like much of Kid Rock’s material, its dated packaging obscured much of the artistic or commercial talent, but it still does everything that a song on FM radio should. Pop music by any other name always sounds as sweet.

And while many of Kid Rock’s singles may rely a little too heavily on strip club and pimp imagery, no one ever said that rock stars couldn’t be misogynist. If anything, misogyny is one of the defining traits of classic rock legends — from Zeppelin to Kiss — so his anachronistic gender politics only reinforce his status as an icon that somehow has outlived his era.

In his most recent hit, “All Summer Long,” which you’ve probably heard if you’ve stepped into a laundromat or convenience store in the last couple months, Rock doesn’t just mimic the classic rock that he loves — he downright samples it.

“All Summer Long” takes the hooks from, in equal parts, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Werewolves of London,” but transplants the youthful indiscretion a few hundred miles, to Northern Michigan, and slips in countless other odes to being young and having fun and listening to the stereo on warm nights. The lyrics reference the Violent Femmes and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of the Bay.” Or at least I think they do. That’s actually the glory of “All Summer Long”: I’m not even sure which references are intentional, or if the song is just a perfect amalgamation of stereotypical images of America and teenagers and summertime that the concepts are universal, and it’s pure coincidence that he repeats phrases that other, more canonical artists mention. And have you seen the video? God, it’s practically a remake of Wet Hot American Summer. How much more stereotypically youthful and summery can you get?

For years he’s cloaked himself in these references, adopting the pose of his musical forebears rather than just citing them as influences. In “American Badass” he spends verses calling himself the “singer in black” and name-checking the Clash and Grandmaster Flash side by side. To some extent this self-referential canonization is just an oft-repeated hip-hop trope, but, despite all his Kangol affectations, Kid Rock isn’t really making hip-hop. He’s making mass market radio rock. If we want to talk about cultural mash-ups, Kid Rock is about as prescient a figure as Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis, except that Kid Rock actually grew up in Detroit and married Pam Anderson and has a promotional deal with Jim Beam. He went all in.

The Kid Rock quote that defines him the most is from an old VH1 special looking at the lives of rock stars. Kid Rock was interviewed alongside Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, who maintained that his job was about creating an art and sending a message. Kid Rock was more candid: “People say ‘Oh, I’m in it for the music.’ Yeah, of course the music is great — who doesn’t want to make music for a living? ‘But what are you really in it for?’ The chicks and money.” Kid Rock has never had any pretensions about his role in popular culture. He self-consciously molds himself after every image of famous excess precisely because that’s what famous people are supposed to do. That’s what’s behind his Run-DMC-inspired Adidas track suits as much as his blue collar Michigan pride; Kid Rock is the fan who got to be the rock star. Another artist might want to do something new and creative, but Kid Rock wants to do the same thing that’s been done for the last forty-odd years: drink whiskey, sleep with pin-up girls, wear fur coats and play anthemic rock songs with guitar solos and shouted raps. Sex, drugs, rock and roll and all that.

Or, more importantly, he wants people to think that’s what he does. There comes a point where the simulacrum of an idea and the idea itself are indistinguishable. It doesn’t really matter whether Kid Rock is knowingly aping other peoples’ styles or if he’s just talking about the same themes in the same way. He’s perfectly satisfied with the endless reproduction of the same images over and over again. He intends to turn the very idea of rock stardom into its platonic ideal; self-reference without self-awareness.

Not long ago, Kid Rock testified in a Deklab, County, Ga., case concerning a fight in a Waffle House in 2007. During the proceedings he was asked, under oath, whether or not he is “the American badass.” He answered in the affirmative.

Julian Hattem lives in Washington, D.C. and writes about pop music and politics. He has a twitter and a blog that you can read.