by Amanda Petrusich
Kid Rock—the goofy sobriquet of Robert James Ritchie, the forty-seven-year-old rapping rock star from Detroit—has been an inscrutable presence on the American political scene for several years now, and on Wednesday afternoon he appeared to announce that he’s running for a U.S. Senate seat in 2018, presumably against Debbie Stabenow, a Democratic senator from Michigan, who is up for reëlection next year. On Twitter, he vouched for the authenticity of a Web site, which features a photograph of him seated next to a stuffed buck, a trophy case, a framed replica of the Declaration of Independence, and an oil painting of George Washington. “Are you scared?” it asks. Nearby, there is a link to a page selling branded merchandise, including a yard sign, a hat, a bumper sticker, and a T-shirt: “Kid Rock for U.S. Senate.” (That this redirects to a site seemingly controlled by Warner Brothers, the singer’s record label, is, perhaps, telling—according to Federal Election Commission regulations, candidates can’t sell branded items for personal profit but may only offer premiums in return for pledges. As of Wednesday evening, the F.E.C. had not yet processed a filing from Ritchie, meaning that it’s still unclear whether this is merely a promotional gag or an earnest proclamation of intent.)
At least since “Devil Without a Cause”—his breakthrough LP, from 1998, which sold more than eleven million copies in the U.S.—Kid Rock has self-styled as a patriotic iconoclast, a rebel cowboy on a rampage against anything effete, élite, or soft. He is particularly enraged by rules or customs that might be construed as infringements on personal freedom, such as the choice to meld rap and rock into a shouty, bullish pastiche. He did not invent the right-wing-outlaw archetype—he’s preceded, in music, by the rock guitarist and N.R.A. activist Ted Nugent, the country singer Hank Williams, Jr., and others—but he nonetheless revels in its actualization. In 2000, he released a single titled “American Bad Ass,” which functions as a kind of decree, a Song of Himself:
Got the rock from Detroit and soul from Motown
The underground stoned fuckin’ pimp
With tracks that mack and slap back the whack
Never gayed away, I don’t play with ass
But watch me rock with Liberace flash
The track is structurally indecipherable from Metallica’s “Sad but True,” but although that song has a seductive, creeping beauty—like a room slowly darkening—“American Bad Ass” might be the least subtle musical performance in the whole of Western music: it is an obdurate, airless, genre-skittering charge. In the video, Ritchie kicks over a vintage television set and bounces around some hay bales arranged in front of an enormous American flag. Young ladies wash motorcycles and wrestle in a puddle while men fling ribbons of beer at them. However preposterous this particular ideation of America is, it has legs: “American Bad Ass” has been viewed on YouTube more than fifteen million times.
Musically, Ritchie samples liberally, which is unusual—building around a borrowed bit of another song is a cornerstone of hip-hop but far less common in rock and roll. “All Summer Long,” his first top-ten hit on the country chart, consists of hugely iconic riffs lifted from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” threaded together in a way that’s as shrewd as it is egregious. (Another hit, “Cowboy,” samples the Doors’ “L.A. Woman” but nevertheless always recalls, for me, the “I got two turntables and a microphone” chorus of Beck’s “Where It’s At.”)
Visually, Ritchie is just as bold a scavenger. I would describe his aesthetic as a complicated homage to blaxploitation films, stringy hair, Ford F-150 commercials, early-nineties gangsta rap, Southern rock, cattle farming, and that one photograph of Johnny Cash, taken in 1969 at San Quentin State Prison, in which he is sneering and flipping his cameraman the bird. Ritchie is often spotted wearing billowing leisurewear in a combination of red, white, and blue. Something deep inside him seems capable of generating endless semi-confrontational aphorisms, like “You best bring an army if your dyin’ to try me,” or “Holler if you is, shut up if you ain’t,” or “Hoes they all adore me, I stop and they all swarm me.” He likes to tweet these phrases, usually accompanied by a blustery portrait of himself in which he might be making some sort of “Come at me!” gesture, or proudly displaying his gold and diamond jewelry.
Ritchie is a strident supporter of Donald Trump. He performed a seventy-five-minute set in Cleveland immediately following Trump’s acceptance of the nomination at the Republican National Convention, last July, and, in April, visited the White House alongside Nugent and Sarah Palin. He sells a T-shirt bearing the phrase “God, Guns, and Trump,” another featuring an electoral map of the country in which Republican states are identified as “The United States of America” and Democratic states are identified as “Dumbfuckistan.” Yet another says, “_onald Trump,” with a footnote explaining, “The ‘D’ is missing because it’s in every hater’s mouth.”
It is psychically exhausting trying to reconcile the moral engine of Ritchie’s ideology—for example, I cannot think of a major religious text that promotes the overuse of booze or promiscuity, two pastimes Ritchie has ridden hard for—but he has nonetheless branded himself as a kind of pious bedlamite, busting up vintage televisions to insure the ongoing liberation of American men.
Now it’s almost too easy to compare Ritchie to Trump—both have considerable (and dubious) celebrity but no political experience. Both enjoy golf, are prone to hysterical braggadocio, and pander to the religious right while having previously indulged in a hedonistic life style. (Ritchie was once featured in a leaked sex tape alongside Scott Stapp, the singer of Creed, and four women.) But, mostly, each is advancing a strange and aggressive vision of America, in which bluster and bullying are high virtues, while patience and grace are mocked. Both claim an allegiance to rural, working-class Americans, while simultaneously advancing rhetoric (or legislation) that will only further wound the poor.
It’s also hard to tell whether either man actually believes what he’s espousing. Until recently, Ritchie was not quite moderate—he delivered a stump speech for Mitt Romney in 2012—but did, at least, seem to consider his options first. “I’ve been looking at it for four years,” he told my colleague Kelefa Sanneh, in 2012. “I’m like, all right, I’ve worked my ass off and made some coin. Who do I want looking out for that? Obama or Romney? Oh, give it all to Romney.” The Ritchie of Sanneh’s profile is kind and good-natured; politically, his biggest sin is brazen self-interest. “I don’t give a fuck if gay people get married,” he said. “And I think they go too far with some of that pro-life stuff. I just want some nerds watching my money.”
It seems entirely possible, if not likely, that Ritchie’s Senate “bid” is just an elaborate album-rollout stunt. Yet that we are paying attention at all—that a belligerent, proudly debauched rock star suddenly seems as if he might be a viable candidate for public service—is a terrifying new normal. To quote Ritchie’s single “Bawitdaba”: “You can look for answers, but that ain’t fun.”