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Kid Rock's rebel soul
Hip-hop head, proud redneck and Mitt Romney supporter: Perhaps no other artist better embodies the cognitive dissonance of a changing American identity today than Kid Rock.
Kid Rock is a mess of contradictions.
Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times / November 24, 2012
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November 23, 2012, 5:00 p.m.
On election night,, Kid Rock did something unusual, even for him. The Southern rock-rapper, a famed party monster whose annual Chillin' the Most cruise concert is an Olympian feat of seaborne drinking, conked out early.
Kid Rock, born Robert Ritchie, had performed at rallies for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and his anthem for individual liberty, "Born Free," became the campaign's theme song. Perhaps the 41-year-old hoped to sleep through any bad news on the most nerve-wracking night in American politics. Or maybe this onetime Jim Beam spokesman had turned over another new leaf and was following the straight-laced example of his candidate.
"They say that [Romney] doesn't have the talk, that he can't come in and slap you a pound and hug with Jay-Z. He's not that cool guy, but he's like a father figure for me," Rock said. "He seemed like a genuinely decent [guy]. That freaked people out — 'Surely, nobody can be that decent. You don't get to 65 without some ... in your past.' But that guy has nothing."
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Kid Rock is a mess of contradictions — probably America's only old-school hip-hop head from Detroit to have started a fistfight at a Waffle House and punched drummer Tommy Lee at the MTV Video Music Awards. He's been championed by legendary music producer Rick Rubin, and he's an ex-husband of Pamela Anderson.
And he's a friend and video collaborator of Hollywood liberal stalwart Sean Penn, while also a campaign avatar for a teetotalling Mormon financier who recruited Rock despite lyrics about "The midnight glancers and the topless dancers…The G's with the forties and the chicks with beepers. "
For all the tidal shifts in American pop music of late — the ascent of dance beats, the dominance of young female artists, the demise of mainstream rock on the Billboard charts — perhaps no other artist better embodies the cognitive dissonance of a changing American identity today. On his new album, "Rebel Soul," he is vice and virtue, city and country, a Dixie flag-waving resident of his own Redneck Paradise, and a Detroiter with a half-black son and an encyclopedic knowledge of rap.
"To me, 'redneck' means hard-working people who enjoy the simple things in life," he said. "That's what that term means to me, and I think to a whole lot of people,"
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Though he first made his national name in the '90s when white men with experimental facial hair paired heavy-metal guitars with adenoidal rhyming, Kid Rock arrived at his sound without guile or prejudice. He grew up in a Detroit suburb, Romeo, Mich., influenced by the African American hip-hop scenes of the city's 8 Mile neighborhood (he even once recorded a single at a studio owned by Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins) with the rabble-rousing country and rock beloved in the parts of the Midwest that more resemble Alabama than the Motor City.
Those who suspected a novelty act, however, were rebutted by his songwriting skills and ability to make incompatible sounds make sense. "Picture," his 2001 duet with Sheryl Crow, was a straight-faced tear-in-your-beer weeper that Willie Nelson would have been proud to have penned. He recorded "Born Free," his last album, with producer-guru Rubin, who winnowed his love of Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen into a grown-man country-rock album with sea legs to sustain an arena career into middle age.
Until "Rebel Soul," he was also one of the last chart-topping contemporary performers refusing to release music on iTunes, with a commitment to full-album listening.
"It was so interesting to hear a guy with a rap background come in with these classic rock tunes. That kind of bravado isn't really explored in singer-songwriter material today," said Blake Mills, the young guitarist and singer-songwriter who has collaborated with Fiona Apple and Lucinda Williams and who played on the two most recent Kid Rock albums.
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"I like that he's so unapologetic. We've had late-night conversations about everything from politics to driving a Prius and songwriting, and it's nice to know he's as up front in person as he is as a songwriter. I relate to the guy."
Rather than claim any one idea about American music, Rock revels in all of them in "Rebel Soul." It's a midcareer left turn from the austere and earnest "Born Free." "Rebel Soul" is half party-record, half pan-fried mission to reclaim Southern rock's place in Americana. There are decadent beer-poppers such as "Cucci Galore" and "Redneck Paradise"; "Happy New Year" hits a true and delicate spot between a classic-country drinking song and a reflective booze hound's lament. Last year, he served as chorus-hookman for the Alabama rapper Yelawolf's single "Let's Roll."
Several songs, such as "Detroit, Michigan" and "God Save Rock N Roll," claim an identity lost between pop's gender-bendy electronic shimmer and the fresh-scrubbed "American Idol"-izing of country. The album's lead single, "Let's Ride," is so counterintuitive to today's pop culture — a riled-up tune for combat troops when America is bone-tired of a decade at war — that it can only have come from Rock.
"It's been a long war, but at the end of the day there's a whole [lot] of great Americans still over there away from their families and putting their lives on the line," he said. "When people go up and thank the troops, you get that look like 'Eh, you're just doing that,' but I want to tell those people to go ... themselves. When [soldiers] are driving around blasting music in their Humvees, it's heavy rock or hard-core hip-hop, and I wanted to make them a theme song, something they can be proud of, and I hope they are."
Of course, nothing is more counterintuitive to his career than his campaign for Romney. It's not necessarily a surprise that Rock would have libertarian leanings — he loves freedom, intoxicants and Lynyrd Skynyrd, after all. But in an election where plenty of his heroes and peers such as Springsteen, Jay-Z and Rage Against the Machine were supporting President Obama, Rock stood essentially alone as a mainstream musician stumping for Romney.
He admits that election night was as rough as he expected — "I went to bed. I remember years ago being down in Tennessee watching the Bush-Gore election and said, 'I'm not going through that again. I woke up and was like 'Damn.'"
In talking about it, Rock wrestles with all sorts of competing instincts — the genial culture-crossing peacemaker and the defiant redneck; the authentic devotee of African American culture who also alludes to racially charged conspiracy theories that the president's college career might have unexamined secrets.
"But then he self-corrected back to that most American trait — optimism. "But it is what it is. Things could be better, and I hope they will be. But if not, in four years, I'll voice my opinion again. But I love this country and I respect the office of president, and I'm gonna cross my fingers that these [guys] can work together to make this country a better place to live for everybody. "