Ron Paul is no Kurt Cobain, despite what Kennedy says

August 7, 2014

Neither I nor anyone else could ever argue with an article that begins like this: "Let’s say Ron Paul is Nirvana." Not "nirvana," mind you; Nirvana -- messy blond, corporate-rock-still-sucks, most-popular-song-named-after-deodorant Nirvana, the rock band. Let's say Ron Paul is Nirvana, lures the New York Times Magazine in an article on the libertarian movement that went online on Thursday. Great wind-up, but the pitch doesn't land where you'd expect.


Ron Paul. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

It's Kennedy, a.k.a. "Kennedy from MTV" a.k.a Lisa Kennedy Montgomery who is saying this. Ron Paul/Nirvana is "like, the coolest, most amazing thing to come along in years," she says, "and the songs are nebulous but somehow meaningful, and the lead singer kills himself to preserve the band’s legacy." (Which is a remarkably horrible way of describing Kurt Cobain's death, but, whatever.) Rand Paul, the Kentucky Senator and son of Ron, is "Pearl Jam. Comes from the same place, the songs are really catchy," writes Kennedy. Ted Cruz? Stone Temple Pilots. The point of the article is, libertarianism has a new hipness and allure that has wooed straying conservatives (like Kennedy) back to the fold. But the most immediately interesting thing about the article is that these analogies are, well, not good.

(An aside: Go look at Gawker's photoshops of the libertarians as grunge rockers.)

First of all, saying Pearl Jam is "not quite Nirvana," as Kennedy does, is like saying that Robin Thicke is "not quite the Beatles." Pearl Jam was never anything close to Nirvana. Nirvana was self-aware; Pearl Jam was and is a freshman college philosophy class which spends the first semester developing rules to ensure everyone has a voice in the conversation.  Kennedy misses the best link between the Pauls and the bands, walking around the obvious father-son, this-thing-is-derivative-of-that-thing analogy. Not to mention: edgy-thing-now-has-label-friendly-version.

Nirvana was a smash hit in spite of itself, which is like Ron Paul, definitely. But Paul is a lot more Primus than Nirvana. Fringe-y, not appealing to everyone, and prompting adherents to lure new fans by sticking mostly to the mainstream positions. And, of course, going on to do the theme song for "South Park."

And Cruz as the Stone Temple Pilots? STP (as I will call them solely because I don't feel like typing out "Stone Temple Pilots" over and over and not because I ever called them "STP") does not fit with Cruz at all. "Really good voice, great staying power," says Kennedy of Cruz/STP. Opinions on the voice of STP's lead singer, Scott "Don't Call Me Rick" Weiland, will no doubt differ. But saying that STP had great staying power is like saying that the London Bridge has great staying power. Very popular for a bit and then gutted by fire, reconstituted in various ways for eons until eventually it just settles down to be a thing that briefly distracts college students in Lake Havasu on their way to a booze cruise.

There's a reason Kennedy is a focal point of the article, and it's not just her ability to be quotable. It's that Kennedy is now what she was in the 1990s, the person who stands at the border of the mainstream and tells everyone what she sees. She's the self-identified representative of "the kids." But the grunge analogies don't work the way Kennedy intends them to. Alternative music of this variety is not "hip;" it has not been hip since about a year before Kennedy stopped hosting "Alternative Nation." There's a very real and very effective movement in libertarian politics that is engaging younger voters, but that's largely despite and in spite of it having not been packaged and marketed by the arbiters of political thinking. Kennedy, who appears to have been a 2012 convert to Ron Paul, comes off as being late to libertarianism, too.

If we must compare to bands, fine. Ron Paul is Bad Religion: an ideological audience with some crossover appeal, a few forays into the mainstream. Rand Paul is Green Day: starting out as borderline fringe but becoming a mainstream act in no time. Cruz is Rush: Dedicated following focused on his mastery of his craft. Also: Born in Canada.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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