Kid Rock has officially confirmed that his potential bid for U.S. Senate was just some kind of unfunny performance art, dashing the hopes of nihilists who would gladly watch him pour gasoline on the tire fire that is America. At one time, that seemed to be his schtick — but after 20 years of redneckification, he’ll make do with touring a drab new album branded to hit his adopted heartland: Sweet Southern Sugar, it’s called. Rock teased a candidacy right up to the moment the record was announced, simultaneously drawing buzz for a tour and assessing how his right-wing politics play in 2017. “I’ve gotten to see everyone’s true colors,” he said in an interview with Howard Stern. (Last week he got booed at a Detroit Pistons game, while the crowd cheered Eminem.)
Eminem, of course, recently trashed Trump in a viral freestyle; Rock toured Trump’s White House with a truly batshit VIP tour group including Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin. Pre-millennium, however, the two musicians were alike in white-guy aggression, both representing Motor City and forcing kids like me to scratch the “Parental Advisory” sticker off their CDs before we got home from the mall. As high school freshmen in the year of our lord 1999, a few of us would camp out with a boombox in our friend Matt’s basement rec room, switching between Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP and Kid Rock’s Devil Without a Cause, laughing that anyone was allowed to say this shit for a living.
Eminem’s neuroticism spoke to the nerds we were, but the underlying rage could get to be too much; this was a few months after Columbine, and fantasies of violence felt almost as dangerous as the real thing. Kid Rock, right down to the name, seemed more about performative rebellion — telling the man to “fuck off,” yes, but only so that you could keep partying. Devil opens with “Bawitdaba,” still his most recognizable song, riffage strewn with nonsense words and instructions to start moshing. From there we move on to “Cowboy,” which boasts an Old-West-meets-Hollywood-sleaze swagger I’m not sure has ever been replicated. (Someone had to explain to me that the lyrics “No remorse for the sheriff and his eye ain’t right / Imma paint his town red then paint his wife white, uh!” referred to a messy form of cuckoldry.) Then there’s the title track, in which Rock declared that he was “going platinum” over his label Atlantic’s objections; Devil did go platinum, 11 times over, and remains his all-time best-selling release to date.
Devil wanders between country and rap, often settling into hard rock, which is to say that it negotiates the distance separating farmland and city by delivering an oddly suburban sound. (Kid Rock grew up Robert James Ritchie in Romeo, Michigan, tending horses and picking apples an hour outside of Detroit proper, and his father owned a few car dealerships.) I lived in the melting pot of northern New Jersey, a white teen in a mostly black school, and had the same restlessness about how to sort my identity. A small-town hick who claimed a space in the concrete jungle with greasy dreadlocks and the air of a stoned pimp seemed like the perfect weirdo to guide me into adulthood, and for a good while his eclectic tastes scratched a ton of different itches I couldn’t name.
I don’t really recognize latter-day Kid Rock, the man shooting hogs on his Alabama estate and putting out blandly nostalgic straight-rock pap like “First Kiss” or “Drinking Beer With Dad.” The latest single, “Greatest Show On Earth,” takes a stab at AC/DC vibes but could easily be a parody of same. I can’t say I enjoy listening to Devil these days, either, but I have an affection for its grind, the self-made unorthodoxy of it, the make-or-break stakes it laid out from the start. Kid Rock’s career arc matches the evolution of a young, feisty liberal to a sated, dull conservative — from the guy who wants to change the status quo to the man getting rich off it. He’s an American flag wearing a leather fedora. How could I ever have seen him as subversive?
We last saw a glimmer of the best version of Kid Rock in April 2016, when he posted the tweet above, instantly rendering the phrase “Hey, authority” a beloved meme. (It soon came out that he was in court for a deposition about a glass dildo, supposedly in his possession, that might have been evidence in a sexual harassment lawsuit against a third party — yet the context hardly mattered.) That Rock would flip off the camera for a photo of himself dutifully complying with some legal obligation, in a pose of incoherent defiance, signaled the paradox that drove his success but finally neutered his music. It reminded me of my absolute favorite YouTube video, which not coincidentally is set to Kid Rock’s “American Bad Ass.” Please enjoy these 12 seconds of unreal perfection:
Pretending to smoke in your school hallway, only to tuck the cigarette back behind an ear; saying you may run for Congress, only to claim it was just a joke. The Kid Rock persona I loved was always a giant, goofy bluff. Too bad the world had to call him on it.