Sarah Palin is here for the Party
A lot of Democrats don’t get Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. They see her as a novice frontier Governor with more interest in moose hunting than foreign policy (all of which is true), and think that the big chunk of the United States that has found itself smitten by her has lost its collective mind.
To understand the appeal of Sarah Palin, it’s best not to think of her as a politician. Her role in John McCain’s campaign thus far has not been to bolster the governing credentials of his prospective administration (the way, for instance, George W. Bush used Dick Cheney in 2000 and Barack Obama is using Joe Biden in 2008). Palin, at this point, is a star, a brand, and, as loathsome as the McCain camp apparently finds such people, a celebrity.
But Palin is not just any celebrity. Palin is Gretchen Wilson.
Wilson released her first album, Here For the Party, in 2004, and its lead single was the raucous “Redneck Woman.” The song introduced Wilson as a down home firebrand, a tough, unashamedly country woman who embraced her roots and celebrated her local culture. She called herself a redneck with the same pride Jeff Foxworthy did in his “You Might Be a Redneck” routine, though Foxworthy was more obviously self-effacing than Wilson. While Foxworthy’s fans might have wryly and appreciatively recognized the stereotypes the comedian peddled, Wilson’s redneck was something even the most effete city-dweller would aspire to, at least for the four minutes it took to listen to her song.
“Redneck Woman” could be an anthem for Palin; it is certainly more appropriate than Heart’s “Barracuda,” which the Republicans are currently using at campaign events (it’s in reference to her nickname as a high school basketballer). Take a look at the chorus, which seems as designed to respond to Palin's Democratic detractors as it is to Wilson’s haters:
'Cause I'm a redneck woman
I ain't no high class broad
I'm just a product of my raising
I say, 'hey ya'll' and 'yee-haw'
So here's to all my sisters out there keeping it country
Let me get a big 'hell yeah' from the redneck girls like me
Note that, like Palin, Wilson frames her blue collar background as intrinsically feminist; because she identifies as a woman as well as a member of the working class, declaring her pride in her roots becomes a pro-female stance. That’s why Palin is particularly appealing to Republican women who have no interest in the policy proscriptions of progressive feminism like abortion rights (which Palin opposes) or enforcement of equal pay (which McCain voted against as a senator). Palin is to Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi as Wilson is to, say, Ani DiFranco or Liz Phair, but once feminism adopted the politics of identity rather than being purely policy focused, any of these women could define themselves as feminist, despite having possibly very different ideas about the role of women in society.
At the end of the first verse, Wilson sings a line almost directly applicable to Palin: “Some people look down on me, but I don't give a rip/I'll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip.” To my knowledge, Palin hasn’t been sighted barefooted and nursing young Trig, but her response to criticism is the same as Wilson’s. “You might think I’m trashy, a little too hardcore,” Wilson sings later. “But in my neck of the woods, I’m just the girl next door.”
Of course, Palin is more polished than Wilson; as a politician, she has to be (and Wilson, as a country singer, shouldn’t be). But both women hold a similar appeal, and, both are undoubtedly appealing. Palin can deliver an engaging speech, and do so likeably, regardless of your opinion of the content. Wilson is a blast of a listen; she’s a charismatic presence and hugely enjoyable. And she doesn’t mind a bit of wowser-baiting immorality, either. In “All Jacked Up,” the title track from her second album, she sings of having too much to drink, and smashing up her truck when she tries to drive home intoxicated. The story is one of a lesson learned, but Wilson sings it like she hasn’t learned a thing. Meanwhile, “Skoal Ring,” also on All Jacked Up, celebrates chewing tobacco like no one has ever heard of cancer. Wilson wants you to know she’s a rebel.
Country listeners, even the conservative ones, don’t care, just like they don’t care that Palin’s eldest daughter Bristol has pre-marital sex. Palin and Wilson are redneck women, and if that means the occasional D.U.I. (as in the case of Palin’s husband Todd) or teenage pregnancy, they don’t give a rip.
Not every Wilson fan is a Christian conservative, and for that matter, nor is every redneck. Palin will need to capture voters outside the Christian Right. Is being a country girl-next-door good enough to do it?
If “Redneck Woman” is Wilson’s convention speech, an introduction to her personality and style, the song “Politically Uncorrect,” from All Jacked Up and featuring Merle Haggard, is her policy platform. The lyrics use the language of the right wing, but the message is potentially centrist. Take a look at Kelefa Sanneh’s analysis of the song:
“If you're looking for a more familiar example of [country music’s] politics, you couldn't do much better than "Politically Uncorrect," the new video from Gretchen Wilson. She has built a successful and hugely entertaining career on two albums full of songs about her "redneck" pride, and this video lays it on thick. "I guess my opinion is all out of style," she sings. And she turns her conservative values into a typically rousing sing-along: "And I'm for the Bible/ And I'm for the flag/ And I'm for the working man." To prove it, she sings the song with Merle Haggard, who was long ago enshrined as a human embodiment of good-ol'-boyism.
[Wilson] uses politically charged words and images — "redneck," "rebel," the Confederate flag — while just about draining them of any specific political meaning. She brashly announces that she's "politically uncorrect," but the things she sings about seem guaranteed not to cause offense: not just the flag and the Bible and the troops, but also preachers and farmers and the working man. No doubt she also enjoys puppy dogs and long walks on the beach.
Ms. Wilson even includes on her list "the single mom raising her kids." That's a neat reversal: in the early 1990's, during the short-lived controversy over "Murphy Brown," it was the politically correct types who were defending single motherhood. But then, that's the seductive thing about Ms. Wilson's world: you don't have to be incorrect to be "uncorrect." Everyone's a rebel.”
Palin, ideologically, is not so centrist. However, while,as the McCain camp would prefer, the campaign remains focused on her personality rather than the issues, that will not matter. You don’t need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Republican to enjoy “Politically Uncorrect” (I’m not and I do), and John McCain is surely hoping that you don’t need to be a Republican to admire Sarah Palin.
But being a Redneck Woman and little else may not be the best thing for Palin. It wasn’t for Wilson. By the time her third album, One of the Boys, came out, her good old girl persona was growing stale. “There Goes the Neighborhood” trod over old ground with no new insight, “You Don’t Have to Go Home” was a less exciting take on “All Jacked Up” and the title track said the same thing her past hits had without the vitality or spark. Her exciting choruses now sounded like she was covering talking points.
The best song on the album was one of the few that explored new territory; “Come to Bed,” a weary duet with John Rich (who this year released “Raising McCain,” a song celebrating the Republican candidate). The song was about a couple who reconcile because they’ve been together too long to not, and while she had covered similar ground on earlier material (“I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today”) she hadn’t done so with this level of emotion or nuance. But the album was dominated with too many weak versions the sort of songs we’d heard from Wilson before, and record buyers responded accordingly; One of the Boys sold a fraction of the amount her previous albums did, particularly her debut.
Being a Redneck Woman or a Hockey Mom is interesting enough to capture the attention of record buyers and voters. Sarah Palin will need to do something Gretchen Wilson couldn’t if she is to keep their attention. If all she has to offer the public is her personality, they will tire of her by election day. The Obama camp seems to have realized this, and is keeping its attention directed at the candidate on the top of the ticket.
The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert sees Palin as the American Idol candidate. Rather, she’s the Gretchen Wilson candidate, and Palin has done little to define herself as anything more than a Redneck Woman. It won’t be enough to save John McCain this November. If he is to beat Barack Obama, he will need more than the Mayor of Wasilla on his side.
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