09/09/2012 04:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ryan/Romney: Between Rock and a Hard Race

GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan wants us to believe he's a hip headbanger whose favorite band is Rage Against the Machine. Trouble is, the Grammy-winning group has always stood for something, and that something is an overtly radical, even revolutionary worldview.

Rage guitarist Tom Morello took to the pages of Rolling Stone to emphasize the gulf between his band's philosophy and Ryan's, writing that the candidate "is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades."

In his Tampa acceptance speech, the 42-year-old Ryan took precious time to contrast his passion for rock with Mitt Romney's preference for "elevator music," a tasteless commodity which Mitt can soon enjoy in the privacy of his very own car elevator.

Ryan is supposed to be a genius with numbers, but here simple arithmetic fails him. The two bands he mentioned in his speech, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin (for extra cred[it], he called them "Zep"), belong to Mitt's generation, having been around since the early '70s and late '60s, respectively.

Ryan now claims he likes Rage's sound but not their lyrics -- just as he now says that he likes Ayn Rand's stand on capitalism but rejects her contempt for religion, just as Romney points to his management of Bain Capital as evidence of his business acumen while distancing himself from Bain's activities.

The point is that politicians don't always grasp the implications of the symbols they invoke.

Republican presidential hopefuls have been especially clueless in their efforts to co-opt rock & roll songs whose actual meanings are at odds with, er, GOP messaging.

Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign deployed Bruce Springsteen's "Born In The USA" in order to wrap the candidate in the flag. But the song is anything but a paean to jingoistic "American exceptionalism." Its opening line, "Born down in a dead man's town," kicks off a howling condemnation of the Vietnam War and our government's abandonment of the working class. (Conservative darling Chris Christie's unrequited love for Springsteen is a variation on the theme.)

Four years hence, the late Lee Atwater championed (and played) R&B music while running a race-baiting campaign on behalf of George H.W. Bush. Bush himself hoped eating pork rinds with country star Loretta Lynn would soften his patrician image.

In 2008, Sarah "Barracuda" Palin was proud enough of her nickname to play Heart's "Barracuda" at a few rallies before being asked to stop. Note to Sarah: The barracuda in the song is a person so horrible, "You better make up something quick/You gonna burn, burn, burn, burn, burn to the wick." Meanwhile, John McCain was forced to forgo Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" as a metaphor for Barack Obama's energy proposals.

This year's Republican primary fiasco saw Michele Bachmann associating herself with Tom Petty's "American Girl," not realizing that the song depicts "a desperate girl on a balcony." Bachmann was barred from using not only that song, but also Katrina and the Waves' "Walking On Sunshine."

Serial adulterer Newt Gingrich should thank the gods he was ordered to give up on The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now?" which includes the couplet, "So if I was to cheat on you baby/would you see right through me?" Newt also got dinged for using "Eye of the Tiger," a song whose message -- "Risin' up, back on the street/Did my time, took my chances" -- was far more appropriate for Rocky than for Newtie.

Fox News put skin in the rock-roll game when they trotted out REM's "Losing My Religion" to push their "Democrat-war-on-religion" meme. Once again, a rebuke from the lyricist -- in this case Michael Stipe -- ensued.

The Romney/Ryan ticket was also barred from using the Silversun Pickups' "Panic Switch," in which the phrase "pink slip" conjures an image that has nothing do with unemployment. And the rapper K'naan prevented the candidates from sharing in the glory of his anthemic hit "Wavin' the Flag."

Bizarrely, GOP convention planners tried to showcase Romney/Ryan as cool dudes by playing Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town." Lizzy leader Phil Lynott has left this mortal coil, but his mom told NME that Paul Ryan was "abusing" her son's music. The whole thing was weirdly revealing, celebrating as it does, "Them wild-eyed boys that had been away/Haven't changed, haven't much to say/But man, I still think them cats are crazy."

Even Ann Romney weighed in. To prove her hubby's rock bona fides, she bragged in Parade that the Romneys know "an Eagle." Anne wouldn't say which one, and thus far no Eagle has landed.

Occasionally, a song transcends party and ideology to form a more perfect union with a politician. "I'm Just Wild About Harry" for Harry Truman's 1948 campaign comes to mind, as does "You Can Call Me Al" for Al Gore in 2000. Irving Berlin wrote "I Like Ike" for Eisenhower in 1956, and Sammy Cahn rewrote "High Hopes" for JFK in 1960.

But the best, maybe of all time, was Ross Perot's choice in 1992, a hymn written by Willie Nelson, a true American patriot and perhaps the only man ever to smoke a joint on the White House roof: "Crazy."