We all remember the highlight of the 2012 presidential election, when then-Republican nominee for vice president Paul Ryan told the New York Times that Rage Against the Machine was one of his favorite bands. It wasn’t quite irony, exactly. It was more like the twist in Terminator Salvation: with a rush of existential horror, we realized this guy thought he was a real person. But don’t you worry—he’s corrected that misapprehension in a new interview with the Times. Quote:
They were never my favorite band. I hate the lyrics, but I like the sound. Led Zeppelin has always been my favorite band. Again, these urban legends get going.
By “urban legends,” Ryan means things he told the most respected and carefully fact-checked newspaper in America. But he was never directly quoted, so he has some wiggle room. Uncomfortable writhing after the jump.
There are a lot of ways we might interpret this public reversal, the most obvious of which is that Ryan is lying. That’s what William of Ockham would say. A 42 year-old man who lists Rage Against the Machine among his favorite bands—12 years after they break up, mind you—does not grow out of them. It seems more likely that Ryan is just not into music, and like many such people he named as his favorites whatever bands he remembered from his workout mix.
After “Rage is his favorite band” became the takeaway from that Times profile, Ryan probably listened to them more carefully. That would explain his previously unmentioned revulsion toward the lyrics. At first Ryan thought Rage songs were about doing bicep curls, but then—after they became a public reflection of his soul—he realized they were socialist anarchists or whatever and switched to Led Zeppelin.*
That is one narrative Ryan has offered us, but it is of course not the one he wants us to believe. Ryan would have us believe that Rage was never his favorite band, whereas Zeppelin—not mentioned in the Times piece at all—always was. In attributing these public changes in what kind of music he likes to “urban legends,” Ryan implies that he is a victim of media distortion. He calls this phenomenon “getting Wienermobiled”: when the press takes a minor detail of your life and blows it up into a central element.
Ryan only drove the Wienermobile once, you see, thanks to his family connections. More importantly: what possible interest would the national press have in misrepresenting his favorite band? Granted, the Rage thing made a good story that generated a lot of hits. But it would take a malevolent genius to invent it from whole cloth. Exaggerated or otherwise, the initial germ—the congressman likes RATM, did not mention Led Zeppelin—almost certainly came from Ryan himself.
Let us combine these explanations into one totalizing theory: Ryan didn’t like Rage Against the Machine that much but mentioned them in passing, and now that he’s gearing up to run for president, he has changed his answer. If we accept that narrative, I have two questions.
- Why does Ryan believe Zeppelin is the better choice, and
- why doesn’t he just say that he changed his mind?
The answer to question (1) seems fairly obvious. From aesthetic and demographic perspectives, Led Zeppelin is a fundamentally conservative pick. Their appeal spans multiple age groups, thanks to the incurable cancer that is classic rock radio. Their lyrics are about Mordor instead of social justice, so net plus there. And everyone has heard of them, including the kind of people who believe you have insulted them when you say you like a band they haven’t heard of.
Question (2) is on us. Partly by perception and partly by our real behavior, we have created a politics in which a candidate for president cannot just change his mind.
To hear Ryan tell it, his new opinion is the same one he had all along. Not only did his original position never change, but also the New York Times basically lied about it. When you lay it out that way, his claim seems obviously untrue. But Ryan believes it is what we would rather hear than that, over the last two years, his taste in music has shifted from one hard rock band to another.
Say what you will about Paul Ryan: he knows politics better than we do. When he feels the need to revise recent history rather than admit he changed his mind about a band, he is telling us something about ourselves. What he has said is not quite flattering. I wonder if he is right.