Why Murray the K turned into Glenn Beck (and Dr. Dre)

Just as the How Ronald Reagan Became President histories trace back to William F. Buckley’s fusion of libertarians and conservatives under the umbrella of anti-Communism at the National Review and then back to Barry Goldwater’s catastrophic landslide loss to LBJ, which in retelling turns out to actually be the trial run for Reagan; may I suggest that future histories about How Sarah Palin Became President trace back to the anti-Disco riot at Chicago’s Comiskey Park on July 2, 1979 and then back to the arrival of Glenn Beck at Fox News on October 16, 2008.

In memory, the Top 40 DJs of the 1950s and early 1960s like Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack, and Murray the K were cultural ambassadors of racial integration, holding together the multi-culti meritocracy of hit radio with the force of their raucous on air personalities and patter, a parallel if not explicit connection to the Civil Rights Movement. But by 1979, rock DJ Steve Dahl, with the blessing of Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, could promote a Disco Demolition, a vinyl book burning as it were, after the first game of a doubleheader that got so out of hand the White Sox had to cancel and forfeit the second game.

In short, rock culture revealed its capacity to grow into a potentially ominous mix of white and straight resentment.

Some might see this dynamic as just another aspect of the rise of Reaganism, but I believe it was the beginning of a new dynamic. Reaganism harkened back to a bygone past that promised to put a lid on the 1960s and provide a glorious future, and Reagan himself displayed an avuncular yet firm pre-‘60s putting-the-lid-on persona. Rock era personal subjectivity was a problem Reaganism solved with repression. In that context the anti-Disco riot was too close in tone to Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement to be articulated or manipulated by the right-wing politicians of the era. In its own way, it was an expression of identity politics, as was Classic (i.e straight, white) Rock. Which would have to wait another thirty years for a DJ who could personify and harness it directly to conservative and libertarian ideology.

In those thirty years the Top 40 DJ who dispensed a liberal social glue transformed — as the early 1960s cultural consensus cracked and refigured — into the disco DJ, the hip hop MC, and the shock jock, each masters of reduced hegemonies, with only shock jocks taking that reduction as the suggestion of conspiracy. Eventually some would dispense with the music altogether and segue to talk radio, not in the mode of the old late night tale spinners like Jean Shepherd or interviewers like Larry King, but as entertainer ideologues like Rush Limbaugh, slathering that needed social glue throughout the show. When Glenn Beck arrived at Fox News he had traveled this trajectory from Top 40 to Morning Zoo to Shock Jock to Talker and had already made the leap to television at CNN Headline News, something Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Howard Stern all tried and failed. He didn’t just understand rock culture, he was rock culture, or at least a part of it. On TV.

Unlike his Fox News peers Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, Beck doesn’t utilize a Reaganish benign but irritated patronizing patriarchal logic to control the excesses of The Left. Instead, he dramatizes a personna under siege, struggling to stay centered, a rock era Holden Caulfield looking for an honest libertarian face in a sea of progressive phonies – with a Morning Zoo mix of skits and voices usually aimed at lefty politicians, but often doubling back on himself. Beck’s books, all bestsellers, are far from the prolonged linear diatribes and critiques of Phyllis Shaffly or Russell Kirk, but a mix of history, politics, personal anecdotes, asides, sidebars, graphics, running gags, and footnotes. Morning drive time radio on the printed page. A visually engaging printed page.

This makes it irrelevant to catch Beck in a contradiction. He hates New York City but brags about working there. He’s cries on air and makes fun of his pudgy body but flirts with old fashioned homophobic taunts. He dislikes unions but reveres his grandfather who was a shop steward at Boeing. He jokes about how conservatives don’t trust the New York Times but boast when their books are on its bestseller list. It doesn’t matter, or maybe it’s even the point. He can lay out a coherent argument, but the underlying dynamic is an uncompleted search for personal integrity in a country that’s become unmoored and needs to get back (way back, before Teddy Roosevelt) to basics.

The other Fox stars conduct interviews with politicians and policy makers, just like real reporters, but I have never seen Glenn Beck interview anyone other than Sarah Palin, whom he adores. All the rest are just a bunch of phonies, why bother. Politics, or even proximity to politicians corrupts. But Palin is different. Why?

Palin contains what Beck is seeking: rock era sincerity and authenticity, the true self maintaining an internal compass in a social order trying to impose collectivist solutions. Libertarian theory as internalized subjective struggle.

What happens as Palin maneuvers through the Tea Party movement and the Republican establishment towards the elections of 2010 and 2012? Can she hold on to her bona fides with Beck and his constituency? Can she do so if she wins and goes to Washington? This is not really a question about policies or voting records, it’s a question of presentation and preservation of the self.

From this perspective, incumbents in Washington, D.C., no matter how conservative are suspect, because they’ve had to sell their souls, and the only vote that counts is a no vote against everything and anything proposed by Obama and the Democrats. This year’s Harris Poll of favorite TV personalities puts Glenn Beck second, and Oprah Winfrey first. He’s a favorite personality. And this personality, and those of his audience, can only be sustained if government is radically reduced, and soon.

That stance works well when the right wing mission is to block Obama and the all-politicians-are-corrupt analysis solves a knotty problem: how to explain the economy collapsing under Bush. Simple: he sold out with his big government bailouts. Glenn Beck’s roots in rock help him embody both the bad boy and the redeemed (he’s a recovering alcoholic and Mormon convert, both part of his public story) inside a familiar mainstream secular narrative that’s always had a spiritual subtext, without transmitting the cultural isolation of a Jerry Falwell. But politicians catering to this attractive passage don’t have a lot of wiggle room to pass, let’s say, a few small financial adjustments to avoid another meltdown of global capitalism. Will that create a conflict at Fox News? It isn’t clear what Glenn Beck thinks about insiders like Newt Gingrich or Karl Rove or really any conservative politicians elected to a position of power inside a state with a larger and more complex population than Alaska’s. And because he idolizes (as in makes an idol of) the free market as an abstraction and doesn’t see it as a mode of economic interaction improved by rules and regulations, government intervention no matter what is a mistake, perhaps a sin, and quite probably the first calculated stage of a Marxist zombie plot. Businessmen good. Politicans bad.

As a performer, Glenn Beck has opened up a new space combining Oprah Winfrey and Rush Limbaugh, a space that so far, no one else on the left or right or middle has been able to locate, let alone inhabit. Whether Sarah Palin can open up a parallel space inside of politics and stay there remains an open question. Rock on!

From January, 2010