A cowboy, baby? Kid Rock at the Fort Worth Convention Center on February 19.
A cowboy, baby? Kid Rock at the Fort Worth Convention Center on February 19.
Lindsay Graham

Are You Kidding Me?

In a parking garage near the Fort Worth Convention Center, monster trucks gobble up the compact-car spaces. A Firebird blazes past with four young women in fuchsia lipstick and tops held together by strings. In the passenger seat of a Mazda, a woman catches your eye. Pat Benatar clothes; your mother's age. It's time to start taking notes.

"The Budweiser tailgate crowd," says your companion, tapping out a cigarette. He is not a Kid Rock fan. Neither are you. And that's why you're here, really. You're trying to understand the appeal of Kid Rock, because ever since you saw him on MTV, blathering about being a cowboy, baby, he has been nothing but a punch line to you. A foulmouthed, no-talent clown. A weasel. This guy? Come on.

And yet, five years later, there he is on the cover of Rolling Stone, talking about fatherhood, about growing with his audience. There he is nuzzling Pamela Anderson in the glossies, singing duets with Sheryl Crow and Hank Williams Jr. There he is on The Tonight Show, on the Super Bowl, on his own friggin' VH1 Christmas special. You can't avoid the guy. When you go to Target, he is on the TV, strumming his six-string and singing (of all things!) Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love." Wake up, people: He's a poser. And you know "making love" is not what he calls it.

But here they come--thousands and thousands of fans, paying $35 a pop to see the man in the flesh. They come with spike heels and French manicures. With trucker caps and rat-tails. With flannel shirts and 12-pack bellies. Or with nothing noteworthy at all, like they could be someone's parents. They even come as families. They cram the perimeter of the Convention Center, standing in lines for domestic beer. At the merchandise table, a guy in a gas-station shirt buys $83 of goods--two T-shirts, a key chain, a black ski cap that reads "ROCK" and panties that read, in cursive font, "Cadillac Pussy." That's one of Kid Rock's songs.

"There's a shirt for you," a cute blonde tells her boyfriend. On one side: "There Ain't No." And on the other: "Motherfucker Quite Like Me."

Inside, Puddle of Mudd has finished their set--thank God--and you chat with another journalist. You recognize each other by the small spiral notebooks in your laps. He asks if you like Kid Rock.

"This is more of a sociological experiment," you say.

"Gonna talk to people from the audience later?"

You nod, knowing you won't. Because what would you say? "What's wrong with you?" Look, you abhor rock-and-roll snobbery. You believe musical taste is subjective, something to which everyone is entitled. You don't believe it's "wrong" to like certain artists--how else could you get away with loving Lionel Richie? But this guy is too much. Pretending to be some kind of urban outlaw, some kind of Southern rebel. Hellloooo? He's from Michigan.

"Romeo, Michigan," says the journalist, "about five miles from where I grew up. Nothing there but white people and apple orchards." Which is why the journalist preferred Kid Rock when he pimped around in floor-length minks. At least that was funny. It had pageantry. Now we have to suffer through ballads and bombast, songs about being a single dad, songs by Bob Seger.

Actually, you like the new songs better. You've been listening to the third CD, Kid Rock, for a week now, and it's growing on you. Secretly, you've been looking forward to this. There is a line from "Rock n Roll Pain Train": "Where the hell were you back in Detroit City 1999?/Stoned out of my mind." When he says that line, you can practically hear the stadium roar.

When the stadium does finally roar, your seat vibrates. A firecracker startles the darkness. Sparks spew from the stage to reveal a bald eagle emblazoned on the back curtain. Later it will be replaced by a Confederate flag. After that, an American flag. This is all part of Kid Rock's newfangled patriotism--earnest, yet tasteless, like how he wore the Stars and Stripes during his halftime show, that other Super Bowl controversy. But tonight, Kid Rock is wearing rhinestone sunglasses and jeans and a brown Western shirt with only the top button fastened. He kicks at the air and flings his stringy hair around. The announcer implores you: "Texas, make some motherfucking noise!"

Texas does.

Because you have only one Kid Rock album, you don't recognize the show opener. Something about being a redneck. Something about smoking pot. Something about going platinum. But as the show progresses, these ideas emerge as themes, woven throughout the oeuvre. Bitches, money, fame--these things are important to Kid Rock. He is a man of simple pleasures, although many of them land people in jail. On either side of the stage, two bikini-clad women dance around a pole. It takes you four songs to notice those girls, which must say something about the guy's stage presence. Or your crappy seats.

The first song you recognize is not a Kid Rock song, although lighters flicker across the stadium. No, this is a song you remember from your teen years, back when your first boyfriend played it on his tape deck as you drove around in his Chevy Nova, looking for somewhere to make out, like a cemetery or a church lot. This song is so pleasingly familiar that you might even have liked it. You must have heard it a hundred times. Man, what is this song?

Oh, my God. This song is "Freebird."

At dinner before the show, you read out loud to your companion from a few photocopied articles. The New York Times called Kid Rock "a twangy blond balladeer." The Kid Rock review in Rolling Stone dubbed the album "one of the year's best hard-rock records." They gave it four stars.

Your companion groaned.

"That's out of five," you cautioned.

He groaned again. "Oh, yeah? I was hoping it was out of 45."

Neither of you begrudge the man his Top 40 success, but does he have to win over the critics, too? Artistic respect is what belongs to the musicians and albums you love, like The Shins' Chutes Too Narrow, which recently sold 100,000 copies. A hundred thousand--and that's good! The bands you love get dropped from major record labels, shunted to MTV2 and Internet radio while Kid Rock sells 10 million copies of Devil Without a Cause, bragging about poontang at the Playboy mansion. This is the America you have never understood. The NASCAR races. The tanning beds. The strip clubs. The dirty crotch smell of it all. You have nothing against mainstream music, but the injustice of this! Of Kid Rock! And by seeing him live, you were hoping you might understand it better. Might glimpse his talent or his charisma or--gulp!--his attractiveness.

Instead, you are bored. As the crowd sways, as the Confederate flag unfurls, as the girl in front of you pulls up her skirt to reveal her thong, her boyfriend palming her bare ass, as Kid Rock sings, "Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul/I wanna get lost in your rock and roll," you pack up your notebook and leave.

There are some things you'll never understand.


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