How Fronting a Band Made Me a Better Political Pundit

By James Poulos


The author, center, who is a professional right-wing pundit.

Did I start a band to escape the pain of being a Republican who defends his views regularly on the internet and TV? Maybe. What I quickly learned, however, is that being the frontman for my band, Black Hi-Lighter (check us out, you’ll like it), made me a better pundit. And not just because putting on eyeliner and a black-sequin jacket and making party music lets me blow off steam—being a political pundit is actually like fronting a band. You suck at both for pretty much identical reasons. And you punch through both scenes’ layers of dumb and irrelevance in the same ways.

As everyone knows, there are way too many pundits, just as there are way too many bands. The barrier to enter both professions is embarrassingly low. If you don't make it to stardom, you can still hang around for years on the hack circuit, embarrassing yourself. And if you do achieve success in either industry, you can coast—you are encouraged to coast—on an ever-burgeoning catalogue of stale retreads and boring genre workouts. Dick Morris and Aerosmith would probably have a lot to talk about.

Because punditry and music have both segmented themselves into lots of tiny, self-referential groups with their own separate, die-hard fan bases, there’s always a handful of people in media ready to give you a sustenance-level amount of clicks and reviews—nodding approvingly at your “dedication to craft,” comparing you favorably with some far-superior predecessor, or getting excited when you regurgitate the same riffs or talking points everyone’s already heard. Whole metaindustries are built around rubber-stamping recycled ideas that are conveyed with the right mix of knowing resignation and canned enthusiasm. 

But with the right attitude, fronting a band can actually cause you to discover things about life and about yourself that, as a pundit, you didn’t know and didn’t know you didn’t know. That’s what happened to me, anyway. Here are four of my biggest insights:

1. You can't rock out without your cock out. There are huge risks in daring to take yourself seriously enough to stand onstage for a crowd of people (no matter how small or large) and say, “Listen to me! I have something you should hear!” This presumes a degree of entitlement that no audience will grant unless you first grant it to yourself. Do you deserve to do this? Why you and not someone else? Aren’t there already more famous people who are way better at this? These questions are blocks over which you must risk stumbling. You can’t know in advance how you’ll avoid failing and becoming an object of mockery. But you can choose in advance to be a person who you know to be unstoppable.

2. Take a sad song and make it fucking better. Life is a bunch of problems stacked on top of each other. You can disappear some of them, but since you can’t make life into anything other than problems, you have to pick one to sing about. Fortunately, your audience is ready to meet you halfway and dance, drink, and make out to just about any description of life’s miseries—but only if you rock that description hard enough. In punditry, as in music, you can make people (genuinely!) feel comforted and with it, even while making them aware of just how honestly fucked everything is. It isn’t a matter of trotting out innovative think pieces or ritually displaying your wonkocratic credentials—whether you nerd out in chart-filled policy columns or speak emotionally about vast generalities, your punditry must make people want to nod along with you, no matter how intense or reasonable their disagreements are with you.

3. Be a role model. Beware of musicians and pundits who think of themselves as resource scarce. It’s not very entertaining or rewarding to hear music or read commentary that comes from a place of self-perceived poverty, weakness, or desperation. And unless the performer is particularly talented, it’s often obvious exactly where their work is coming from. Likewise, we really enjoy sharing in the work of musicians and pundits who perform from a place of abundance—no matter how famous or obscure, how rich or poor, how sophisticated or crude. If you’re fronting a band or being a pundit, you’re on your own. You have to be your own justification for yourself. And you have to accept the idea that none of this is going to work unless you want people to be like you—in all probability, a lot more like you. It’s OK. Relax into it. People want to be led. They want transformative experiences. The thing that makes us human, after all, is that we can transform each other and be transformed. It’s all going to happen, anyway, with or without you, so why not try to make it happen? Rock stars do this all the time. Pundits, not so much. It’s not the difference of form that’s responsible for that yawning gulf. It’s the attitude that greases the wheels of the pundit-industrial complex—the focus on the who-said-what BS and the gaffes that no one truly cares about but are blown all out of proportion. 

4. Clichés are signposts on the road to success. Pundits can become machines, generating word salads everyone will recognize without actually absorbing any concepts. Many readers and media outfits have convinced themselves that it’s OK to expect nothing more. But instead of agreeing that embodying a cliché is the culmination of a career, pundits can use their clichés like good musicians do—as rules to either break or let stand. In music, there's no way to avoid an endless string of references, no matter how loosely or rigorously you adhere to formulas. Pundits who feel trapped and defined by the formats of op-eds, tweets, and TV appearances need to learn how to tweak expectations without self-combusting or retreating into inaccessible weirdness. If they worry about becoming predictable, they should just drop their fear that a sudden transformation, a venture into the world beyond their predictable positions, will ruin them. It’s more likely to be their salvation—and, as readers and listeners, ours.

@jamespoulos

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