No, not the Beto O’Rourke you’re probably thinking of, the one who captured the nation’s imagination with an improbable and ultimately fruitless Senate bid in Texas. Not the one sandwiched between Whoopi Goldberg and Meghan McCain on “The View” or in Dana Bash's hot seat during CNN's town hall Tuesday night.
I’m talking about Beto O’Rourke, the little-known back-bencher from El Paso, Texas: The only congressman I’ve ever known to be conversant about D.C. Hardcore.
Back in the heady days of 2015, when a Donald Trump presidency seemed even to Republicans little more than a Steve Bannon fever dream, O'Rourke and I would run into each other in the Capitol and talk about punk.
At the time, almost no one knew who he was. But I was covering Congress by day and moonlighting as a drummer, so when I heard about a punk-rock congressman, I had to investigate. O'Rourke, as everyone now knows, once played in a band with Cedric Bixler-Zavala, before Bixler-Zavala would go on to start At the Drive-In and later, The Mars Volta.
O'Rourke talked about how he also toured the country in a van and idolized Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye as a young man. It seems like casual political trivia now, the stuff of Vanity Fair profiles, but at the time it blew my mind that there was a guy wearing a congressional lapel pin who knew about guys who wear safety-pin earrings, and who shared some of the same musical and cultural touchstones that defined my adolescence.
Except that the truth was he only used to be into punk, or rather, he was only into the old stuff. O'Rourke told me that due to the demands of his job, he’d failed to keep up with new music. He asked me to make him a Spotify playlist of current bands I was listening to. I obliged with one catch: that he make me a playlist of some of his favorite punk tunes — not the obvious stuff we all knew, but some of his favorite songs off the beaten path.
“I can't believe that the fucking Penetrators are on there”
So why am I ratting him out on this now all these years later? Well, it’s almost a given that presidents or presidential candidates will produce public playlists these days. The songs will be perfectly calibrated to appeal to every key constituency. Let’s be honest: The songs are often staff-picked to cutely match the overarching campaign themes in lyrical content and tone.
This is not that playlist. This is not his Senate campaign soundtrack, BBQ for Beto, with ditties by KC and the Sunshine Band, Journey and Tim McGraw.
This playlist is an anthropological curiosity, a window into O'Rourke’s musical taste pre-senatorial ambition, and definitely pre-presidential ambition. “Shark tunes” (named in homage to my old band’s dumb name) is a high-energy, guitar-driven, 14-song, 41-minute slice of power-pop punk classics from the likes of the Damned, the Penetrators, the Gories and the Exploding Hearts — bands that disqualify themselves from most presidential playlists by name alone.
But what does it mean? Can it reveal anything about the candidate? And is it any good? Would it draw punks to Team Beto? I turned to a panel of some of my favorite punk experts to find out.
Telling them only that an unnamed presidential candidate made me this playlist, I asked them to give it a few spins and report back to me.
Jared Swilley, the Black Lips
I first showed the playlist to Jared Swilley, singer and bass player for the Black Lips, after a DJ set at Slash Run, a punk bar in D.C., and he loved it. But his face drooped in disappointment when I told him who’d assembled the tunes. When I caught up with him by phone a few weeks later, he seemed more open to the candidate.
“I can't believe that the fucking Penetrators are on there,” he said excitedly.
“Now I like him so much more. It sounds so vain or kind of vapid, but now I'm like, ‘Man, I can't believe he has really impeccable taste in music,’” Swilley said. “You know what? Just to be selfish, I would vote for him because if he got in the White House, I would have a shot at playing in the Rose Garden.”
On the other hand, Swilley said the playlist stands in contrast to O'Rourke’s recent apology tour where the hopeful optimism of his Texas Senate bid seems to have been squelched on the national stage. He said the “View” appearance, for instance, came off forced, whereas this playlist recalls a more genuine side of the 46-year-old Texan.
“It's very easy to tell that he's backpedaling, and he's trying to rebrand himself. And you know, you don't have to be president, but you should be you,” Swilley noted.
“Before this, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, he's into punk or whatever.’ And that could be anything. Punk's gone mainstream a long time ago. But that's some real deep cuts he has,” Swilley said. “No campaign person would ever pick those songs. It's not like, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ is on it, and ‘Combat Rock,’ and ‘Blitzkrieg Bop.’ It's some real deep cuts. So he's a true music fan.”
Swilley’s on a break before a European tour to tease the band’s forthcoming country record on VICE Music, and he’d had a tough day caring for his grandparents, one of whom has taken a turn for the worse. But somehow, revisiting these songs brightened his spirits.
“They're all very positive songs. I mean, like, it genuinely made me feel good today. I'm not gonna lie to you: I cried earlier today. And I was singing along to every song, and that made it better,” Swilley said. “They're positive and happy, but there is an emotional undertone to most of them, like they’re happy tearjerkers.”
Marisa Dabice, Mannequin Pussy
Marisa Dabice, singer and guitarist for Mannequin Pussy, said that even though the playlist is kind of “Wikipedia punk” — an obvious best-of collection from the power-pop sub-genre — she’d be pumped if someone made her this playlist because these are some of her favorite coming-of-age songs.
“I would want to sit on their face,” she joked. “I would also want to be like, 'Yeah, dude, I already know these songs. You're not showing me anything I don't know.’ But I would be impressed that you get down like that.”
She said the playlist could only have been assembled by a romantic, an optimist — a rare commodity in the world of politics. And she correctly guessed this was O'Rourke’s handiwork, even if she wished it had come from Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“I consider myself a very romantic punk rocker, and this playlist screams of just, like, a total romantic,” she said. “This is a punk-timistic playlist. It’s a feel-good playlist for people who still love to rock.”
She said it brought back nostalgic memories of being drunk on a rooftop at 20 years old with an early crush, singing “Another Girl Another Planet” or listening to “Teenage Kicks” every day for a month. She imagines the anodyne, saccharine lyrics give O’Rourke the same mental escape from the workaday world of politics.
“If this playlist was running for president, I'd say keep it in the Senate, maybe nominate this playlist for Speaker of the House”
Some political music choices can be a drag, she said, talking on the phone from Philadelphia, where Joe Biden had just walked onstage at his inaugural campaign rally to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” — “a boring choice.”
But Dabice stopped short of saying O'Rourke’s musical taste would influence her to vote in his favor.
“I like having the insight into his musical taste and maybe where he escapes to, but I think it would be irresponsible to say that would influence my opinions of him as a candidate,” she said. “If this playlist was running for president, I'd say keep it in the Senate, maybe nominate this playlist for Speaker of the House.”
Still, Dabice, who will become the first woman-fronted band to release an album on Epitaph Records in more than two decades when ‘Patience’ comes out next month, also noted there is something notably missing on the playlist.
Brandon Welchez, Crocodiles
Brandon Welchez, singer and guitarist for Crocodiles, noticed it too. He pointed out that there are no female-fronted bands, apart from Fragile Gang, one of O'Rourke’s own bands. And while that may be a function of the white-male-dominated punk scenes of the 1970s and 1980s, it stood out.
For Welchez, who also immediately guessed the playlist’s creator, that reinforced his preconception of O'Rourke as someone who has certain blind spots, and that makes him approach the candidate with skepticism.
“Something just rubs me the wrong way about, like, a white man standing on a countertop saying, ‘I was born for this.’ I don't know, it just seems really entitled and obnoxious, and not punk,” he said, speaking on the phone while on tour in Brighton, England, supporting the band’s new record, ‘Love Is Here,’ out now on Deaf Rock Records.
That’s not to say Welchez wasn’t impressed with the playlist. These are some of his favorite songs, too — even if they would be obvious picks from the standpoint of a DJ or record collector, he said. But Welchez said he’s drawn more toward policy substance, even if that means settling for an older candidate with terrible music taste.
“I think I'm too old and cynical and too much of an asshole to fall for somebody just because they're young and good-looking and listen to cool music,” he said. “If I want to be like a pinnacle obnoxious old man, I could say that the playlist is a little bit basic, you know. But at the same time, if I was drunk at a bar and that came on, I would be stoked.”
Mike Brandon, The Mystery Lights
Still, O’Rourke’s taste definitely does have appeal for others. Mystery Lights singer/guitarist Mike Brandon, for instance, hadn’t heard of O’Rourke, but the idea of a presidential candidate listening to the top power-pop punk songs of his teen years came as a revelation.
If Brandon walked into the White House and heard the Gories or the Scientists playing, he said, “It would blow my mind, man. I mean, I would love for that to be the case.”
“I would definitely get along with the person 100%”
“I would definitely get along with the person 100%, and the fact that he's running for president is crazy,” he said. “You can tell a lot about a person by the music they listen to. And this is a damn, damn good playlist.”
Power-pop punk songs from the likes of the Exploding Hearts are characterized by romance and love — but also, he added, humor.
“There's a lot of humor in that kind of music. And so he's definitely got a sense of humor,” Brandon said. “Like, it's like a softer side of punk, you know? You still have the punk attitude, but, you know, you're talking about girls.”
Drawn in by the music, Brandon said he plans to research O’Rourke’s platform, once he shakes the hangover of the band’s record release party celebrating their sophomore full-length “Too Much Tension,” on Daptone Records imprint Wick Records. So there you have it: one new potential O’Rourke voter on account of music taste.
I reached out to Beto to give him an opportunity to talk punk, just like old times. He’s a little busier now running for president, and he didn’t return a request for comment.
As for the playlist I made for him? Well, true to form, Beto said it was dark, but good.
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) speaks during his campaign launch rally in front of the Texas Capitol building on March 30, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)