Conor Oberst, the lead singer of the Nebraska band Bright Eyes, unleashed a brain-dead ditty entitled “When the President Talks to God” in his performance at the Michigan Theater Tuesday evening. As a general principle, there is nothing more unctuous than a 20-something rock star who believes he is performing a public service by posing political — a species that seems to be multiplying quite rapidly. What is to be done?

Zac Peskowitz

Eager to fill the vacuum of hardcore punk rock and Republican politics on the nation’s airwaves, the scions of four Manhattan investment banking families, all products of the Upper East Side’s mean streets, united to form the Reaganauts. Consisting of high school friends who had all grown dissatisfied with their workaday worlds in corporate law, IT consulting and accounting, the band started small in the summer of 2005 with its debut single “Lawrence Summers is my Favorite Democrat.”

From the band’s first scratchy recordings, the Reaganauts immediately distinguished themselves with a unique blend of overpowering percussion, distortion-heavy guitars and advocacy for supply-side economics. Decked out in their trademark uniform of khaki pants, Brooks Brothers button-down shirts and blazers, the band members hit the road for their maiden tour and left enthralled audiences of College Republicans in their wake.

In addition to the strength of its signature sound, the band also relied on gimmicks to achieve stardom. The band members performed under the names of their favorite conservative heroes. Bassist Newt “Knuckles” Gingrich had originally proposed that the Reaganauts dress up in the style of their namesakes, but drummer Adam “The Annihilator” Smith objected on the grounds that a powdered wig wouldn’t fit with the band’s overall ethos.

Throughout its storied career, the Reaganauts maintained a propensity to experiment with unorthodox instrumentation and the frequent use of guest musicians to supplement the band’s stripped-down sound. The whimsical Milton “The Fiddler” Friedman often appeared on the road playing his Montenegrin gusle while Friedrich “The Hammer” Hayek would contribute stunning dulcimer solos to the band’s studio sessions. Hayek’s appearances on the Reaganauts’ second album, The Minimal State is Inspiring (As Well As Right), vaulted the band to hitherto unknown heights of fame. With this release, the Reaganauts branched out from the social conservatism that marked its early efforts and experimented with libertarian lyrics.

The band’s popularity ignited a minor huff at the American Enterprise Institute when intellectual property expert Claude Barfield was caught with a bootlegged .mp3 of a Reaganauts’ show on his AEI desktop. The band’s general counsel suggested suing AEI and Barfield, but these efforts were eventually abandoned when no lawyers could be found in the United States due to the successful passage of President Bush’s tort reform efforts. Sadly, controversy would continue to follow the band in the future and eventually prove to be its undoing.

The Reaganauts received buckets of praise from music critics, but struggled to make inroads to a wider audience and maintain its relevance in a fickle music industry. In an attempt to influence the political system directly, the Reaganauts headlined 2008’s Vote for Status Quo Tour. Jenna and Barbara Bush finally atoned for their terrible taste for Kid Rock by cheering on the Reaganauts as they tore up the country in support of Uncle Jeb’s bid for the presidency.

As the critical accolades kept piling up, the band’s most serious crisis was brewing. What began as the first rock opera about international financial markets would soon end in tragedy. From its first release their track, “Bring Me the Head of the Head of the SEC,” was denounced by the National Association of Securities Dealers and Tipper Gore for its use of violent imagery and support for the deregulation of hedge funds, respectively. But a much graver situation emerged when reports surfaced that the Treasury Department contracted with the Reaganauts to write the song in exchange for a $241,000 lump-sum payment. The ensuing firestorm forced a series of contrite apologies from the band members. In the aftermath of the scandal, the Reaganauts mutually agreed to leave music to the liberals and decided they would take Washington in its stead.

 

Peskowitz can be reached at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

 

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