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Can you separate performers from their politics?

Published: Thursday, Sept. 6 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Those Republicans sure know how to rock and roll, don't they?

The Republican National Convention was replete with classic rock references, from potential veep Paul Ryan's iPod that "starts with AC/DC and … ends with Zeppelin," to keynote speaker Chris Christie reminiscing about listening "to 'Darkness on the Edge of Town' with my high school friends on the Jersey shore."

Who would have thought that New Jersey's governor was a big Bruce Springsteen fan? Certainly not Springsteen himself, who is no fan of the New Jersey governor.

It just so happens that my high school friends and I grew up spinning Springsteen records, too, although it was more likely to be "Born in the USA" on the turntable than "Darkness." Back then, President Reagan, while running for re-election, cited Bruce Springsteen as an inspiration for young people and used the title track of "Born in the USA" at rallies to whip his rally crowds into a flag-waving frenzy. Very few people seemed to notice that the song was an ironic indictment of America, not a celebration of it.

I attended my third Springsteen concert in 1992, when "The Boss" was touring sans his reliable E Street Band. He played his hit "The River," a mournful ballad recounting the story of a struggling working-class construction worker in a troubled marriage. "I wrote that song during hard times," Springsteen told the crowd. "And now, all these years later, it's still hard times. You know why? Republicans!"

The crowd roared, and Springsteen nodded approvingly. "Ah, yes," he said. "My people."

I wondered how many of the people in that arena really were Springsteen's "people." Did he care at all about how many Republicans he had deliberately offended? Don't these entertainers realize that every time they get stridently political, they alienate half of their audience?

Recall Rosie O'Donnell back in her heyday, when her daytime TV talk show earned her the nickname "the Queen of Nice." She would sing forgotten ditties from old musicals, playfully lob Koosh balls into her audience and even got Donny Osmond to warble "Puppy Love" in a goofy doggie outfit.

But then Tom Selleck came on her show and, without warning, she decided to hector him about his support for the National Rifle Association. Thus she was transformed overnight from the "Queen of Nice" to "Queen of the Angry Left." Her ratings quickly deteriorated. Her show was canceled, and she is now known more for her 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Some people can separate the performers from their politics. Not me. I know Barbra Streisand has a beautiful voice, but I find it very hard to listen to "The Way We Were" or "People Who Need People" without thinking about how she cited a made-up Shakespeare quote to indict George W. Bush as a war criminal, or about her suggestion that everyone hang their laundry on clotheslines in order to prevent global warming.

So while I'm still a Springsteen fan, I listen almost exclusively to his early stuff. I'm still moved by the starkly personal stories of redemption found in songs like "Thunder Road," "Born to Run" and "Racing in the Streets." But I steer clear of his more recent dreck, like his Occupy-Wall-Street musical screed titled "Death to My Hometown." If you're going to abandon entertainment and produce left-wing material instead, don't be surprised when you don't build a right-wing audience.

In other words, remember what happened to the Queen of Nice.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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