Who can forget where they were the first time they heard “I Can Think of Nothing More American (Take a Knee For Your Rights)”? Beto O’Rourke’s viral hit was everywhere in August 2018, pouring forth from radios and Facebook feeds for weeks on end, and briefly threatening to usurp Drake’s “In My Feelings” as the song of the summer. What it lacked in overall catchiness—just look at that windy, Fall Out Boy-esque title—it made up for with blunt earnestness. It was a sentimental heartland track with a patriotic backbeat that boasted just the right amount of edge, a formula that Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road” would replicate to great success the next year. It also felt incredibly timely, riding a trending wave of controversy around NFL protesters taking a knee during the National Anthem, and doing it without coming off as tacky or exploitative. To many, it felt like the sound they’d been waiting for.
That it hailed from the former bassist of a mostly undistinguished El Paso post-hardcore band made it all the more remarkable. The story of O’Rourke’s earliest stab at stardom sounds like a whole lot of other former musicians. Heavily inspired by the ethos of Dischord punk acts like Fugazi and Rites of Spring, Beto and some college friends formed the band Foss, self-released a seven-inch and a full-length, did a couple of tours in a van, then split up once they realized it wasn’t going anywhere. Today, Foss is mostly remembered for its drummer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who went on to much greater acclaim as a member of At the Drive-In. Or it would be, if Foss’s bassist hadn’t tried taking his worship of the D.C. scene all the way to the White House.
As much as people talked about “I Can Think of Nothing More American,” Beto’s first true solo breakthrough came just a month later. “Ted Cruz Is Working For the Clampdown”—again, who didn’t love that? It was clever and in-your-face. The overt Clash references pinged all the nostalgia receptors of Beto’s aging-punk demographic, but it boasted a youthful, up-the-academy attitude that remains timeless. And it shit on Ted Cruz, in a way that the Texas senator had to go home and Google. “Clampdown” remains a classic on YouTube for a reason.
For a while there, it seemed like Beto could do no wrong. He embarked on a marathon DIY tour of 254 counties, just like the old days, only this time he was sharing stages with Spoon and Willie Nelson. Taking a page from hip-hop stars like Odd Future and Megan Thee Stallion, he built a strong social media following that hung on his every Whataburger run and skateboard break. His showcase was a hot ticket at SXSW. People were suddenly sporting Beto stickers and T-shirts well outside of Texas; even LeBron James was spotted in a Beto hat. The El Pasoan seemed poised to go national. By year’s end, the fact that he didn’t only made him more beloved as an underdog by all the indie-rock folks that had embraced him. It seemed like confirmation that Beto was just too real for the mainstream.
This brings us, unfortunately, to Beto’s uneven, undistinguished, and, ultimately, disappointing major-label debut, which last week completed its long and painful disappearance from the charts. A beloved underground act puts out a couple of well-received singles, quickly builds some buzz, then fumbles in the spotlight; there’s certainly precedent for this sort of thing, like short-lived Pitchfork darlings Black Kids, or Howard Dean. Perhaps Beto O’Rourke, too, could be considered a victim of his own hype. He went from adored cult sensation to an Annie Leibovitz-shot spread in Vanity Fair in a matter of months. Few can withstand that kind of sudden celebrity and keep their integrity intact. Still, it doesn’t excuse the fact that his bid for nationwide attention felt rushed and directionless. As his record reveals, Beto, like so many other regional acts, would have benefited from more time spent honing his voice on local stages.
To be clear, “Hell Yes, We’re Going to Take Your AR-15” is a certified banger. The breakout track took a monster hook—the mandatory buyback of assault weapons—that’s as earworm-catchy as it is enraging to a significant section of the populace. It became impossible to ignore as it lit up the President. Sure, it was slightly derivative; everyone from Kamala Harris to Bill DeBlasio had already been singing variations on this tune. But, to paraphrase Jay-Z, they made it a hot line, Beto made it a hot song. It’s safe to assume people will be bumping this one for a while.
While nothing else made that sort of impact, Beto hit upon a few other moments of inspiration by looking homeward. After a mass shooting in El Paso, he could have responded with some treacly ballad—another mawkishly mediocre thoughts-and-prayers tribute that might have played well in his home state. Instead, he remained true to his punk roots, blasting out the fiery “Members of the Press (What The F—).” It was an angry, anxious slice of agitprop that, despite its brief running time, managed to take aim at Trump’s divisive rhetoric and the media that enabled it, cutting through the noise thanks to some pointed yet passionate swears.
Compared with these standout moments, everything else about Beto’s first national release felt somewhat uninspired. Its middle became weighed down by even blunter attempts at Parental Advisory-baiting grittiness, tapering off into a litany of F-bombs that began to seem like an affectation even before they were plastered on T-shirts. And while O’Rourke is entitled to celebrate his border-town roots, let’s face it: His attempts at crossing over into the Spanish-language audience often fell flat. The impulse is understandable; everyone from Justin Bieber to James Blake has made a stab at tapping into that crucial Latinx market. Still, the look on Cory Booker’s face said it all. On the upside, at least Beto didn’t duet with Pitbull.
In the end, despite some obvious talent and a devoted following, Beto’s bid for a national audience simply failed to impress. It was too all over the place stylistically, perhaps—a mishmash of righteous fury, Pavement-indebted slacker-dad goofiness, and a dull centrist approach to incremental reform that never really settled on one definable sound or health care plan. Or maybe the audience just isn’t in the market for Beto’s particular brand of music right now. After all, who wants more earnest, vaguely pissed-off white-guy emo-punk when there are so many new and exciting genres to choose from?
Or maybe people just liked Beto’s early stuff better.
Hey, it happens. The old saw about the Velvet Underground is that no one bought their debut either, but everyone who did started a band. Perhaps Beto’s record might also become a sort of cult classic that’s only fully appreciated in retrospect, similarly inspiring others to go out and make their own political noise. As for O’Rourke himself, who knows? He’s pledged not to make another run at it but not to disappear either. Maybe he’ll fade into a career of low-key festival slots. Maybe he’ll start a ’zine—or become an MSNBC contributor (same difference). Maybe he’ll get put on a double bill with Joe Biden and help an aging dinosaur act reach a relatively younger audience.
Whatever he chooses, Beto’s diehard fans will likely continue to pester him to make a comeback. Lorde took four years off; so did Adele. Like them, hopefully the next time we hear from Beto, he’ll have the material.