Representative Beto O’Rourke has gotten a lot of mileage out of his punk rock past. How many U.S. Senate hopefuls have college stories about hanging out with Feist outside of a show, or can claim that they taught rockstars like Cedric Bixler-Zavala how to tour? Have many Washington, D.C. insiders appeared on the cover of an EP wearing a dress? O’Rourke’s history was a member of Foss, the El Paso punk band that preceded the legendary At The Drive-In, is well known, but now we can judge for ourselves if the 45-year-old father is still punk. For the past few months, O’Rourke has been compiling tracks on a Spotify playlist called “BBQ For Beto.”
The Spotify playlist has become a tool that many politicians use to connect with people. How much does Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, really have in common with his average constituent? If they share his affinity for Dylan cuts like “Idiot Wind” and “Changing of the Guard,” more than they might think. House Speaker Paul Ryan, meanwhile, is a fan of the under-utilized rock flute, as evinced by his appreciation for the Marshall Tucker Band’s masterpiece “Can’t You See.”
These playlists tend to follow a similar trajectory. They represent mostly mainstream tastes, favoring hit singles over B-sides; they feature a handful of songs with lyrics that reflect the politician’s public values and/or willingness to fight for their constituents (Ryan’s includes Cake’s “The Distance,” while 83-year-old Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who hasn’t got time for subtlety, favors “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”). They often pander to the voters who elect them—New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s includes multiple tracks by Garden State legends Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, and Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington’s is titled “A Musical History of Washington State.” They all feature at least a couple of tracks that are unabashedly corny—Ryan included Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel,” while Issa endorses Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” And it’s common for them to feature a swerve or two, just to prove that you can’t pigeonhole this congressperson! To that end, Hatch jams the Hamilton soundtrack; Cantwell enjoys both obvious Seattleites like Nirvana and Hendrix as well as youthful feminist pop-punkers Tacocat; Booker bops to tracks from In The Heights; Ryan rocks out to Metallica; and Darrell Issa prefers Ryan Adams’s southern gothic rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to the original.
With those patterns established, how does Beto O’Rourke do with his 98-song compilation?
Shut Up and Play the Hits
O’Rourke’s list isn’t as packed full of Now That’s What I Call Music fodder as Booker’s, but he does lean on the familiar. If O’Rourke is listening to Bob Dylan, he’s jamming “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Forever Young.” The artist with the most songs on O’Rourke’s list? A little group from a town called Liverpool, England by the name of The Beatles. He rocks Prince and Guns N’ Roses, but it’s “1999,” “Paradise City,” and “November Rain.” If O’Rourke’s playlist is intended to give people hosting a fundraiser BBQ something so they can mouth the words, mission accomplished.
I Won’t Back Down
Tom Petty staple “I Won’t Back Down”—so ubiquitous a political song that the artist spent the last few years of his life playing cease-and-desist whack-a-Mole with candidates who played it at rallies—does not appear on O’Rourke’s list. However, he definitely uses the lyrics to songs on the list to convey things about his values. Is Beto O’Rourke fed up with the way Washington currently does business? Just ask Dee Snider and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Does the congressman see himself as an underdog ready to fight against a previously dominant opponent who is prone to underestimating him? He’s got “The Eye of the Tiger” from the Rocky III soundtrack. And lest the bilingual candidate be accused of listening mostly to Anglo music, he also finds time to rock out to Santana’s “Oye Como Va.”
Texas is the Reason
It never killed anybody to drop a Willie Nelson song on their Texas playlist—truly, we here at Texas Monthly encourage it—but O’Rourke doesn’t overdo it with the local pandering. Sure, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” appears to close out the list, and the country portion makes room for George Strait (“Amarillo By Morning”), Josh Abbott Band (“She’s Like Texas”), as well as Randy Rogers and Cody Johnson. The El Paso congressman reps his hometown boys with three tracks by At The Drive-In, including one song from the band’s 2017 comeback album. Still, Texas artists make up only about 10 percent of the playlist. So depending on your perspective, O’Rourke either avoids overly indulging voters on Texas or ignores the state’s rich musical tradition.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot
We established the corny hits trope above, but but O’Rourke really takes it to the next level. He features the granddaddy of them all, Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but the bard of the Bronx is hardly alone in cornball kingdom. O’Rourke, even outside of karaoke, also apparently enjoys: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” Chicago’s “You’re the Inspiration,” George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” and even Starship’s tragically unhip “We Built this City,” which even the woman who sang it disavowed upon reflection. O’Rourke may be a former punk rocker, but playing this stuff on the PA before a Foss show would have been a great way to get beer bottles chucked at his head.
When it comes to swerves out of the mainstream, though, O’Rourke redeems his schmaltzy taste nicely. Yeah, he apparently enjoys listening to some cheesy music sometimes, but also, credit where it’s due, he does bring some of that punk rock attitude through three different songs by British punkers the Buzzcocks, which have one of the less family-friendly names you’re liable to find a sitting congressman endorse. He goes long on American punk and hardcore, too, rocking a number of tracks from artists on the seminal labels SST and Dischord—including Minor Threat’s “Minor Threat,” emo pioneers Rites of Spring’s “For Want Of,” three different songs by post-punk icons Fugazi, and four from midwestern heroes Hüsker Dü. As befits a father of three, he also makes space for three songs each from indie rockers The Replacements and Guided By Voices.
All told, the bulk of O’Rourke’s playlist isn’t way out of left field. It’s not impossible to imagine a politician dropping a Clash song (O’Rourke has four) or perhaps even shoring up their credibility among the crucial “dudes in their late thirties and early forties who don’t make much money” demo by dropping a Fugazi song on the list. But a full 25 of the 96 songs on O’Rourke’s playlist are punk and indie rock tracks that most politicians would shy away from. Combine that with O’Rourke—a Beatles super fan—indulging his enthusiasm for the most mainstream of mainstream acts a whopping nine times (albeit three of them are just copies of “Good Morning Good Morning” from different compilations), and it’s possible to believe that this is actually the stuff that he listens to for fun, rather than focus-grouped favorites.