When you think about it, the fact that Ted Nugent has somehow remained a relevant cultural figure is bizarre. The last time he released a single that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 was in 1980, when he dropped “Wango Tango” upon an unsuspecting populace, which rode the guitar solo and girl-as-car metaphor to the number-86 spot. His recording career effectively petered out in 1988 with the more-whimper-than-bang album If You Can’t Lick ‘Em… Lick ‘Em, which featured cover art that would make you sneak it home in a plain brown wrapper if you brought the record home to your parents’ house.
It’s a familiar story, in many ways. The birth of alternative rock and grunge music immediately made many artists in Nugent’s genre 100-percent unnecessary to young audiences. By the time the Nuge returned with 1995’s Spirit Of The Wild, the fact that it’s one of his more inspired albums was irrelevant: Nobody cared. In the nineteen years since, he’s released just two half-hearted records. But while most of Nugent’s peers faded away, the Nuge’s influence has grown since the days when “Cat Scratch Fever” made him an arena-packing headliner.
The wheel of fame is fickle and capricious, but the fact that it settled on Nugent isn’t chance: he crafted a lasting identity based on the fact that he is one of the more entertaining figures when he wields a microphone. That’s been true when, in the seventies, he gave wildly rambling answers to questions about his own life, cars, other guitar players, whatever; and it’s been true in recent years as Nugent perfected his persona. The guy who told High Times that he snorted meth and pooped his pants to dodge the draft and had tendency to talk like a pro wrestler cutting a promo later directed his attention to politics. It made him a popular figure in right-wing circles, for much of the past decade, culminating in the events of last weekend, when presumptive Republican nominee for Governor, Greg Abbott, asked Nugent to campaign with him.
Nugent’s persona was as the unapologetic, outspoken wild man of politics—the Motor City Madman in perpetuity—who said what he said and didn’t give a damn what you thought of it. Spirit Of The Wild‘s best track was called “Kiss My Ass,” and it was basically Nugent’s manifesto for public life. You have a problem with him proudly displaying the bodies of the animals he’s killed with a bow and arrow? Kiss my ass. You have a problem with him making up stories to some hippie rag about dodging the draft because he was bored doing interviews? Kiss my ass. You have a problem with him saying that then-Senator Barack Obama was a “piece of shit” in 2007? Kiss my ass. That’s just the Nuge being the Nuge, telling his truth as he sees it. At most, he’d cut a PSA for responsible hunting when ordered to by a court that convicted him of poaching, with a big ol’ smirk on his face the whole time.
That’s the persona, anyway. So that’s what makes it a bit shocking that he apologized after public outcry about his history of statements, most recently one in which he referred to President Obama as a “subhuman mongrel.
The whole point of Ted Nugent is that he wouldn’t apologize. And now that he has, the whole persona looks phony. Nugent may have spent decades establishing himself as someone who relished in calling the First Lady a “c–t” in 1994, calling the President a “mongrel,” and an endless stream of other racist, sexist, violent things—but he said them with conviction. Now, after offering a mealy-mouthed non-apology for his statements about President Obama (in which he apologized not to the President, but to the men who are dealing with political consequences for what he said), he’s no less hateful or racist—he just doesn’t have the courage to stand by his words.
In a polarized political climate, people who possess a willingness to stand by their statements are valuable. The reason Nugent has a continued rise in relevance is that he would give shocking quotes that he took full responsibility for. This made him useful to politicians looking to establish their bonafides among the people who see someone like Nugent as a bulwark against a culture that’s too easily offended. You don’t ask Nugent to campaign with you by accident, and the point of taking such a character on the trail with you is to let voters know that you, too, admire the fact that he says what he thinks and doesn’t back down.
But with a weak, waffly non-apology that it’s abundantly clear Nugent doesn’t actually mean, he’s lost that part of his persona. With one fake apology, Nugent has forever revealed himself as someone playing the same political game as all of the phonies his outspokenness was meant to call out. Ted Nugent went from being a character to playing a character. When it reaches the point at which the heat for what he said gets to be too much trouble, he’ll break character to try to smooth over the damage.
The fact that Nugent was so committed to his persona in the past has been something that even people who disagree with him about everything could admire. Satirical paper The Onion—rarely sympathetic to a conservative worldview—expressed that grudging admiration as far back as 2002, with the headline “Ted Nugent Talks That Way Even When Buying Socks.” You might disagree with everything that Nugent said, but you could at least acknowledge his consistency.
Now, though, it’ll be interesting to see if, in the next few years, the press is so quick to court Nugent for quotes or if politicians are so keen to seek his endorsement. After all, what’s the point of a Ted Nugent who apologizes?
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)