Why Republicans and Millennials Love the Grateful Dead All the Same
In 1984, former Eagle Don Henley wrote, in one of his most popular solo songs, “The Boys of Summer,” that he saw “a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.” When discussing the song, Henley explained what that specific lyric meant:
"I was driving down the San Diego freeway and got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville, the status symbol of the Right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead 'Deadhead' bumper sticker on it."
To Henley, in 1984, this represented Baby Boomer hypocrisy at its zenith: Sixties peace-and-love shouldn't coexist with such a vehicle. But it turns out that hypocrisy has very little to do it. The Cadillac crowd, all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants, and their successors, love the Dead. Ideologically, the world isn't shaped as Henley and many of his contemporaries had imagined.
A new “bipartisan poll”—something we used to just call a “poll”—finds that the Grateful Dead, as they end their 50th anniversary tour, remains one of the most beloved groups in the country, particularly among the wealthy. The guys from Rush may have rejected their Libertarian roots, but rich Republicans will always have a friend in the Grateful Dead. The poll shows that the band is generally popular regardless of political party, but, most notably, that “the greatest intensity of favorable feeling for the Grateful Dead is found among independent-leaning Republicans.” To quote:
The Grateful Dead has the highest hard name ID with 100k+ annual wage earners (55%) and college grads (55%); respectively, these two sub-groups give them a strong 45/10 and 44/11 fav/unfav rating.
This is to say: You might not see many Cadillac Sevilles with Grateful Dead bumper stickers on them today, but you sure would see a lot of BMWs. And the most positive ratings actually come from youngsters: the highest favorables for the band, according to the poll, come from the generation younger than the Baby Boomers, and even younger than that. Ages 18-34 like the Dead at a 4.20 good-to-bad ratio, and the pollsters swear they just happened to end up at that specific ratio.
The Dead's youth wing makes sense, of course: The whole Grateful Dead ethos is about living freely and avoiding responsibility, something These Kids Today are excellent at. (If just because we don’t have jobs for them.) And the Dead represent that even more today than they did 50 years ago. Today’s generation didn’t live through the culture battles of the Baby Boomers and don’t have to associate the band with anything other than a good time. For them, they’re just forerunners of Phish, or Widespread Panic, or Umphrey’s McGee, or any of the other Jam Bands whose 15-minute-long noodling sessions are more about unshaped, aimless partying—the point of being young. There’s nothing political about the Dead to them, and nothing nostalgic: Without the context, to them, the Dead might as well be the Beatles, or Chuck Berry. (Minus the tuneful, structured songwriting, of course.)
And what about these rich Republicans who love them? Well, there's a lot to love. The Dead songs were never overtly political—they were never overtly anything—so this isn’t like Paul Ryan loving Rage Against the Machine or Chris Christie’s constant unrequited love notes to Bruce Springsteen. The Dead’s songs, if anything, are about freedom, and whether you see that as the freedom of being young and untethered to traditional song composition or as the freedom of being released from Big Government, well, that’s entirely up to you. The context of the songs change as we get older. They’re still our songs. When indie band The Ataris covered “The Boys of Summer” 12 years ago, they replaced the “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” lyric with a “Black Flag sticker on a Cadillac,” referring to the infamous ‘80s punk band. The idea was to have a more current reference. But in 2003, frankly, you were far more likely to see a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac than a VW Bug. That bumper sticker was probably the only way a teenage punk kid in 2003 knew the Grateful Dead. And the same goes today. The Grateful Dead lasted long enough to become your dad’s band … and then long enough after that to become your kids’.