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Jett set

DES MOINES, IA — While politics is often theater, rarely is it as comedic as during the Iowa caucuses. Every four years, politicians arrive on this Midwestern stage like swarms of insects attacking the eligible-to-vote populace. In theory, the process is designed to help inform and sway potential voters. In reality, it often turns out to be downright hilarious.

Iowa’s best example of "what the hell?" politics came last Saturday, just two days before the caucuses, with the curious combination of comedian Janeane Garofalo and aging rocker Joan Jett. On the unassuming campus of Drake University, in Des Moines, Students for Dean had planned a rally for its candidate. As supporters passed out free campaign booty and abortion-rights activists indiscriminately slapped pro-choice stickers on the chests of attendees, Garofalo started her act. In a short yet disjointed appeal to the already converted Deaniacs, she said, without explanation, "Dean doesn’t have the religion problem. George Bush has the religion problem." The crowd politely applauded.

Garofalo then turned the student union’s stage over to "a true patriot." At age 43, Joan Jett still looks every bit the ass-kicking rocker. But then, as she tuned her guitar, the musician explained why she supports Dean. What came out of her mouth couldn’t have been more surreal had she broken into a quiet, wide-eyed acoustic chorus of "Kumbaya." "Deficits," she said. Joan Jett is a deficit-hawk. To inspire the great unshaven liberal masses, the original riot grrrl revealed that she was inspired to campaign for Dean because he balanced the budget for 11 consecutive years as Vermont’s governor.

After revealing this stance, Jett donned her ax and started to rock. After her first number, Jett, a veteran of several shows to entertain troops stationed abroad, decried the war while thoughtfully offering support for the troops. Halfway through her second song, a loud, approaching noise drew the crowd’s attention to the hallway next to the stage. A moment later, an angry contingent of College Republicans stormed the event in protest. Waving long, red-and-white banners and shouting incomprehensibly, the group of young conservatives curiously resembled the staged mob scenes common in reportage from developing countries.

The audience initially looked dazed. It quickly regrouped and rushed forward to form a counter-front. The Deaniacs, whose candidate’s political viability derives almost completely from his supporters’ principled opposition to violence and war, physically pushed the Republicans. Having supported the violent overthrow of Saddam, the Republicans obligingly returned the favor.

The scene quickly descended into lunacy. One Republican sported an over-size, neon-orange floppy 10-gallon cowboy hat with a giant "W" attached to the brim. Another grabbed a microphone and called Jett a "communist." As Jett later reflected, the melee was a picture of "democracy at work": two sides expressing opposing views at an outrageously unnecessary volume, clashing in a meaningless cacophony of discord.

No one thought to inform campus security, so the lawlessness continued. And in the absence of controlling authority, the laws of rock applied. Without blinking, Jett decided to fight the forces of conservatism with the fury of her chunky power chords. Abandoning the safety of center stage, she calmly walked over to the protesters and belted out the song’s chorus, "I don’t give a damn ’bout my bad reputation."

While most of the protesters weren’t even born when Jett released "Bad Reputation," the message wasn’t lost on them. As she screeched in their faces, the protesters suddenly lost their cool. Some continued the pro-Bush chants, but others returned the volley with a slew of unfortunate retorts. "You’re supporting a murderer," yelled one young man dressed in a pressed blue shirt and tie. "Where’s your American flag, you Dean communist?" demanded another. With this, the tide turned.

In a classic moment of corporate versus indie — a scene that could have been lifted straight from one of her early music videos — Jett looked down at her guitar and then unleashed her most effective weapon: an impromptu version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The Republicans immediately appeared dazed and without meaningful response. "Fucking fag," sniffed one. When a young Republican hit her instrument, Jett kicked him. "You can hit me, but don’t hit my guitar," she later sneered.

Eventually, the Republicans retreated from the scene, leaving in their wake an energized audience. One student proudly posed for pictures clutching the severed head of a life-size Bush cutout in one hand, the tie-clad torso in the other. Chants for Dean filled the room. Sadly, most of the national and local press left after Jett’s first song and missed the story.

The acts had the last word. The crowd, once lethargic and offering only polite applause and laughter for Garofalo’s surprisingly lame attempts at political humor (her Colonel Klink reference was appreciated by only the lone attendee over 40), now applauded her every word. Pulling off her knit stocking cap to reveal a bleached-blond mullet, Garofalo unloaded on the College Republicans, calling them "paranoid, racist, sexist, homophobic neo-fascists." In her most-appreciated line, the comic noted that "suits are the calling card of a douche bag."

As for Jett, the rest of her set was an atonal mess and she could barely sustain the composure to sing, but it hardly mattered. The students were charged up. As we all now know, however, that didn’t help their guy Dean, who on Monday finished a disappointing third after Senators John Kerry and John Edwards.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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