If it seems like it’s hard to find conservatives in Hollywood, finding conservatives in the music industry can be an even rarer feat. John Ondrasik, the singer-songwriter of the band Five for Fighting, says it’s basically “me and Kid Rock.”
Ondrasik, known for hits like “Superman” and “100 Years” and now marking the release of his sixth album, Bookmarks, got some attention last week after he tweeted about his experience getting physically removed from the Jefferson Memorial during the government shutdown.
TheBlaze spoke with Ondrasik about that, the reaction from people when they find out he’s conservative, and his new song that takes aim at the Sean Penns of the world.
What’s been the reaction to your experience at the Jefferson Memorial?
It’s been wild, I never expected it to go viral, obviously it did. Next day, USA Today called me to write an op-ed, they told me my op-ed was the most-read piece on their site. A lot of people I think are passionate about what’s going on and maybe some of those pictures kind of just brought it all out to the front for some folks. So I never expected it to get the reaction it did — I literally just went out for a jog that morning.
Out of everything to do with the shutdown, closing the memorials and trying to keep veterans out seems to have resonated with people the most. Why do you think?
I think there’s one group you don’t pick on, and that’s the troops, and that’s the veterans. And you don’t use them as a political prop. And, you know, it seems obvious to me that there’s a clear strategy by the White House to create optics that unnecessarily pain the average American, that give shutdown horror photo ops for the media. I’m sure there are many “park closed” signs laying around, but someone had to make up the “park closed due to SHUTDOWN” in bold font with caps.
Why do you do that unless it’s a political game? And I think you can probably get away with that, because the media will kind of enable you and join you, but I don’t think you pick on the veterans, especially the World War II veterans — 80-year-old men in wheelchairs who are going to roll right through your barricades. … Them going through and kind of breaking through the barricades was everybody’s — (laughs) — or at least half the country’s — response. And it’s really sad, and it’s really petty, and it’s unnecessary, which makes me angry and I think which makes a lot of people angry.
You’ve come a long way from performing at the Concert for New York City after 9/11 to campaigning with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan last year. Is this an evolution in your views, or is that you’re comfortable enough in your career that you don’t need to hold back anymore?
Well, it’s probably stupid and crazy. It’s certainly career suicide to a certain degree. But you know, the reality is I think most of us tend to start our political beliefs with our parents, and my dad was a businessman and I grew up in a household where we were kind of center-right – by no means am I an ideologue — and I tend to lean more fiscally conservative. Playing the Concert for New York, obviously I got to meet many politicians, and I had friends and acquaintances on both the left and the right, and I still do.
But I do think, you know, you get to a certain point where you can bitch and moan all you want but if you’re not doing anything, what are we really talking about? So I did take the step to go out with Mitt, and I thought that he would be a good president, I thought he was a good guy, kind of a centrist guy, a rational guy, a pragmatic guy, a guy who I believed could address the fiscal issues of the country. And, you know, would I do that 10 years ago when I was trying to grow my career? Probably not, but at this place in my life I think it’s important to stand up for what you believe in, and if there are some arrows that come your way, so be it.
“It’s certainly career suicide to a certain degree.” — Five for Fighting on campaigning for Romney
(It was) also as an example to other folks. I mean, look — the reality is in the music business it’s kind of me and Kid Rock. And I had the funny experience when I was out with Mitt in Ohio, I remember after an event … I was in the basement of a Red Roof Inn doing my laundry, and there was a little TV down there and I saw the president with Jay Z and Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. And I took solace in the fact that well, in a couple hours, you know, Jay Z and Springsteen will be in the basement of a Red Roof Inn doing their laundry. I got a taste of the political experience and the campaign. And I’m glad I did it. I wish he would’ve won, but he didn’t and, you know, scoreboard.
Were you ever liberal?
No, I never was. I’m not one of those people, I’m not the Andrew Breitbarts of the world who started at one side and saw the light. But again, I would also have to say that I’m no ideologue – I hammer the Republicans as much as I hammer the Democrats when I believe it. I think they made a calculated error with the shutdown over Obamacare, I think it’s really foolish. I think they should’ve just said, “We don’t like it, we’ll repeal it if we get control of the White House, until then everybody has to live under it, no delays, no postponements,” but they didn’t do that.
And I’ve been very frustrated with the outreach from the RNC, I’ve said this before. I mean, I could tell you horror stories about how they try to use the few of us – and you know, there are a few of us in Hollywood, some actors, some musicians, who would support the cause – but our side, or the RNC, has no clue about the culture war. It’s frankly embarrassing, and there’s a reason a lot of us don’t put ourselves out there because we end up getting burned.
Would you say you’ve become more conservative during the Obama years?
I don’t think so … I didn’t vote for him, but when the president got elected, you know, I thought it was great to have an African American president, I was hopeful that he could bring the country together and decrease the divide. Unfortunately, it’s kind of gone the other way. For me, I think my beliefs are the same – I’m fairly socially moderate, I really don’t care about those social issues that much. I’m more about fiscal conservatism and foreign policy and I’ve always been that way.
I think what’s frustrated me maybe more than the politics is the media … Andrew Breitbart was a good friend, and as political as he was, he was more concerned about the hypocrisy of the media, and to me I agree with that. I think politicians are going to do what’s in their self-interest, but it’s the media’s job to hold them accountable and when you don’t, you have government run amok, which we’re starting to see right now. We’re starting to see that there’s no accountability, and to me that’s the danger for our republic more than any politician or any cycle.
Who do you socialize with who thinks the way you do? Is there some kind of secret conservative celebrity meeting?
There is a group out there but they all have jobs, and they don’t want to risk their jobs and it’s a sad thing … a lot of people are very scared … there is a group and there are some really good people out there.
Do you ever have fellow entertainers say to you, “I’m with you, but I just can’t come out” of the conservative closet?
I hear that more (from) film and TV than music. There are a few, I have heard that a couple of times. People say, “Hey, I appreciate you being out there, I wish I could, I just can’t.” What I hear a lot more often is when people find out my worldview is, “Wow, we thought you were such a nice guy.” And people are shocked.
It’s no coincidence that my current single is a song called “What If” and the chorus is, “what if you were me, what if I were you.” I’m sure there’s a certain part of me that’s like look, if you knew me and you knew my experience, maybe you’d readjust your labeling and your generic thinking of the typical Republican, you know, the “sexist, racist, evil devil lord.”
I do believe at the end of the day, most Americans from both parties – not all of them, because some are just warriors that want to destroy the other side – most Americans want the same thing. They want to reward excellence, they want everybody to get a fair shot … all the same things, they want their kids to have a better chance than they did, they just have different strategies of how to get there, right?
And for me, I was a math major — I’m an analytical guy, I’m a pragmatic guy. You show me data where I’m wrong, I will change my mind. But for me, I just look at history and usually the conservative philosophy tends to make people’s lives better. If it didn’t, I’d believe the other side. So again, I’m more of a pragmatic guy and to this day, I’m still hoping to change some minds. I think that’s a big problem with this country, and I know Glenn (Beck) agrees, that’s it’s very hard to have the conversation. If we can’t have the conversation, we can’t solve problems.
Your new song Rebel stands out to me a lot. It’s the bonus track on “Bookmarks” and seems to take a jab at the Sean Penns, Michael Moores and Sally Fields of the world.
Yes. (Laughs.) And there’s a reason it’s a bonus track. Yeah, it is by far the most political statement that I’ve made and, you know, I’ve wanted to say that for a long time. It’s – I’ve always laughed when people call some of these celebrities “rebels” because basically they just reflect the views of everyone in their business and all of their coworkers and everyone in the media. … It gives me more respect for people like Kid Rock. He’ll go out there and say, “Hey, you know that’s not what’s called being a rebel … (it’s) disagreeing with everyone who writes your check.” … So yeah, I wanted to take somewhat of a satirical shot at some of these people who stand on the soapbox and are so “brave,” and you mentioned a few of them.
What’s the response to the song been?
A few people like you who kind of know my views and are kind of immersed in this kind of culture war battle, they get it and they appreciate it. But for most people, they think it’s about a girl, like most songs are. And that’s fine, that’s the nature of music and for me I tend to just – I tend to let the songs speak for themselves. And like I said, there’s a reason that was song number 12 and the bonus track. It was more for me.
And I totally understand, you have to walk the tightrope. We talked about some of these celebrities that are very political and kind of annoy us. And I understand – 99.9 percent of people who buy my record, listen to my songs, they don’t want to hear my political worldview. They want to escape from reality, they want to listen to some music. So I really try to walk the tightrope of not hammering it down people’s throats. It’s there if you want it, but most people don’t, and I fully understand that.
What’s been the audience reaction to your politics – have you gained fans from being more outspoken, have you lost fans?
Yes. (Laughs.) There are people who have said, “I will never buy another Five for Fighting record because you did Mike Huckabee’s show.” And that is just the reality of the game. When you make records and you’ve had some success at the level I’ve had, there’s always going to be people that hate you, there’s always going to be people that love you. … I bet you half the people on Twitter have never bought a Five for Fighting record or listened to a song. They’re political sports fans, and that’s cool, I like that, that’s the place I go to talk about stuff that interests me.
On Facebook, none of those people know my politics, and that’s the way it should be. And so there’s kind of two different worlds: there’s a very small micro-world where a lot of people are like, “Oh yeah, we appreciate John because he’ll say what other people won’t,” but it’s a very small group. Most people out there just know my songs, and “you’re the ‘100 Years,’ ‘Superman’ guy,” and that’s fine and that’s the way it should be. There’s different reasons to do it now than there were 10, 15 years ago.
You’ve been on the scene long enough to watch pop culture change around you. Every generation has its own shocking moments — right now we’re living in the era of Miley. But do you think there’s anything different or too close to the edge now?
Whenever you answer those questions, it’s like, “oh you’re just the old fogy, you don’t get it.” I think the one difference is this: when everyone was freaking out about the Beatles’ haircuts, OK, it was traumatic for the culture. But it was the Beatles, OK? It was a band that was prolific – two of the greatest songwriters that ever lived, 40 years later we still listen to their music all the time.
I think the difference is today, it’s easy to get recognition when you take your clothes off, when you put the F-word in your songs, when you dance around and do things that seem crazy and provocative and shocking. But those artists I think for the most part (are) just lazy, and their music and what they’re doing is for the most part disposable, and you’re never going to hear it again after six months. … As a music fan it saddens me, because if you’re going to talk about the greatest hits of this decade 10, 15 years from now, you’re going to have very short playlist.
Is there anything you’ve been longing to take on creatively?
Yeah, I mean I’ve been approached to do some stuff on the stage, some Broadway stuff, I’ve been approached to do some TV stuff. I actually sold a TV show a few years ago that never saw the light of day. Maybe do some scoring, and maybe do some stuff completely out of the music stuff. I’m not sure – I’m at an interesting place right now, I’ve had a wonderful career, I’m very grateful. I’ve made six records — “Bookmarks” is my sixth record. I still enjoy playing and writing songs, but I’m also young enough where I can still do some other things with the rest of my life.
Could one of those things ever be politics?
You know, I don’t know. I have been approached. … It’s easy to take shots at politicians and we all do, but it’s not the easiest life, and I do respect people who go into that game. Basically, you spend the majority of time raising money, shaking hands, doing events, and I don’t know if I have that in me. I’ve been on the road doing this for a long time, I don’t know if I want to spend 200 days a year on the road, raising money, giving the same speech to get elected. I also don’t think I have necessarily the patience and the stomach for what you have to do to get elected. I tend to speak my mind and there’s very few people that do that (who) win.
I’m not saying never. … If the perfect situation arises I might. The reason I went out with Romney was I looked in the mirror and I said, “either you make a difference or you don’t,” so maybe that’ll push me over the edge. I think that if I do it’ll be after my kids are out of the house. I have a 12- and 13-year-old, and it’s important for daddy to be around as much as possible. I think, when they go, if the opportunity is there and I have the energy for it, you never know.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Follow Madeleine Morgenstern on Twitter @MadeleineBlaze
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