I read in a recent New York Times article of a new conundrum for Republican presidential candidates; to wit, what music they can play, and what music they can’t, at rallies whose purpose is the extrusion of Barack Obama from national political life.

Songwriters and performers, it appears, are waving off the GOP candidates out of—what else?—ideological pique and outrage.  In February, reports the Times, hip-hop musician K’naan threatened Mitt Romney with a lawsuit if his campaign continued to play the “Somali-born musician’s” song “Wavin’ Flag,” supposedly “an international hit in 2009,” at campaign events.

Once K’naan learned (from Twitter) that his music was being used to rally Romney supporters, he had to put his foot down.  “I’m for immigrants,” he told the Times.  “I’m for poor people, and they don’t seem to be what he’s endorsing.  My song being his victory song didn’t seem quite right.”

It’s been going on a while, it seems, this problem with conservatives (loosely defined, of course) latching onto rock songs, then being forced to let go.  Tom Petty got on Michele Bachmann’s case for unauthorized use of “American Girl.”  Ditto Sarah Palin, who offended Nancy Wilson’s sense of musical propriety by blasting crowds with “Barracuda.”

With Republicans, only country music seems, as it were, to rock.  Rick Perry got by just fine, as far as anybody knows, with “American Ride,” by Toby Keith.  That’s cowboys for you—standing off a piece from the national mainstream.

Is there a point here—I mean, besides the obvious antipathy of pop culture to candidates who either imagine themselves as conservatives or get imagined that way by adoring audiences?  If Bruce Springsteen couldn’t put up with Ronald Reagan’s use of “Born in the U.S.A.”—Ronald Reagan, President and hero!—why would one suppose greater tolerance for Romney on the part of K’naan, or for Newt Gingrich on the part of Frankie “Eye of the Tiger” Sullivan?

Whoever Frankie Sullivan might be.  And however “Eye of the Tiger” might sound.  A member of the Elvis/Platters/Jerry Lee Lewis generation possibly has no right to dis the musical tastes of the modern generation of Republican presidential-campaign consultants.  But, I mean, really—when it comes to political pandering, are we starting to touch bottom, or what?  I mean, when did the Nixon campaign ever resort to “Great Balls of Fire”?

And K’naan.  Who the blue blazes is K’naan, and, more to the point, what connection did the Romney people think to establish with the electorate by blasting out his, er, music as the candidate undertook to work his magic?  Isn’t this rock-song stuff, at campaign rallies, more than a bit condescending?  Isn’t it kind of—well, here goes—lowbrow?  And doesn’t lowbrow feed more lowbrow, and that still more, until the already abysmal tone of modern politics grates so hard on the nerves that all you want to do is to retreat into P.D. James’ latest, splashing delectable Jack Daniels onto a heap of ice cubes?

Not that democratic politics has ever been an especially highbrow occupation.  (Or that, if it were, it would have remained so for long.)  The point, perhaps, is that political action requires a certain degree of dignity in order to command respect.  Dignity ain’t our long suit in 21st-century American politics or, for that matter, 21st-century anything else.  Romney last year got all kinds of backpats in the media when he quit showing up at rallies in coat and tie.  Don’t you see?  A Man of the People must look like the People.

To be told, nonetheless, by a presidential candidate that you’re likely the sort who grooves on K’naan would not rank, in my estimation, among the 50 great compliments of our time.  Music reflects its period: All of us know this.  And truth to tell, plenty of old-time political songs sound just plain silly: for instance, the Democratic ditty from 1960, which I recall as “Walking down to Washington / To shake hands with President Kennedy. / Walking down to Washington / like we used to do.”  Whenever that might have been.

Then there was that old favorite of Chronicles readers, from 1912, “I Think We’ve Got Another Washington (And Wilson Is His Name).”  Ohhhhh-kay.  We may cut Uncle Woodrow this much slack at least: He wore top hat and frock coat.  He looked the part of a president.  He would have had no commerce with Frankie Sullivan—had he been able to pick him out of a police lineup or an Occupy Washington encampment.

Rock as the favored musical style for presidential candidates suggests nothing very pleasing about the course of modern politics.  Pandering to the rock generation has its pathetic side: Hey—please!—I’m sooooo cool.  I don’t even wear a necktie, save on the most serious occasions.  I call myself Newt instead of Newton, Rick instead of Richard.  I mean I’m cool.  I relate, man.  I get it.