Yesterday was Super Tuesday, the largest to date with 24 states holding primaries or caucuses on the same day. In a year that’s probably seen more musicians come out to raise their voice on behalf of a presidential candidate, the question we want to explore here is: Do musicians backing a political candidate have an impact on a voter’s choice?
For as long as anyone can remember, those with even an ounce of status as an artist tend to weigh in and in some instances even raise money for their chosen delegate’s campaign. We, the general public, have in some ways come to trust their opinions. And why not? We spend courtesy of http://kerry.senate.govenough of our money and time being their devoted fans, hanging on to every note and word that pours out from them. And it’s nothing new for a band to express political views in their music. Contrary to what conservatives think, rock music isn’t merely a vacuum of escapism from the real world, it has the ability to create a culture surrounding politics, albeit an oftentimes insular one. We have Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bono, the Dixie Chicks, and Bruce Springsteen, but really there are countless other musicians working in a more underground way to effect change, not to mention the entire genre of punk rock which typically takes on political issues before musicality. And for some, like Washington DC’s own outspoken band, Fugazi, voicing their opinions both on and off the record, as it were, is equally important to who and what they are. But where did it all begin?
It can most likely be traced back earlier, but Beethoven’s third symphony was originally called “Bonaparte” due to his admiration of ideals set forth during the French Revolution. Then, upon Napoleon crowning himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven was so put off by that act of egotism that he rescinded the dedication and renamed the symphony “Heroic Symphony, Composed to Celebrate the Memory of a Great Man.”
In the more recent past, as rock ‘n’ roll is really only in its infancy, we’ve really seen musicians get politically active. What about Nixon getting elected twice during the height of the hippie movement in the late ’60s/early ’70s? This era particularly showed the power rock music could have on the younger demographic, and yet it did not change who was elected during that time. At the Hollywood Palladium in 1984, the Clash rallied for five nights against Reagan and Thatcher. But, alas, Reagan was re-elected. Alt-rock sage Michael Stipe of R.E.M. was a huge advocate of Dukakis, who in the courtesy of http://remhq.comend got bupkis. Springsteen’s music has evolved from personal stories of the common man to darkened tales of the demise of America. The Rising Tour anyone? And yet, the horror of the Bush family/administration lived on despite his efforts to change it. And, in 2004, when it was nearly impossible to exaggerate the importance of the presidential election, for us and the rest of the world, we saw musicians come out in droves in support of John Kerry with the Vote for Change Tour, not to mention countless other events featuring musicians getting political for the cause. It was probably the most outspoken musicians had been up until that point during an election. While those were inspiring times, we remember all too well what resulted because we’re currently still living with it. Could it be that a musician’s involvement in politics makes a lot of noise but signifies really nothing at all? Or could it be that it has the unintended, inverse impact, which invites conservatives to rail against them and preach “family values?” When considering what musicians like Springsteen sing about in their music, there exists great irony to how things have played out time and again.
For the most part, musicians identify with the Democratic Party. Interestingly, this works both ways. Rock music is an everyman activity and is used as a tool to aid in making these candidates appear less like a robot stiff. Some politicians throw the opening pitch at a big league baseball game, others choose to rock (or rap, ugh). Jimmy Carter quoted Dylan when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1976, and Bill Clinton made Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” his 1992’s campaign theme song, which sparked the band’s reunion at his inauguration party. But, generally, it appears that musicians are mostly asking folks to do their homework and use their own brain to make an informed choice. Otherwise, it’s likely they’re either preaching to the choir or alienating those who can think for themselves. But there’s an important thing to consider about all of this. Although they have every right to stand up for what they believe in, political involvement by musicians for a presidential election can be worthless if it’s not well thought out.
Take for instance, Monday night’s show at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC called “Barack Rock,” which was put on by the politically-biased website Getupandvote.com. The show featured OK Go, Nina Persson of the Cardigans, and Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson from Shudder to Think, and was hosted by the likes of Michael Ian Black. If there’s one thing that’ll band together young rocker types, it is disillusionment and comedy. This is all well and good; except for the fact that it wasn’t a fundraiser for Obama—tickets were $20 a pop, not cheap, and where the money is going is unclear. But that’s not the bad part, really. It’s the mixed message they’re sending. Although they’re pushing for a candidate, as suggested by the name of the event, their website claims “it will be neither preachy nor didactic, but a clear, inspiring reminder for viewers and listeners to get off their asses and vote.” For $20 you can have a ball and be reminded by the following morning’s hangover that you’re supposed to get out of bed and vote, preferably for Obama, although so long as you’re voting, it’s cool…like whatever, man. This isn’t exactly an exercise in righteous indignation for making a difference. I mean, take a fucking stand on the matter. Or else, so much for the days when rock ‘n’ roll looked people in the eye and forced some kind of response.
Speaking of, remember when Eddie Vedder impaled a mask of the president on a microphone stand during concerts? Now that was obviously disrespectful, but it was at least very clear how he felt about things. Not whatever, man. Who else is going to drive a point home like that if not a musician in a rock band? Maybe, photo by Chris Sweda for Chicago-Sun Timesjust maybe, that Susan Sarandon broad might have it in her. But do you think Vedder was saddened by the fact that his pro-Bush fans were offended by him impaling that mask? Hell no!
But, back to this year’s democratic delegates. Once a presidential hopeful goes where the voters are and figures out what makes them tick, it’s also been said that victory goes to the more likable candidate. Hillary Clinton isn’t getting on with the rocker types too well, I can tell you that much, even though it’s been reported that she’s seen support from Elvis Costello and Timbaland. Perhaps she should pick a campaign song by someone other than Celine Dion? Now, the epitome of indie rock mainstream (and yes, I just wrote “indie rock mainstream”) Conor Oberst was the opening act at Obama’s rally in Iowa. There we go, now we’re talking. Obama, or Ba-Rock—as tagged by series of concerts to mobilize young voters with members of Wilco in tow—is gaining support from the indie rock community by the day and gaining ground on Hillary in the primaries by the day as well. Are the two things mutually exclusive? Hard to tell, but indie rock (if you don’t know what it is exactly, please refer to your newly purchased Juno soundtrack) has headlined in various places as being Obama’s secret weapon. Indie rock is like the new swing vote in the Democratic primaries.
In an article published in Newsweek, the writer reported that “On Friday, Dec. 7 in Chicago, Wilco captured the crucial ‘indie rock’ constituency for Obama. John Edwards may have Bonnie Raitt. Hillary Clinton may have Celine Dion. But Barack has the MacBook-tanned mp3 bloggers in skinny jeans and vintage t-shirts. And as they go, so goes the nation.” The writer also immediately shot this sentiment in the foot by noting that Jill “I Kissed a Girl” Sobule and that dude from Third Eye Blind also performed at the event. However, there’s still a fair amount of validity to the matter when Newsweek reports that the indie rock community is a “crucial,” what, constituency was it? So maybe we shouldn’t shrug apathetically at our computer screens when our RSS feed explodes with news that Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler spoke out on his blog, both criticizing Hillary Clinton and backing Obama. It appeared to be actual news that Butler said, “Do we live in a democracy so we can just keep electing the same families?” A good point, though not necessarily a new one, which was followed by an f-bomb with several exclamation points. I think Butler could do better. Impaling stuff with a microphone stands comes to mind. But perhaps the point here is not so much the power of indie rock itself, but the power the internet and indie rock have to reach the 18-25 year old demographic, and reach them consistently at that. In 1968 you’d have to wait a month for Rolling Stone to come out. Now young adults can access immediately when and where and why Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy courtesy Rough Trade Recordschose to side with Obama.
During this past Sunday’s Superbowl, Obama ran an ad that aired in about 20 states, as it was funded on a state-by-state basis (and cost $250,000 instead of a national ad which costs $2.5 million), aimed at a younger demographic as it featured shots of young folks in the crowd cheering Obama on while also playing the music of Dan Zweben. Never heard of him and I followed up on this… Zweben only has approximately 2,000 friends on MySpace. Not exactly Fleetwood Mac status or anything like it, but pretty interesting that I was actually introduced to a new musician through a commercial for a presidential hopeful. Nicely played, Ba-Rock.
What it comes down to is the drawing of a line in the sand. And that is probably what the rock community at large respects about Barack Obama. He’ll tell you that he did a little of the ol’ Dr. Zhivago back in the day and is currently still at the mercy of nicotine gum. He easily admits that he’s human with faults and foibles and probably a real fuck up from time to time, but that doesn’t keep him from doing his job and doing it well. This earns him respect and makes him infinitely more likeable, especially amongst a crowd of young voters who tend to embrace the awkward and emotionally damaged. I’m not knocking that either… I think it’s perfectly healthy. Besides, when did anyone ever like someone who goes around pretending like they’re perfect? And what is rock music if not a place where we can openly contend with all the things in life that make us human?
We like our music defined in this way. It’s good to know where everyone stands. So, yes, I’m completely fine and even encouraging of musicians getting up and voicing their opinions on political matters so long as their message isn’t lukewarm or wishy-washy. If the message being preached can heighten political awareness and energize young voters, a positive impact will have taken place. Still, the end of their means is in question. The results of the intended impact has yet to be seen (as I sit here writing this), and history thus far doesn’t bode well in terms of how much muscle musicians can provide in getting folks out to the voting polls to make a difference for change. And yet, it’s not a very long history to consider. This new idea that the rock community is a significant group to win over might actually have some legs to stand on this time around. In the end, as the anxiety of who will become president in 2008 reigns supreme, one thing is certain: we’re being entertained and perhaps even comforted by the music as we wait.