By Mark Guarino
Just as the sparring between George W. Bush and John Kerry heats up closer to the November election, so too will music aimed at critiquing it.
An unusually large and growing pool of musicians are making their voices heard this election season through a series of partisan and non-partisan concerts and CD releases. While the intersection between politics and music is not news, the flood of participants surely is. This year, it appears, if you are a musician who is silent about where you stand, you are the minority.
For some artists, it is a step taken into an entirely new world, but one they feel is necessary.
Damian Kulash, singer for Chicago’s OK Go, said what motivated him was the numbers. Only a third of 18- to 30-year-olds voted in the 2000 election. “That is a huge discrepancy,” he said. His band appears on the get out the vote compilation “Future Soundtrack For America” (Barsuk).
“I have not been politically outspoken, I don’t write songs about politics and I am not a person who volunteers for campaigns,” Kulash, 28, said. “But I am a person who gives a (expletive). So maybe what needs to happen is the people who give a (expletive), but who are not involved in professional politics, need to enter the discussion.”
Not surprisingly, dissent is a major theme among the batch of releases due this fall. Albums by Green Day, R.E.M., John Fogerty, Steve Earle, Jason Ringenberg and more feature songs critical of the Bush administration and the situation in Iraq, joining a stream of others (John Mellencamp, The Roots, Beastie Boys, Faithless, Pearl Jam, Ludacris, Morrissey, NOFX, Bad Religion, Incubus, Jay Farrar, Bobby Conn, Rickie Lee Jones, Neil Young, Patti Smith) who, over the past two years, have done the same. Political screeds performed by bands like Alkaline Trio, Sum 41 and the Offspring are featured on two volumes of the punk compilation, “Rock Against Bush” (Fat Wreck).
Even John Prine, the veteran songwriter who has not released a batch of new songs in nine years, debuted a few new ones at Ravinia last week, some written days earlier, that poked fun at President Bush. They were received with universal applause.
There is support for Bush on the other side of the fence, but it is a slimmer group including Christian artists like Michael W. Smith and Third Day and country singers like Brooks & Dunn, Darrell Worley and Lee Ann Womack, all scheduled to perform at the Republican National Convention. Conservative rockers like Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons have also been vocal.
The less political entries are the CD compilations that strive to be overtly non-partisan even though the funds they raise are funneled to liberal advocacy groups like moveon.org and America Coming Together that both work to support progressive candidate and operate voter registration drives.
“Wake Up Everybody,” due next month, is an album that takes its cue from the days of “We Are the World.” The title song features a slate of rap and R&B stars including Missy Elliot, Jadakiss and Wyclef Jean. The album includes a remake of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” by Yoko Ono and tracks from Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and others.
“Future Soundtrack for America” similarly assembles new, politically motivated songs from a variety of artists like R.E.M., Blink-182, Ben Kweller, Fountains of Wayne, David Byrne and Sleater-Kinney. The CD will be sold separately and also be included in “The Future Dictionary of America,” a collection of new essays published by McSweeney’s and written by Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Kurt Vonnegut and others.
John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, who organized the album, said he was conscious to make a compilation that would not be criticized for Bush bashing. Indeed, the songs are not so referential, and instead deal with feelings of fear, anger and hope.
“There’s little preaching going on,” he said. “What’s interesting about this record is that it’s essentially an optimistic album. It’s not didactic, it’s not prosaic. I’m proud to say there’s a bit more poetry to this than your average political compilation.”
Still, Flansburgh is direct about the reason behind the music. “Even if you are a diehard, hard right, economic, conservative person, the Bush presidency has been a total disaster. He’s a completely reckless and irresponsible president,” he said.
That belief is shared by the organizers behind the Vote For Change Tour, a multi-city, multi-artist series of concerts booked in early October in 12 swing states including Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin and featuring Bruce Springsteen, the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks and many others. Funds will benefit moveon.org and America Coming Together.
The tour is the first time Springsteen endorsed a presidential candidate. In an editorial to the New York Times, he explained he is taking a stand because he disagreed with the Iraq war, Bush’s tax cut and rising deficits. “Our American government has strayed too far from American values,” he wrote.
This fall, the Vote for Change tour will coincide with next fall’s Farm Aid, the ACLU Freedom Concert in October and a series of hip-hop summits organized by Russell Simmons and planned in swing states.
OK Go will play a Vote for Change show in DC and Kulash is realistic the current swarm of activism will not necessarily sway Bush supporters and will likely be preaching to the converted. Still, he said the activity serves as a unifier for those who want change and will help promote activism among the undecided.
“It’s easier to get involved this year. One of the silver linings is it’s easier to create a culture of involvement and activism among kids. It’s not cool to not know what’s going on anymore. Whether or not you pick up the record and think ‘god, I have to vote for Kerry’, it gives a sense that everyone is supposed to care,” he said. “Even your idols.”