The night Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong found himself experiencing an unfamiliar emotion: hope. "After his acceptance speech, I have to admit, it took me an hour to get the lump out of my throat," says Armstrong, whose band's American Idiot was the defining protest album of the Bush years. "Obama inspires people, and this country needs inspiration. People are jaded, pissed off and embarrassed."
Much as the Bush administration generated more protest songs and political action from musicians than any time since the Sixties, the Obama campaign has ignited an unprecedented level of support from a broad spectrum of artists. "The biggest difference between 2004 and now," says Conor Oberst, who toured in support of John Kerry along with Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and Dave Matthews on Vote for Change, "is that then we were campaigning and voting against something. Now we are campaigning and voting for something, which is a completely different dynamic." Adds another Vote for Change vet, David Crosby, "I worked for Kerry but with large reservations because I thought he was kind of a wooden Indian. You look at Barack, and you can't help feeling hopeful."
The passion crosses generations and genres: Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Usher, Springsteen, John Legend, Jay-Z, R.E.M. and many others are on board. Michael Stipe made his own Obama T-shirts and wore them onstage; the Decemberists opened for Obama at a Portland, Oregon, rally; Jay-Z has endorsed him from arena stages; and even Dylan, who rarely makes direct political statements of any kind, said that Obama is "redefining the nature of politics from the ground up." "What Dylan said was mind-blowing," says Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz. "It's like, I don't really need to talk about Obama anymore if Bob Dylan's talking about him."
More than a dozen acts – from the Dixie Chicks to Death Cab for Cutie – joined together in 2004 for the Vote for Change Tour. Despite Bush's victory that year, many artists say they'd be up for a replay – and MoveOn.org, which helped put together the tour, has begun speaking to artist managers about some sort of reprise. MoveOn creative director Laura Dawn wouldn't reveal specifics but did say, "We're talking with a lot of artists about a whole bunch of hopefully good ideas about how to increase awareness and activism."
But will musicians' advocacy help Obama's candidacy – or hurt it? "The danger for Obama is if one of these musicians says something stupid," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "Like Whoopi Goldberg did four years ago when she used foul language at a fundraiser for John Kerry." Kerry's many Hollywood fans helped him get tagged as an elitist, but Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who worked with Howard Dean and John Edwards, is convinced that charge won't stick on Obama. "They've got to do better than that," he says, adding that it's the Republicans who should be worried. "They've got the opposite problem. I really don't know even one pop-culture-type artist who's for McCain."
In the primaries, young people voted in record numbers – 6.5 million voters under age 30 turned up, an eight percent increase from 2000 – and the Democrats among them overwhelmingly chose Obama. The campaign is counting on a similar turnout in November, which musicians' activism could help deliver. "They may be preaching to the converted, but they're continuing to energize these voters," says Luntz. "This is going to be the greatest generation-gap election of modern times."
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