Do you see these Vote for Change concerts reaching undecided voters, or are they more to rally the energy of people who have made up their minds?
I always felt that the musician's job, as I experienced it growing up, was to provide an alternative source of information, a spiritual and social rallying place, somewhere you went to have a communal experience.
I don't know if someone is going to run to the front of the stage and shout, "I'm saved" or "I'm switching," but I'm going to try. I will be calling anyone in a bow tie to come to the front of the stage, and I'll see what I can do.
In a practical sense, what are you accomplishing?
First of all, we have a large group of musicians – Dave Matthews, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., John Fogerty, James Taylor and many others – who are coming together as a rallying point for change, I think the concerts are going to be an energizing experience for all who come. Of course, I've met a few people who, in a very friendly way, said they are not coming.
Basically, the concerts are raising money specifically for America Coming Together to do very practical things: voter education, to go out and mobilize voters, to go door-to-door, to assist voters getting to the polls. They're the real foot soldiers who are going to get out the progressive vote. That's probably the concerts' most important result.
Why did you stay away from being actively involved in partisan politics for so long?
I didn't grow up in a very political household. The only politics I heard was from my mother. I came home from grade school, where someone asked me if I was Republican or Democrat, and I asked my mom, "Well, what are we?" She said, "We're Democrats, cause Democrats are for the working people." I was politicized by the Sixties, like most of the other people of that generation at that time. I can remember doing a concert when I was probably in my very late teens, helping to bus people down to Washington for an anti-war demonstration.
But still, basically, I wanted to remain an independent voice for the audience that came to my shows. We've tried to build up a lot of credibility over the years, so that if we took a stand on something, people would receive it with an open mind. Part of not being particularly partisan was just an effort to remain a very thoughtful voice in my fans' lives.
I always liked being involved actively more at a grassroots level, to act as a partisan for a set of ideals: civil rights, economic justice, a sane foreign policy, democracy. That was the position I felt comfortable coming from.
Did it make you more credible if you avoided endorsing an individual?
It makes people less likely to marginalize you or pigeonhole you. Taking a definite stand on this election has probably provided some extra definition to the work I've been doing over the years. Our band is in pretty much what I think of as the center. So if I wrote, say, "American Skin," which was controversial, it couldn't easily be dismissed, because people had faith that I was a measured voice. That's been worth something, and it's something I don't want to lose. But we have drifted far from that center, and this is a time to be very specific about where I stand.
Because you scrupulously avoided commercial use of your music, you built a reputation for integrity and conscience. You must be aware of the potency of that.
I tried to build a reputation for thoughtfulness -- that was the main thing I was aiming for. I took the songs, the issues and the people I was writing about seriously. I wanted it to be an entertaining but thoughtful presentation. If there was a goal, it was as simple as that.
Now you're asking your audience to think even more about and explore what else you're saying in your songs.
There are a portion of your fans who do quite a bit of selective listening. That's the way that people use pop music, and that's part of the way it rolls. The upside is that there has been an increased definition about the things I've written about and where I stand on certain issues. That's been a good thing.
I think that a more complicated picture of who you are as an artist and who they are as an audience emerges. The example I've been giving is that I've been an enormous fan of John Wayne all my life, although not a fan of his politics. I've made a place for all those different parts of who he was. I find deep inspiration and soulfulness in his work.
Your audience invests a lot in you, a very personal investment. There is nothing more personal, in some ways, than the music people listen to. I know from my own experience how you identify and relate to the person singing. You have put your fingerprints on their imagination. That is very, very intimate. When something cracks the mirror, it can be hard for the fan who you have asked to identify with you.
Pop musicians live in the world of symbology. You live and die by the symbol in many ways. You serve at the behest of your audience's imagination. It's a complicated relationship. So you're asking people to welcome the complexity in the interest of fuller and more honest communication.
The audience and the artist are valuable to one another as long as you can look out there and see yourself, and they look back and see themselves. That's asking quite a bit, but that is what happens. When that bond is broken, by your own individual beliefs, personal thoughts or personal actions, it can make people angry. As simple as that. You're asking for a broader, more complicated relationship with the members of your audience than possibly you've had in the past.
What do you stand to lose or gain from this as an artist?
As an artist and a citizen, you're gaining a chance to take part in moving the country in the direction of its deepest ideals. Artists are always speaking to people's freedoms. The shout for freedom and its implications was implicit in rock & roll from its inception. Freedom can only find its deepest meaning within a community of purpose. So as an individual I'm getting to take a small part in that process.
As an artist, I'd like to have a broader understanding with all the different segments of my audience and have a deeper experience when we come out and play for people. I think that's something that could be gained, and that's something worth doing. I tend to think a relatively small amount of people might get turned off by it, 'cause I've tried to do this as thoughtfully as possible, and because any relationship worth something can take some rough-and-tumble. We'll see.
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