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Rockers Unite to Oust Bush

Moby, Henley, Matthews ask fans to "get involved"

November 26, 2003 12:00 AM ET

Bruce Springsteen told a crowd of 50,000 New Yorkers on October 4th to "shout a little louder if you want the president impeached." Two weeks later, John Mellencamp posted an open letter to America on his Web site, declaring, "We have been lied to and terrorized by our own government, and it is time to take action." Meanwhile, Moby, Eddie Vedder and Michael Stipe are organizing a TV-ad campaign that will run anti-Bush commercials during the week of the State of the Union address in January; Dave Matthews is railing against the war in Iraq in interviews; and at press time, at least three multiband rock tours planned to take aim at Bush-administration policies. Green Day, NOFX, Tom Morello, Dixie Chicks, Don Henley, Willie Nelson and Steve Earle have all played (or plan to play) for political candidates or causes. Hip-hop stars have also gotten involved. "We have a voice and a responsibility to speak out," says Jay-Z, a member of Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit, which aims to register 4 million voters before the 2004 election. "People listen to us."

Welcome to the increasingly partisan world of popular music -- where President George W. Bush is a marked man. Thirty major artists interviewed for this story cited many concerns: U.S. policy on Iraq, the Patriot Act, the Bush administration's assault on the environment, the economy and the media. But they all agreed that as the 2004 presidential election gets closer, it is time to mobilize. "The America we believe in can't survive another four years of George Bush," says Moby. Adds Lou Reed, "We must all unite and work for whomever opposes Bush, regardless of whatever differences we may have. Our motto: Anything but Bush."

Many artists aren't afraid to get their hands dirty in the democratic process, either: At Punkvoter.com, more than 100 bands, including NOFX, Green Day and Offspring, are creating voter-registration drives, a political action committee and a Rock Against Bush Tour. Willie Nelson recently called Dennis Kucinich to offer his time and a slogan, "Kucinich: His middle name is sin," and dozens of other artists are contributing money to campaigns and performing in swing states and in televised public-service announcements.

"Musicians have an obligation to get involved," says Henley, "not necessarily because they have a forum but because they are citizens."

Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, says that artists are important to this campaign, because "musicians have reach that politicians need in order to motivate people to take an active interest in their future." With that in mind, eight Democratic candidates filmed ads for a November 4th Rock the Vote event designed to woo young voters. In his spot, Wesley Clark even name-drops OutKast.

It's not always easy for artists to speak out. Recently, New Jersey radio station WCHR banned Jethro Tull after the band's lead singer, Ian Anderson, was quoted in a local paper saying, "I hate to see the American flag hanging out of every bloody station wagon. It's easy to confuse patriotism with nationalism. Flag-waving ain't gonna do it."

Eight months ago, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines told a London audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." More than fifty radio stations pulled the Dixie Chicks' songs off the air, and DJs and fans launched protests. Says Maines, "I thought, 'Why am I, a country singer who has never been involved in politics publicly, the one asking questions?'"

In July, Dixie Chicks contributed $100,000 to Rock the Vote -- the largest single band donation in the nonprofit's history. Maines says that she hopes the London incident will help rally eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old women to vote. "I had gotten too comfortable in my life," she says. "And I wasn't necessarily active for things that I believed in. It inspired me." Maines' experience may have scared some musicians away from speaking out, but it angered others enough to get involved. Merle Haggard, who recorded his own anti-war song, "That's the News," this year, says that the attacks on the Chicks "reminded me of things I'd read about Berlin in 1938. It pissed me off."

The notion that musicians shouldn't get involved in politics is "ridiculous," says Mike Burkett (a.k.a. Fat Mike), lead singer of NOFX and founder of Punkvoter.com. "Everyone should be involved in politics: cabdrivers, lawyers . . . everyone." Artists are in a unique position to understand the mood of this country, too. "We travel," says Henley. "We see what the economy is like in every city. We take the temperature of between 10,000 and 20,000 people four nights a week."

Musicians hope that by getting involved they will inspire their fans to do the same. James Taylor, who has supported Sen. John Kerry, says that the administration has benefited from "a failure of citizenship." "Americans are asleep at the wheel," Taylor adds. "We're not getting involved in our own political process."

Mellencamp says that the goal of his open letter and his song "To Washington" is to turn such apathy into action. "My whole purpose of being here, to write songs or write a letter like that, is to put the idea forward that some conversation needs to take place here, as opposed to accepting the [government] line," he says.

But can musicians actually tilt the electoral scale, especially at a time when voter turnout among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds is at an all-time low? Republican strategists are skeptical. "People tend to choose candidates on the issues that they stand for -- and not the position of their favorite musician," says Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. Brazile begs to differ. "People come out because they're attracted not just to [the candidate] but also because the candidate is being endorsed by their favorite artist," she says. "It matters."

Artists clearly agree. Many say they are convinced that they're reflecting a national mood that is "disturbed," in the words of Haggard, or "agitated," as Morello puts it, and that fans can be motivated to get involved. "What you have to realize," says Russell Simmons, "is that it's a cultural step, not only a political step. It's in style to be at the rallies. It's in style to give money back to education." Adds Fat Mike, "If we get a few hundred thousand kids together, we will be a force to reckon with. If anybody wants our votes, they're going to have to give us some of the things we want. If the NRA can do it, why can't we?"

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