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10 Major Moments in Rock the Vote History

From a flag-draped Madonna to Lil Jon turning out, the top moments designed to get youth to the polls

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Rock the Vote has been encouraging young Americans to vote for over 25 years.

In a presidential race as baffling as this, it's hard to imagine not voting come November. But surely many people will do just that — fewer than 54 percent of Americans turned up at the polls in 2012. Voter turnout for presidential elections was even more abysmal in the late Eighties and Nineties, when the cynical Generation X was coming of age, making it a perfect moment to launch a youth-focused organization like Rock the Vote.

Rock the Vote was founded in 1990 as a joint venture among recording artists, industry executives, political activists and former Virgin Records America co-president Jeff Ayeroff in response to the Parent Music Resource Center's crusade to affix warning labels to music containing explicit content. Since then, the group has been responsible for a number of iconic moments, from Madonna draped in an American flag to Lil Jon's #TurnOutForWhat PSA — all with the ultimate goal of making it easier to register to vote, and harder to be apathetic about our civic duties. Here are some of the most memorable moments from Rock the Vote's more than 25-year history.

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Madonna gets cozy with the flag (1990)

Given that Rock the Vote began as a response to the Tipper Gore-led PMRC's campaign to place parental advisory stickers on albums, who better to front the organization's first PSA than First Amendment advocate Madonna? Donning a bikini and wrapped in the American flag, she received backlash from the group Veterans of Foreign Wars, who claimed the display bordered on flag desecration. Replacing lyrics to her then-new song “Vogue,” the spot is emblematic of the off-the-cuff cool vibe of Rock the Vote PSAs to come.

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R.E.M., patron saints of Rock the Vote (1991)

Even out side their multiple PSAs, R.E.M. have played a prominent role in the history of Rock the Vote. In 1991, the group's album Out of Time included postcards addressed to senators urging them to support the Motor Voter Act, to allow prospective voters to register to vote upon applying for or renewing a driver’s license. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law in 1993 and cited Rock the Vote's role in the effort to pass it. At the first annual Rock the Vote Patrick Lippert Awards in 1994, the band was honored as "artists making a significant contribution to our common future through extraordinary achievements in empowering young people."

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Aerosmith list their Bill of Rights (1992)

Let this PSA not only remind you to vote, but also that the days of unabashed blonde-ogling rock stars are thankfully (mostly) behind us. In this spot, the members of Aerosmith list defendable freedoms like wearing whipped cream as clothing (originally it was Joe Perry wearing it, according to someone in the prop department), using bodily fluids as art supplies and not inhaling. The band continued to publicly advocate for voting as recently as 2012 with a free show outside the Boston apartment where the band first cut their teeth.

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Deee-Lite’s “Vote, Baby, Vote” (1992)

"Vote, baby, vote. Are you registered, Baby?" are the full lyrics of the Deee-Lite song seemingly tailor-made to subsequently become a Rock the Vote PSA. Known mostly for their club hit "Groove is in the Heart," Lady Miss Kier's band became more vocal about their social consciousness on their sophomore album, Infinity Within, which contains their voting anthem. The album was the first CD to be issued with an EcoPack, which decreases plastic packaging by more than half. Lady Miss Kier also appeared in the powerful "Most Exciting Woman in Music" television spot advocating for women's reproductive rights alongside female rock icons like Kim Gordon, MC Lyte and Tina Weymouth of the B-52s.

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Megadeth’s powerful PSA (1992)

Never one to shy away from political discourse, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine stars with his bandmates in this hilariously Nineties PSA. The men sit in silence for a solid 20 seconds before Mustaine earnestly urges youngsters to vote, lest they be "invisible." That same year at the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden, Mustaine interviewed the public on the street and delegates on the floor at the convention for MTV News. In subsequent years, he has continued to voice his political opinions, on his records and off, including his status as a "birther" and belief that President Obama staged recent shootings as a ploy to implement gun control.

School House Rock the Vote Album 1998

Schoolhouse Rocks the Vote (1998)

In 1998, Rock the Vote stoked Gen-X nostalgia with Schoolhouse Rocks The Vote!, an album of Schoolhouse Rock covers and Schoolhouse Rock-esque songs by an absurdly wide variety of artists. Where else can you find Joan Osbourne and Isaac Hayes teaming up to perform “I’m Just a Bill,” or John Popper singing about the Preamble of the Constitution? Legends like Etta James and the Sugarhill Gang round out the collection.

Rap the Vote 2000 Al Sharton Russell Simmons

NYP2000053140- 31 MAY 2000- NEW YORK, NEW YORK, USA: Rev. Al Sharpton rap artist Mary J Blige Martin Luther King 3rd and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, left to right, at a May 31 press conference to launch Rap The Vote 2000 to spur urban youth towards political activism by voting. ep/Ezio Petersen UPI (Newscom TagID: upiphotos080652.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

Ezio Petersen/UPI/Newscom

The Rap the Vote campaign (2000)

Rock the Vote joined forces with Russell Simmons’ short-lived 360HipHop.com in 2000 to launch Rap the Vote, an off-shoot organization that focused on engaging black youth to register and vote. Participants included Mary J. Blige, Common, Erykah Badu and — as he was then known — Puff Daddy. The standard televised PSAs were bolstered by town hall meetings, concerts and automated recorded phone calls from artists like LL Cool J urging them to exercise their civic duties. Later, P. Diddy was the face of the unrelated-to-RtV "Vote or Die" campaign.

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The Rock the Vote bus tour (2004)

In the summer of 2004, Rock the Vote kicked off a five-month, 50-city bus tour with a concert in Los Angeles headlined by 213, the hip-hop collective consisting of Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Nate Dogg. The event drew other big names like Joss Stone, Maroon 5 and Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson of The O.C. (remember 2004?). Performers along the tour route included Q-Tip, the Donnas, the Black Eyed Peas and the Dixie Chicks.

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Christina Aguilera rocks the vote, and a baby (2008)

As America prepared for the historic Obama-McCain presidential election in the summer of 2008, Christina Aguilera starred in a Rock the Vote PSA singing a stripped-down but powerful rendition of  "America the Beautiful." While she sang, she rocked her five-month-old son Max, who was wrapped in an American flag. "It was really important for me to get involved and get excited about this election in particular," said Aguilera at the time, "being such one of change and new development for our country and for the future of my son." The evocative television spot was a deliberate homage to Madonna's sexy flag-draped scene from 18 years earlier. "Instead of wrapping myself, I would wrap my son. Sort of pass it on to the next generation," she explained.  

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Lil Jon turns down with a star-studded crew (2014)

In their most recent headline-grabbing stunt, Rock the Vote attempted to capitalize on Lil Jon and DJ Snake's megahit "Turn Down for What" in an effort to get millennials on board to participate in a midterm election. An ensemble cast of stars including Whoopi Goldberg (as Lil Jon's aunt), Lena Dunham, Fred Armisen and Devendra Banhart danced up a storm while pledging to turn out for issues like global warming, women's rights and prison reform. RtV had entered the world of Internet virality.