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.”
The pop-cultural groundswell for Obama began in February, with Will.i.am’s viral video “Yes We Can,” which set one of Obama’s speeches to music. “I don’t think we have seen anything like that video before – it helped change the environment for Obama, blunted the attacks from the Clintons and bonded him to a lot of young voters,” says Trippi. “That speech inspired me,” Will.i.am says. “Obama connects – that’s the difference between a leader and a politician.” The clip has been viewed 16 million times on YouTube.
Will.i.am is hardly the only African-American artist to take notice of the first black candidate for a major party. “America has finally come to this point where you can pick a man of color,” Chuck Berry told Reuters. “In the Fifties, there were certain places we couldn’t ride on the bus, and now there is a possibility of a black man being in the White House.” And a much younger artist, Lil Wayne, expressed a similar sentiment: “It means a whole lot to me,” he says, “being African-American and being 25 years of age, to live in this day and time, and see history being made.” Like Obama, the rapper Common lives in Chicago, and he was an early supporter, dropping his name into his 2007 single “The People”: “My raps ignite the people like Obama.” “He’s for the people, not just for one select group,” says Common. Jay-Z, meanwhile, displayed Obama’s picture on his video screens on various stops of his last tour, asking crowds, “Are we ready for change?”
Jay-Z also took pains to make clear that his message was not officially endorsed by the candidate, half-joking that he didn’t want to harm Obama’s campaign the way the candidate’s former preacher, Jeremiah Wright, has. But to a certain extent, the campaign has welcomed musicians’ support – Obama has mentioned having Jay-Z on his iPod, discussed meeting with him and Kanye West to push positive messages in hip-hop, and shared his stage at rallies with acts ranging from Usher to Will.i.am. And the campaign keeps close tabs on some famous supporters: When Wilco played Saturday Night Live on an episode also featuring Hillary Clinton, his team supplied Obama pins for the band members to wear during their set.
Like many baby boomers, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir sees something familiar in Obama’s candidacy. “The Kennedys put out a message of hope, and John Kennedy was able to bring the country together,” he says. “I have a feeling Obama might be able to do that as well.” But for Michael Stipe, the Obama phenomenon seems like something entirely new. “We are a country of ideas that have been squandered,” he says. “With Obama, we have the possibility to have someone who represents what we are in the 21st century. My generation blew it, and for the first time in my life, I can vote for someone younger than me.”
This story is from the July 10, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.