For most of this year, liberal rock stars have supported President Obama’s reelection campaign in behind-the-scenes ways: the Red Hot Chili Peppers gave a private performance for 1,200 campaign staffers in Cleveland in April, Pearl Jam‘s Eddie Vedder appeared at a $20,000-per-ticket fund-raiser in Tampa, Florida, and Jay-Z and Beyoncé hosted a $40,000-per-seat Manhattan fund-raiser last month. Even Bruce Springsteen, who had publicly campaigned for Democrats in 2004 and 2008, said he would sit out this year.
But as the election between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney has tightened over the past month, top musicians have abruptly jumped back on board. Springsteen reversed himself last weekend, announcing an October 18th appearance with former President Bill Clinton in Parma, Ohio; Jay-Z released a campaign video this week; and Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi and Jennifer Hudson all performed at a campaign event in Los Angeles earlier this month.
“It’s because it’s getting down to the stretch,” says Death Cab for Cutie manager Jordan Kurland, who along with author Dave Eggers launched the “90 Days, 90 Reasons” campaign to support the president. “Whether it was a planned thing or [the race] is tightening, now is when the big guns are coming out and doing these large public events.”
Until recently, rock-star support for President Obama’s re-election had been less loud and public than it was in 2008. During that campaign, the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am wrote a song about Obama, invited a Hollywood A-list to sing along, and turned “Yes We Can” into a viral anthem. Heavy hitters from Springsteen to Wonder played high-profile swing-state concerts in ’08, and Democratic convention week drew all-star performances by dozens of top musicians, including Kanye West, Dave Matthews, Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow.
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“It’s probably a little less exciting to be going for the incumbent versus going for dramatic change,” says R&B singer John Legend, an Ohio native who performed at seven or eight Obama events both this year and in 2008. “It’s kind of not in the DNA of a rock star to be pro-incumbent. I don’t think that means people are not going to vote for him in the entertainment business. It’s just less sexy to talk about it.”
Obama officials maintain that top musicians are participating as enthusiastically as ever. In 2008, the president spent many months fighting a primary battle, utilizing musicians’ support long before the general election; this year, he didn’t even know who his opponent would be until May. Only in the last month or two have major stars begun turning out for large public concerts.
“As we’ve turned our efforts to voter registration and getting out the vote, you’ve seen a shift away from fund-raising to grassroots events,” says Marti Adams, the campaign’s director of event communications. “We’re leveraging these artists’ popularity to convert their fans into supporters, and mobilize and activate different constituencies.”
In most cases, Obama officials say, celebrities contact the campaign to offer support, and both camps work together to take advantage of a performer’s strengths and schedule. In July, for example, Alicia Keys headlined a rally for women voters in Philadelphia; in August, Marc Anthony opened an Obama campaign office in Miami’s Little Havana; last month, Trey Songz performed a “Gotta Vote” concert in Richmond, Virginia; James Taylor is doing an eight-show North Carolina tour; and My Morning Jacket and the Walkmen have arranged through the campaign to set up swing-state Obama shows during tours.
One other crucial difference between 2012 and 2008 is technology. Last time, the campaign revolved around YouTube (“Yes We Can”), while this time it’s all about Twitter (Katy Perry tweeting a photo of Obama’s image on her fingernails). “We have different tools,” will.i.am tells Rolling Stone on a phone call from his voter-registration tour through Toledo, Akron, Bowling Green and Columbus. “You have to realize, YouTube was every two hours. Now we have a different immediacy, and that’s Twitter, and that’s every two seconds. I couldn’t use Twitter the way I used ‘Yes We Can’ for YouTube. It wouldn’t be effective. It’s the attention span of every single American citizen with a smartphone in their hand that refreshes every second. It’s a totally different world.”
Also new in 2012: disenfranchised liberals, many of them artists and, yes, musicians, who expected more from the president. Singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who performed at the “Baracklyn” fund-raiser earlier this month at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl, has been touring the country trying to soothe this constituency. “If you’re afraid of voting for Barack Obama, never fear, because I’m a socialist, and you can trust me,” he tells crowds. “All the artists that I know that have decided they’re disappointed with this presidency and aren’t going to support it – they’re artists who are as radical as me,” Earle tells RS after calling from a tour stop in New Orleans. “He’s a super-super-super-moderate candidate, and I’m not a super-moderate. But I can vote for him.”
“It’s a little more romantic to support somebody who’s trying to be president than to support someone trying to be reelected. It just is,” adds industry veteran Danny Goldberg, who manages Earle as well as leftist rocker Tom Morello. “Most of the [musicians] who supported Obama last time are supporting him this time. I don’t think there’s been any sea change.”