Deafening screams echo off the walls of the large gymnasium at South Carolina State University on this evening in late January. Flashbulbs pop. People jump up and down, shaking hand-lettered signs reading WE WANT CHANGE and S.C. STATE LOVES BARACK over their heads. Near the front of the stage, beneath a lectern adorned with a blue STAND FOR CHANGE banner, an army of camera-phone-wielding teens and twentysomethings jockey for position as a handsome black man appears.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome...Usher!
The man who's sold nearly ten million copies of his 2004 album, Confessions, takes the stage sharply dressed in a gray sweater, jeans, and a khaki jacket with the collar popped. After exchanging hugs with Chris Tucker, actress Kerry Washington, and South Carolina State Representative Bakari Sellers, he grabs a microphone and begins to pace.
"Listen, it's such a pleasure to be here for this cause today." Over scattered calls of "I love you, Usher!" and "That's right, Usher!" he launches into a spirited five-minute sermon that's part civil-rights lesson, part locker-room motivational speech, and part Tony Robbins self-help seminar ("Those blocks we build in our lives, tear them down -- they plague us every day in our personal lives"). It's well meaning if not always terribly coherent, but the crowd gets the gist, and when Usher introduces the night's main attraction -- "Are you guys ready to unleash that power? Are you ready for change? Are you ready for Senator Barack Obama?" -- the junior senator from Illinois gets a reception nearly as enthusiastic as the singer's own.
Obama strides onto the stage, embraces his celebrity coterie, poses with them for a few photos, and then pauses, head bowed, for several minutes while they make their way out of the gym. "I'm going to wait until they get out of here," he tells the crowd. "They might cause a riot."
There is something undeniably disconcerting about watching the first African American with a genuine shot at becoming leader of the free world palling around with the star of Rush Hour 3 and the guy who sings "Yeah!" But it's not exactly surprising. In 2008, this is how you run for president.
Al Jolson may have been the first popular musician to throw his hat into the partisan political ring when he wrote and performed campaign songs for Warren Harding ("Harding, You're the Man for Us") and Calvin Coolidge ("Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge") in the 1920s. Frank Sinatra, along with the rest of the Rat Pack, came out in a big way for John F. Kennedy in 1960, appearing at rallies, organizing shows, and even recording a new version of "High Hopes" ("Everyone wants to back Jack... / 'Cause he's got high hopes!"). The '60s saw a general awakening of the political consciousness of artists across the musical spectrum, though that activism was more often directed toward causes -- against the Vietnam War, for civil rights -- than in support of specific candidates. That began changing in the early '70s. In 1972, Warren Beatty organized fundraising concerts for Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern featuring James Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Simon & Garfunkel, and others. Four years later, the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band helped Jimmy Carter raise money for his long-shot presidential bid, while the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt did the same for California Governor Jerry Brown.
In the last 30 years, this trend has only grown more pronounced. As primary season heated up in 2007 and early 2008, Paul Simon serenaded crowds in Iowa on behalf of Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd. John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt hit the road, guitars in tow, to support John Edwards. Hillary Clinton's camp has boasted appearances and support from Elvis Costello, Timbaland, the Wallflowers, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Mýa, and Tony Bennett. And then there is Obama, whose candidacy has inspired a wide-ranging list of artists that includes Fall Out Boy, Pearl Jam, the Cool Kids, the Goo Goo Dolls, John Legend, will.i.am, Bright Eyes, Win Butler, Kidz in the Hall, Jeff Tweedy, Ne-Yo, OK Go, and the aforementioned Usher to perform at rallies, record songs, or just lend their celebrity luster to his campaign.
"Music is a great convener," says Erin Potts, executive director of Air Traffic Control, a nonprofit organization that provides musicians with resources to bolster their political activism. "When people come together, great things can happen. Movements can be built."
But as this election cycle's long summer begins, what exactly is being built? Do voters really listen when Usher or John Mellencamp speak up for a candidate? Even if some do, what about the others who roll their eyes at the idea of political wisdom being dished out by what they see as wealthy dilettantes? In the end, have artists become -- like attack ads, know-nothing pollsters, or James Carville -- just one more noisy distraction on a campaign trail already filled with them?
Air Traffic Control documented more than 3,000 music-related events around the 2004 elections. Of those, the biggest was arguably the Vote for Change tour. Organized by the managers for Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M., and the Dixie Chicks, in conjunction with MoveOn.org, to unseat President Bush, the ten-date tour featured 22 different acts playing in different combinations for 40 different shows in states deemed up for grabs in the following month's election, with proceeds going to the now-defunct liberal political action group America Coming Together.
"Vote for Change was the first concert built around strategy," says MoveOn cultural director Laura Dawn. "It toured through swing states, and in order to attend, you had to make a donation to a political action committee. You were seeing a level of intelligence and strategy from artists working with activists that you'd never seen before."
The tour generated a mountain of publicity, raised more than $10 million for voter turnout efforts, and increased MoveOn's membership significantly. What it didn't do, however, was unseat President Bush.
"In the middle of it, we really felt like we were actually going to be able to do something," says Nick Harmer, bassist for Death Cab for Cutie, who played several Vote for Change concerts. "You go into an arena where Pearl Jam has packed in 50,000 screaming fans and think, 'This is great. These people are here, and they're going to be mobilized.' I think we all had a pretty inflated sense of what was possible. So there was a bit of a shell shock after the election when the results came in."
Jonathan Wilcox, a Republican strategist and adjunct professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, says the tour's negative tone led to what he judged as its failures. "When a celebrity endorses a product, they don't tell you how bad the other products are," he says. "When Bruce Springsteen gets up there and says, 'George Bush is a war criminal,' that's only going to appeal to people who think Bush is a war criminal. Having one of the most distinguished, popular musicians of our time reinforce a fairly extreme view isn't the classic way to sell it."
But MoveOn director Eli Pariser cautions against drawing many sweeping conclusions based on the outcome of the 2004 race. "People have a tendency to overlearn," he says. "We lost that election ultimately by about 55,000 votes in Ohio. If a stadium full of people had voted a different way, we'd have a different president and we'd be looking back on the tour as, 'Wow, that was such a masterstroke that put it over the top.' These kinds of tours aren't about getting a particular voter to change their mind; they're about signaling culturally which way the wind is blowing. I think the wind was in fact blowing against the Bush policies. That became clear as soon as the election was over and his approval ratings plummeted. It just didn't happen quite early enough."
MoveOn hasn't yet committed to any similar events for this year, and there is some question whether musicians -- many of whom were fueled by anti-Bush fervor in 2004 -- will bring the same sort of energy to the 2008 general election campaigns, now that Bush won't be on the ballot. The conventional wisdom is that the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain arouses far less animosity among the creative class than the current president does. But Lara Bergthold, who served as national political director of Wesley Clark's 2004 presidential campaign, then later as deputy political director and liaison to the entertainment community for John Kerry's campaign, expects musicians to be at least as active in 2008 as they were four years earlier.
"Even though it's not about replacing Bush, it's about finding somebody who can roll back a lot of what he has done," she says. "And there is an antiwar fever in the country. Certainly among more progressive musical artists that will be a big push to become involved."
It's also clear that Obama has energized pockets of the musical community that have previously been largely silent on political issues. "I do believe if Obama is the nominee," says Wilcox, "the potential for significant and enduring involvement among performers who have not yet participated is greatly enhanced." But whether their participation will make a difference on Election Day is far less clear.
"The evidence suggests voters don't necessarily trust the credibility of celebrities to tell them how to think big, important thoughts," says Rob Stutzman, former adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign and former communications director for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. "No matter how star-crazed we are, when it comes to the issues we vote about, people usually vote for candidates or on issues that affect their life. [Stars] are people who don't have lives like ours."
To illustrate his point, Stutzman recalls an Eagles concert he went to a year ago. "At one point, Don Henley goes into a rant, and you so much want to go, 'Just shut up and sing, dude!' It's easy to go into an 'impeach Bush' rant onstage before you go backstage and hang out with your groupies all night."
David Crosby, who has been active for liberal causes since the 1960s and during Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's 2006 Freedom of Speech tour frequently called for Bush's ouster, says such criticism of artist-activists has grown louder in recent years. "It's just an easy way to dismiss us," he says. " 'Those rock stars! Why can't they be happy with their money?' Well, we feel the president deserves to be impeached."
Dawn contends that the dismissive attitude toward celebrity activism amounts to little more than Republican sour grapes. "There's a lot of vitriol coming from the far right wing directed at artists, because they understand artists and creativity are a very powerful resource. Since they're lacking in both, they criticize it."
Todd Park Mohr, frontman for Big Head Todd and the Monsters, who have played a couple of events for Hillary Clinton and whose track "Blue Sky" became a theme song for her campaign, has been able to put subsequent criticism into perspective. "It's more disagreement over what we're supporting as opposed to the idea of artists getting involved," Mohr says. "People who criticize you for getting involved don't criticize artists who support their views."
Regardless, there's no doubt the attacks on artist-activists have some impact. Harmer says the response to Death Cab's Vote for Change appearances was largely positive, but not entirely. "One kid sent all our CDs back to us smashed, cracked, and scratched with a note that said, 'How could you do this?' " he says. "He felt really betrayed, like it wasn't our place to take any political stance."
Among the public, there is sometimes a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a musician -- or any celebrity, for that matter -- on the campaign trail. Most strategists don't actually expect artists to sway voters, but merely to get their attention.
"You use talent to broaden your reach into communities you might not already have access to," says Bergthold. "Like if country-music artists are interested, obviously that's a community a Democratic campaign would love to hit. It's creating a buzz more than anything else. I don't think I've ever met a voter who said, 'I'm voting for a candidate because Madonna told me to.' But they may have learned more about the candidate than they would have otherwise. Ultimately, the candidate has to change their minds."
Most artists on the campaign trail seem acutely aware of their role and, if anything, err on the side of muting their own political opinions, almost to a fault. "I think it's kind of inane to watch rock stars speak about causes," says Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, who threw a low-cost fundraiser for Obama in late January at a Chicago bar he co-owns. "Oftentimes, it's like watching a 14-year-old boy fumbling with a girl's belt buckle: They're definitely going to get there eventually, but it's real annoying to watch." Wentz admits he ended up speaking a bit more than he'd planned to at his own event, but downplays the effects. "I don't think anybody's sitting around going, 'Whoa! Dude with black hair and tight jeans in an emo band supports this guy! That's a stunning move!' I'm only interested in creating a dialogue with our fans and getting them to take a look at Obama. You don't need to shove [your politics] down people's throats."
Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am was so inspired by Obama's speech after losing the New Hampshire primary that he got together with John Legend, Common, Scarlett Johansson, and others to turn the speech into a song, complete with a video by How High director (and son of Bob) Jesse Dylan. But he balks at the suggestion that he was trying to do anything as crude as win votes.
"I hate politics," he says. "I'm not a cheerleader. I'm not trying to rally anyone. I can't sit here and say the reason for this is to convince people to vote for Obama. I just want people to be inspired to change themselves."
But other artists are suspicious of such high-minded if vague goals. Moby has worked for a dizzying array of candidates and causes over the past decade. He's jammed onstage with John Kerry at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, cofounded MoveOn's "Bush in 30 Seconds" project, and recorded a robo-call for PETA urging people not to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. During the Florida recount of 2000, he promised that if Bush won, he'd "follow Ralph Nader to the ends of the earth just to scream at him and pelt him with rotten tomatoes."
But after years of toil, Moby has come to a somewhat demoralizing conclusion: "I cannot narcissistically say my involvement has made much of a difference. Sometimes it turned people off. If for the last six years, all I'd done was hang out in a strip club drinking beer, the world would probably be in exactly the same shape it is now."
The problem, as Moby sees it, has not been his intentions or his commitment, but his methods. "One of the traps lefties like myself have fallen into," he says, "is we believe so much in what we're saying that we feel like no effort needs to be made in how we say it. If I come across as strident, self-righteous, and didactic, people just hear me being strident, self-righteous, and didactic. No one wants some smug nerd from New York telling them who they should vote for."
Crosby has learned a similar lesson. "It's a bully pulpit, but if you get up and start preaching, the audience will dismiss you," he says. "You can't berate them. You have to be very clever and very positive." In this way, the criticisms coming from the right are perhaps more constructive than they were ever intended to be.
Yet as activists try to hone their approaches for 2008, quantifying their impact remains frustratingly difficult. While political races conveniently produce a winner and a loser, so many factors go into the contests that isolating the utility of a particular event, project, or appearance can be extremely complicated. Air Traffic Control's Potts says part of her job is coming up with ways to calculate the success of artist activism but admits there's no easy answer. "There's no one measurement you can apply to every event," she says. "Attendance may be a core goal, monies raised, press hits. We've tried to develop some metrics around things like tabling -- when bands let organizations set up tables at their concerts. We measure what we call an 'engagement sequence,' where you get someone in the front door, then gauge the drop-off over the next few actions you ask them to do."
Talk of drudgery like "metrics" and "tabling" and "engagement sequences" is a far cry from hanging with Usher, but it's this rigor that keeps artist activism from being more than an exercise in onanism. As MoveOn's Dawn puts it, "We don't want to repeat actions that don't work. No one wants to bang their head against the wall."
One sure signal that artist activism has some positive impact is that Republicans are trying to get in on the act. During the 20072008 primary season, country stars Sara Evans, Gretchen Wilson, and John Rich all sang at fundraisers for Fred Thompson; Ricky Skaggs and Collin Raye played events for Mike Huckabee; and Mitt Romney earned approval from Pat Boone and the Osmonds. While this lineup isn't going to drum up much excitement in the blue states, it does display an openness to celebrity activism that's largely at odds with the rhetoric Republicans have been spouting for years. As GOP strategist Wilcox says of his party's relationship with artist activism, "They desperately want it, have no idea how to get it, and in some ways have stopped trying. I think that's terribly unwise. Their image with younger voters has suffered as a consequence."
Stutzman agrees, but says some of the practical stumbling blocks standing between Republicans and the entertainment community are imposing. "There's no question of the benefit, particularly if you find younger artists across different genres sympathetic to Republican causes. We cover it in country music, but beyond that, it gets thinner. You need people who are involved in the arts to build those relationships and the Republican Party as an entity is just not equipped to deal with that."
In 1946, George Orwell wrote, "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia."
Sixty-two years later, things don't look a hell of a lot different, so it's hardly a surprise that musicians continue to throw themselves into political causes with what sometimes seems like reckless abandon. Plenty open their mouths in support of candidates or causes without thinking too hard about what they're going to say. Some endorse candidates they later come to regret. Their presence is often an attraction, sometimes a distraction, and frequently, a bit of both. But here's something to consider: Unlike an oil executive or a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, will.i.am is not really expecting favorable deregulation or a tax break from Obama if he helps him get elected. At worst, most artists are angling for little more than a cool photo op (or maybe, in some administrations, an overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom) and a chance to feel good about themselves, which makes their hands a lot cleaner than just about everyone else's in politics.
It doesn't really matter anyway. Regardless of whether they're viewed as thoughtful, effective advocates or ditzy, distracting dilettantes, musicians won't be untangling themselves from politics anytime soon. This isn't an insightful prediction for the future, just a close reading of the past.
As David Crosby puts it, "There's a tradition thousands of years old of us being troubadours and town criers. That's part of our job. We're not going to shut up."