It’s Saturday night in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, and the kids in the back room of Trash are swigging Pabst from cans and “rocking out” to the Assault, a glammy local punk-metal trio given to winking Motörhead covers. The scene is familiar-except that the women onstage, in addition to their regulation hot pants and high heels, are wearing individually customized red T-shirts emblazoned with the words FUCK BUSH.
It’s a provocative double entendre. But as a band of ’60s hippies once sang, there’s something happening here-something that’s just as unlikely as the mainstream success of Fahrenheit 9/11. You see it in underground-club events like “Drop Bush, Get Bombed” in Philadelphia and in Chicago’s politicized Interchange Festival. In the Vote for Change tour, which has Death Cab for Cutie gigging with Bruce Springsteen and Bright Eyes with R.E.M. In books like How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, assembled by the League of Pissed Off Voters, and The Future Dictionary of America, a collaboration between literary publishers McSweeney’s and indie-rock label Barsuk. In websites like Punkvoter and Hip Hop Activist. In the way that documentaries like Outfoxedand The Corporation have infiltrated after-hours party banter. And in the way “ironic” redneck chic has been replaced with “sincere”lefty chic.
Suddenly, even miraculously, it’s hip to care about politics.
“I’d love to return to a time when I could be a little more apathetic,” jokes Moby, who’s appeared at countless political events and is releasing an anti-Bush single-“MKLVFKWR,” or “Make Love Fuck War”-with fellow old-schoolers Chuck D and Flavor Flav. “When Bush was elected, no one realized just how inept and right-wing he was going to be. Now Puff Daddy’s starting his own PAC, and fundraisers are being organized by supermodels.”
By any measure, the present moment is extraordinary. Twenty years ago, the division between rich and poor was ballooning, the U.S. was waging a dubious puppet war in Central America, and the AIDS crisis was being met with homophobia and indifference. But besides inspiring a lot of punk-rock song titles, the first Reagan administration didn’t move left-leaning youth to do much in practical terms. In 1984, the election season’s biggest youth protest was a march in San Francisco during the Democratic National Convention that resulted in scores of arrests but was hardly on message. By the fall, with unelectable wonk Walter Mondale as the Democratic candidate, the left had pretty much thrown in the towel. “How Reagan Seduced Us” groused the headline of New York’s progressive tabloid The Village Voice on September 18. The city’s only discernably partisan music event that month, according to the paper’s listings, was a CBGB hardcore matinee featuring Reagan Youth.
By contrast, the current state of cultural activism rivals the Vietnam era. “I graduated from high school in 1967,” says Danny Goldberg, author of the activist memoir Dispatches From the Culture Wars and head of Artemis Records. “I don’t remember this many artists in the music business being political. At Woodstock, there was very little politics. Abbie Hoffman, who was a well-known anti-war protester, began complaining about it from the stage, and Pete Townshend kicked him off.”
That politics can be a buzz kill is no surprise to anyone who has had to endure a Bono monologue during a U2 set. One of the defining strategies of the new activism is staging political fundraisers that are not too political. Tables to register voters, distribute literature, and collect contributions, yea; long-winded speeches by Party poopers, nay. At a Concerts for Kerry event at the Manhattan nightclub Spirit this past summer, you could discuss international politics with Eva, a volunteer with a dominatrix air, while she drew psychedelic designs on your face in DayGlo paint. Or you could simply dance to DJ Rekha while watching a light show that included photos of Kerry riding a motorcycle à la James Dean and posing with his high school garage band the Electras.
Sure, it’s hardly a meeting of Chairman Mao’s youth brigade. But the value in engaging nonvoting schlubs is clear (last time out, only 36 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds showed up to vote). Groups like the Christian Coalition and Citizen Leader Coalition-whose election goal is to “mobilize 280,000 brand-new young Christian voters” to combat “anti-God zealots” like those behind MTV’s Rock the Vote-are busy rallying their troops. The Republican Party also has Reggie the Registration Rig, an 18-wheel soundstage complete with Xbox and other media toys aiming to register 3 million young voters at state fairs and sporting events.
The power of groups like Concerts for Kerry, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), Downtown for Democracy (D4D), and Involver-all founded, it should be noted, within walking distance of Ground Zero-is based in marketing skills honed from hyping cultural Next Big Things and shaping what’s perceived as hip. “Not voting is corny, y’know what I’m sayin’?” is how Damon Dash, Jay-Z’s partner in Roc-A-Fella Enterprises, sees it. “If you’re not takin’ care of your business, exercising your power, it makes you a weaker individual.” His Rocawear has launched a line of “Roc the Vote” caps and is teaming up with Russell Simmons’ HSAN.
Working on a smaller scale, Downtown for Democracy raises money through local concerts, readings, and art events to fund projects like bus charters to Ohio and other swing states so volunteers can get out the vote where it matters most. To date, they’ve raised more than $300,000-chump change compared to A-list Republican or Democratic fundraisers. But the numbers belie the impact. “Because a lot of people in D4D are plugged in to the music and art worlds, we’re able to obtain free musical talent, free promotions in magazines, free designers, free photographers,” says Elana Berkowitz, 24, an organizer for the group. “So we make a small amount of money go a long way.”
That community, normally disengaged in the way hip, art-minded communities often have been, is coming out of its bubble. And it is fired up.”It’s an unprecedented political movement,” Berkowitz adds breathlessly. “It’s definitely charged with anger, but also with hope.”