Making a Difference?

For musicians these days, speaking out against President Bush isn'trisky so much as trendy

A few months ago, a colleague began ranting about the current administration. He was so mad, so fed up and frustrated that all the anger boiled into his face and fists.

"So what are you gonna do about it?" I asked.

"For one thing," he said, "I'm gonna vote."

These days, everybody's getting political in their own little way. Sum 41, the brats who once sang "Fuck Him Up the Ass" and titled one CD Does This Look Infected?, recently released Chuck, a thundering Linkin Park-esque rock album containing such anti-Bush screeds as "We're All to Blame." Their take on the war in Iraq? "How can we still succeed taking what we don't need? Telling lies as alibis, selling all the hate that we breed?" It's not exactly Christopher Hitchens, but it's something.

For the past month, the national media have treated us to a flurry of articles on the "Vote for Change" tour, the swing-state concert boasting such names as Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. The British media were so fascinated by it that when BBC radio visited Dallas a few weeks ago, they devoted nearly their entire program to talking about its possible impact. The question: "Can rock make a difference?" And yet, when the Sundance channel broadcast the "Vote for Change" show live from Washington, D.C., on October 11, it seemed little more than a rare and excellent concert, packed with marquee names. "Vote for Change" was probably a more effective money-maker (for Democratic PAC MoveOn.org) than a vote-changer. Don't get me wrong: R.E.M.'s "World Leader Pretend" and "Losing My Religion" made an impact on my adolescent politics. But with so much riding on this election, is watching Michael Stipe in concert really going to be your deciding factor?

I have nothing against musicians taking a vocal political stance. That's their right. I suspect many believe it's their imperative. Bonnie Raitt, in a featurette placed between sets of the "Vote for Change" concert, passionately defended her right to speak her mind through music and bemoaned the flak she's taken for doing so. But I would posit that Raitt has received more positive media attention for her anti-Bush stance than she has since her Grammy-winning Nick of Time came out 14 years ago. Suddenly Jackson Browne is on the cover of Rolling Stone--can you even name a Jackson Browne song? Country blues artist Keb' Mo' has never been a mainstream name, but his latest album of anti-war covers, Peace...Back by Popular Demand, was featured in the Sunday New York Times two weeks ago for its political message. I don't doubt the sincerity of these artists, but exactly what flak are they taking? They seem to be in the midst of a career-booming lovefest.

And this is a problem with most of the anti-Bush music I've heard. Suddenly, making anti-Bush music is not a brave political move--it's a media opportunity. Each week, I receive CDs red-flagged with the note: "Contains anti-Bush songs!" Publicists send e-mails that read, "If your paper is planning a round-up of new political music, please consider including ______." And sure enough, those albums appear in round-ups I see in other papers and magazines, getting more attention than they ever would had they not jumped on the anti-Bush bandwagon. This wouldn't be such a problem, except for one thing: The songs aren't very good. As if the war effort weren't disastrous enough, does it really need to bombard us with bad music, too?

One of the directors of the "Vote for Change" live broadcast was DA Pennebaker, the cinéma vérité icon who directed Don't Look Back, probably one of the most fascinating music documentaries and certainly the best portrait of Bob Dylan ever recorded. Dylan never endorsed a candidate so much as he endorsed an entire kind of unifying social agenda, much like his idol, Woody Guthrie. Their folksy Americana gave way to artists like Bruce Springsteen, who very publicly headlined the "Vote for Change" tour. But I wish artists like Springsteen and R.E.M. (who recently released the weak Around the Sun) would dedicate less time pushing their politics and more time making good music that reflected their generous worldview. That's where their gifts are most effective.

As for me, I plan to do something dramatic this year. I'm gonna vote.

 
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