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The Kids Are Alright | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

The Kids Are Alright

Music for America (MfA) is Example A of why the future is for the young and MfA-type organizations who are inspired now more than ever to continue to effect positive change. Twenty-one million Americans under the age of 30 cast ballots, 4.6 million of them were new voters. This was the highest youth turnout since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972, and it's an important example of what went right in the campaign.

If only 18, 19 and 20 year olds had been permitted to vote in this election, Kerry would have carried Ohio, Florida and Missouri, defeating Bush by more than 200 electoral votes. MfA supplied a lot of the muscle. It recruited almost 20,000 volunteers, allied with more than 200 bands and helped arrange over 2,000 concerts, which, the group's savvy 25-year old executive director Molly Moon says, reached two million people.

The real story behind MfA's success, however, lies beyond a mere recitation of post-election statistics. Culture and politics were fused together in new ways, as MfA worked to speak to communities through the force of music. Its artists tailored their messages to homegrown audiences and inspired their fans through local appeals. Artists included Caustic Resin--"Boise, Idaho favorites," as Alias Records described them; Cold Duck Complex, from Northampton, Mass., playing "music that makes you think"; and Amersterband, "round pegs in square holes" from the Ozarks in Southwest Missouri, according to MfA's website. MfA's 45,000 members connected with peers through blogs, concerts and other peer-to-peer interactions.

MFA's strength comes from its clarity and willingness to avoid the nonpartisan pitches issued by groups like Rock the Vote. MfA reached out to young voters, as Moon put it, by "talking about how unemployment sucks, or how young people don't like bans on gay marriage, or were screwed out of jobs or benefits and social security, and how they're oppressed by drug laws strengthened through this Republican Administration."

MFA sought out mostly local artists with local constituencies who weren't national celebrities and encouraged them to be partisan, but in their own unique ways. The group refused to shove pre-packaged talking points down band members' throats, and urged artists to find their own voice, their own issues, and their own messages--"to speak to their community in their own way," said Moon. As Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla explained to The Nation's Hillary Frey in a recent online interview, "the crowds know what's going on. They've been very receptive and very warm. The whole atmosphere at each of the shows has been a lot homier than I would have expected. Really encouraging and really cool."

MfA's success was built on its vision for a growing, long-term movement. While it had a laser-like focus on the 2004 election, MfA also started a dialogue among young voters (and potential voters) that might have a lasting impact on the political future of this nation.

Just weeks after the election, MfA is moving full speed ahead. It plans to survey its members to see which issues are most important to them. A few have already surfaced--rising tuition costs, student loan cuts, Republican attempts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage, and support for legislation and ballot initiatives that would legalize same-day-voter-registration to increase the youth turnout. Issues like free speech, media consolidation and the drug war also resonate with MfA's politically savvy community.

"[Consolidation] severely damages the public interest by interfering with our ability to receive unbiased information from news outlets, and destroys the ability of artists to create new work…in favor of a controlled, homogenized culture," wrote Mike Connery, a blogger on MfA's website.

MfA's members chafe at decisions by the Federal Communications Commission to chastise musicians like U2, levy fines against networks (like Infinity) and censor talk radio kingpins (Howard Stern). And MfA has linked to drugpolicy.org (part of an alliance to end the war on drugs), which describes the RAVE Act, which holds nightclub owners accountable when patrons use drugs on their premises, as a heavy-handed attack on youth culture in general.

Finally, the 14-to-18-year-old demographic, which Moon calls "a major political force," will be a focal point of MfA's efforts. (The highest birth year in America since 1962 was 1990, Moon has pointed out.) "What's the best way to communicate with 14-year-olds?" Moon asks. Answering that question will help MfA win the fight for the future. Although she admits her group still has to figure out how to appeal to this demographic, MFA--and other groups--understand that this is a critical group for their future.

MfA's fusion of politics and culture has gone a long way to suggest that the conventional notion that musicians (or cultural figures more generally) are out of touch with America's voters is way overstated. When it comes to MfA, the organization's artists never swept in to localities like carpetbaggers, creating a dreaded (and unintended) backlash against Democrats. Drawing a connection between politics and culture, when done with sensitivity to a local, grassroots base and with sufficient sophistication, resources and organizing, can recruit a younger generation that seeks an authenticity and connection being provided by music, rather than a traditional political media message.

Ultimately, MfA proves the point that culture can bring young people together through the power of music, issues, ideas and partisanship--no small achievement.

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