Now Hear This!

Now Hear This!

A once-sleepy population of artists and their fans has emerged as a loud and active proponent of political change.


If the young and the hip don’t get out to vote in November, it isn’t because no one told them to. Between the Kerry and Bush daughters’ dueling appearances at the MTV Video Music Awards urging viewers to pull the lever for their respective dads; the explosion of activist groups–like Music for America, the League of Pissed Off Voters, Downtown for Democracy and Involver–that aim to educate and motivate the younger voting population through rock shows and performances; and the persistent efforts of the fourteen-year-old Rock the Vote campaign to register young people–among countless other smaller and individual efforts–the message that young people matter to this election, to every election, is everywhere right now. This is one of the few positive side effects of four years of suffocating under George Bush: A once-sleepy population of artists and their fans has emerged as a loud and active proponent for political change.

Artists as disparate as LA punk outfit NOFX, classic rock favorites Boston and alternative-radio darlings Radiohead have been protesting the current political climate with albums designed, with varying degrees of intensity, to make their dissatisfaction with the US leadership known. (Recent album titles: NOFX’s The War on Errorism, Boston’s Corporate America, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief.) But John Flansburgh of the Brooklyn-based indie duo They Might Be Giants wanted to take a different route toward beating Bush in November: raising money. “I do not have the Bob Geldof gene,” Flansburgh says, referring to the organizer of 1985’s LiveAid, which generated more than $70 million toward fighting famine in Ethiopia. “But as things have gotten more dire politically, I felt like as a citizen I had to contribute something besides my bad vibes and cynicism.”

The outcome of Flansburgh’s impulse is the top-notch compilation CD Future Soundtrack for America, the proceeds of which will go to nonprofit progressive organizations that are, in the words of the CD’s liner notes, “working to make our increasingly messed-up country a better place.” Organized by Flansburgh and issued on the independent, Seattle-based Barsuk label in conjunction with and Music for America, the CD features twenty-two unreleased, live and remixed tracks from an impressively wide variety of artists, all of whom donated their songs.

A number of the performers took the political nature of the project to heart and contributed what are, for lack of a more contemporary phrase, “protest songs.” Ben Kweller’s garage rock “Jerry Falwell Destroyed Earth” is both an indictment of the religious right and a defense of civil liberties (“You can judge anyone/You can carry a gun/I don’t care where you pray/You can say what you say/I don’t wish you harm”); R.E.M.’s “Final Straw” evinces lead singer Michael Stipe’s emotional grappling with the fear Bush has inspired over the past four years (“Love will be my strongest weapon”); and former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty’s “Move On”–a blatant name check of everyone’s favorite grassroots network–bops along like the catchiest pop song while expressing frustration, optimism and patriotism in equal measure (“I love my country so much, man/like an exasperating friend”).

Yet most of the CDs tracks are less strident, or even non-political, which keeps the mix from feeling preachy or tired. Good tracks from indie superstars (Death Cab for Cutie, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sleater-Kinney,The Flaming Lips and Flansburgh’s own TMBG), beloved veterans (David Byrne and Tom Waits), radio favorites of your kid brother (Blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World) and a handful of others insure that there’s something for everyone. OK Go’s updated, upbeat and faithful cover of the Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” opens the record; “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free,” from the late and desperately missed Elliott Smith, rounds things out.

After hooking up with Josh Rosenfeld at Barsuk, Flansburgh’s project came together very quickly. In the course of lining up bands, Flansburgh also tapped McSweeney’s founder and writer Dave Eggers for ideas. It was fortuitous timing; Eggers had been thinking of doing a similar project, only with writers instead of musicians. “It seemed like he had his idea the same day as mine,” says Flansburgh. “It was that crucial moment where you suddenly saw through the veneer of the Bush Administration and there was a reason for optimism.” (Eggers’s project, The Future Dictionary of America, is out now and also contains the CD.) The musicians Flansburgh approached responded enthusiastically. In fact, so many wanted to be included on the CD that they couldn’t all fit, and some had their tracks cut from the final listing.

It was Flansburgh’s idea to approach about collaborating. “The MoveOn idea is almost like a model of citizenship,” he explains. “It isn’t a front for the Democratic Party–MoveOn is interested in changing the Democratic Party.” He adds, “But I am not a representative of MoveOn–I am a citizen of the US doing my thing.”

Obviously, Flansburgh is a model citizen–as well as shrewd record producer. Future Soundtrack for America debuted at No. 56 on the Billboard charts and has sold nearly 25,000 copies in its first two weeks out. “The problem with most efforts like this is not just the problem of preaching to the choir,” says Flansburgh. “It’s what’s in the sermon. I’m in the choir most of the time, and I just thought if I’m going to be directing choir, let’s get some good stuff in there.”

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