If Rabble Rousers frontman Bill Collins is right to say that “politics is like a car,” then its most recent drivers—previously less active urban and youth populations—have stepped back from the wheel. The result is a well-publicized “enthusiasm gap,” the bugaboo of the Democratic Party entering Tuesday’s elections.
With his Obama-inspired electoral fight song, “Put the Car in D,” Collins offers one method of bridging the gap.
When Collins attended President Obama’s campaign rally to support Connecticut Senatorial candidate Richard Blumenthal last month, he was struck by the President’s analogy between the current political morass and the struggle of driving a car out of a ditch. Collins soon wrote “Put the Car in D,” a Calypso-style, call-and-response rocker recorded with the help of a group of phone bankers for the Labor 2010 campaign. The track is currently receiving thousands of YouTube hits and counting, each one a new reminder why this election matters.
Though “Put the Car in D” admonishes us not to put the car in “R,” its message and purpose are fundamentally positive. The jaunty, interactive track is a recognition that in order to increase enthusiasm and voter turnout, you can’t simply convince people of what’s wrong. For many, disillusionment runs so thick that any issue appears symptomatic of an irredeemably broken system. To engage the disaffected, you have to give politics an active, exciting, positive spin. As activist and anarchist intellectual Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”
This is particularly imperative for turnout among youth voters, many of whom have not yet entered the shrinking job market or put their children through an underfunded education system—to name two issues for which 2010 presents a clear political choice. Without a feeling of positive incentive, youth could stay home.
Collins is not the only one who has used music as a force for motivation this election cycle. Grammy Award-winning fusion band Ozomatli recently released “Respeto,” a Spanish-English bilingual track provoked by the attempts of conservative PAC Latinos 4 Reform to convince Latinos not to vote. Last month Jay-Z recorded a musical public service announcement for the Vote Again 2010 campaign, following a string of on-the-trail performances for Obama in 2008. And Respect My Vote! 2010, an alliance between labor and hip-hop, is an endeavor to inspire and educate youth about the importance of voting in every election.
As decades of organizing have taught us, “political performance” need not imply smoke screens and back-door deals. A year before Woodstock and a few days before the 1968 Democratic Convention erupted into violence, Yippie activists staged peaceful concerts around downtown Chicago. Historian Michael Denning writes that the Popular Front in America in the 1930s was marked by a profusion of musical iconography. The Cradle Will Rock, a 1937 pro-union Broadway musical directed by Orson Welles, was shut down by authorities for fear of social unrest at the hands of an ascendant left.
Today’s left exhibits little of the movement culture that sustained the spirit of change in the 30s and 60s. For these elections, our most immediate hope of rekindling voter engagement may be to capitalize on identity politics and a widespread affinity for melody and fun. Before we look to reform the whole of twenty-first century democratic politics, all who share a stake in redeeming our broken system must be on the same wavelength: D.