A culture war’s going on. The 2004 election does not merely pit red states against blue states; it places the cultural community against the Bush establishment. Look at the political conventions. The Democrats had a host of big-name musicians and actors: Glenn Close, Ben Affleck, Willie Nelson, Black Eyed Peas, Wyclef Jean, Patti LaBelle. The Republicans had Ron Silver, a Christian rock band named Third Day, the usual country singers and a bunch of lesser-knowns. It’s not news that the liberals of Hollywood and the music biz favor Ds over Rs, but this year more seem willing to hurl themselves into the partisan mosh pit. Most noticeably, Bruce Springsteen. He has long championed progressive causes but has shied away from electoral politics. On October 1, he and twenty other artists–including R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Ben Harper, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and the Dixie Chicks–kicked off the Vote for Change tour, a series of thirty-three gigs in eleven swing states, designed to aid the de-Bush crusade.
Before that evening’s concert in Philadelphia–which featured Springsteen, R.E.M., Bright Eyes and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival–Michael Stipe, R.E.M.’s frontman, noted that many in the media have dismissed the tour as singing to the converted. But such scoffing overlooks the master plan. The primary goal is not to change minds between tunes. As Springsteen said in one interview, “I don’t know if someone is going to run to the front of the stage and shout, ‘I’m saved’ or ‘I’m switching.'” The tour is more about organizing than persuading. The money raised by the shows–the artists will forgo payment–goes to America Coming Together, a Democratic-minded 527 that’s registering, identifying and mobilizing likely Kerry voters in swing states. And the names and addresses of the 280,000 ticket buyers end up in a database for MoveOn PAC, which intends to contact these people in an effort to recruit new MoveOn members and enlist volunteer workers for the election.
So on opening night there was more music than politics. At the start, Springsteen declared that the artists performing that evening were part of a coalition of musicians who desire “a government that is open, rational, forward-looking and humane.” In between sets, Vote for Change performers appeared on the video screens to explain, in a low-key way, their involvement. Bush misled the country into war, Springsteen noted in one clip, adding, “If you do that, you lose your job.” Song selection conveyed the message of the night. R.E.M. performed a 1988 tune they rarely play, “World Leader Pretend” (“This is my mistake/Let me make it good…./This is my world/And I am the world leader pretend”). Fogerty performed his recent but CCR-sounding antiwar song, “Déjà Vu (All Over Again),” and the obligatory “Fortunate Son” (“It ain’t me, it ain’t me/I ain’t no senator’s son”).
Springsteen opened with a thrashing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a twelve-string acoustic guitar and segued into “Born in the USA,” his dark contemplation of the Vietnam experience (mistakenly hailed as a patriotic anthem by Ronald Reagan during the 1984 campaign). He also played “No Surrender,” which Kerry has used at his rallies. Toward the end of his set, Springsteen did remark, “We live in a land of great promise, but it’s time to move it to the fulfillment of that promise,” citing economic justice, civil rights, environmental protection and foreign policy. He maintained that Kerry understands better (than you-know-who) how to use America’s military power. “The country we carry in our hearts is waiting,” Springsteen said before he ripped through “Born to Run” and, with the other musicians, performed “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” Talk about blue-state tunes.
Pop-star activism is commonly derided as egotism and/or dilettantism. When Ted Koppel interviewed Springsteen in August (“You’ve never gone partisan on us”), the newsman pushed this point: “Who the hell is Bruce Springsteen to tell anybody how to vote?” Springsteen replied that this was his “favorite question,” saying it “seems only to be asked of musicians and artists,” not lobbyists in Washington or business executives: “If you’re in a big corporation, right, you influence the government your way, right? Artists write and sing and think, and this is how we get to put our two cents in.” In Philadelphia, no one rushed the stage to confess pro-W sins. But should the presidential contest end up tight in the swing states, every dollar, every phone bank, every volunteer could tip the balance–and so, too, could every power chord.