Music + Politics: Artists Tune In

“If we extract ourselves from the system, due to apathy or dissatisfaction, we give our consent to the status quo.”
The idea for this story began with an unlikely e-mail: a newsletter for the pop-rock band OK Go. Usually full of witty banter about the band’s happenings, this one was different. This was a letter from Damian Kulash, lead singer, with two basic messages: one, vote, and two, vote for Kerry. It wasn’t the sway that struck me so much as the fact that OK Go, not a political band in any sense, was sticking its neck out, urging people to take an active role in the democratic process. Perhaps the finest point was this, Kulash’s closing point: “I find it difficult to support Mr. Kerry. He’s not the charismatic, principled guy I’d vote for in a perfect world. I do, however, feel strongly that we should all be involved in the process of choosing our leaders, even if it is on a lesser-of-two-evils basis. If we extract ourselves from the system, due to apathy or dissatisfaction, we give our consent to the status quo.”

That line really struck me. There isn’t a person walking around, Democratic, Republican, or other, who doesn’t have dissatisfaction with the status quo. I’d bet that, this week alone, you’ve had a handful of conversations (or bitch sessions, as it were) with friends and acquaintances about the state of the nation. But what have you done about it, beyond complain?

That premise led me to want to investigate what others in the music and entertainment industry felt about their role in politics: did they feel ethically obligated to share their views with their audience? What are some of the issues important to them? What can be done to get more Americans involved in the political process? And perhaps, most importantly, what are some resources for unbiased, fact-based information? Of course, I couldn’t talk to everyone in the business, but I did my very best under a very tight deadline. Read on…
It’s everywhere these days: musicians getting involved with politics. The week I was researching this article, Linda Ronstadt was ejected from the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas for dedicating a song to Michael Moore and his film, Fahrenheit 9/11. P. Diddy launched Citizen Change, a nonpartisan (but Democratically backed) campaign designed to “educate and empower” young and minority voters. Black Sabbath kicked off its Ozzfest reunion with “War Pigs,” backed by video footage of George W. Bush juxtaposed with Adolf Hitler; 10 days later, the footage was removed after complaints from Sabbath drummer Bill Ward.

Around the time of the Vietnam War, it was common to use music to communicate political beliefs. Somewhere since then, that tendency has fallen off, perhaps due to complacency, stability, or fear, or a combination of the three. Following 9/11, there was a slew of musicians communicating pro-U.S. and government messages (think: mainstream country acts). And now, suddenly, it seems political statements are coming from those who just last year were giving us their emotional scars and tales of love. In August, Barsuk Records—in collaboration with, Music for America, and McSweeney’s, and conceived and spearheaded by They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh—will release Soundtrack for a Future America, a 21-song fundraising compilation to raise money for nonprofit progressive organizations. (McSweeney’s is also releasing a book, The Future Dictionary of America, with similar fundraising goals; with contributions from almost 200 writers, the book will also include a copy of the CD.)

Later this month, Steve Earle will release The Revolution Starts…Now, his attempt to influence the November election. In September, Ani DiFranco kicks off her “Vote, Dammit!” tour of the swing states, joining forces with the Feminist Majority Foundation’s “Get Out Her Vote” campaign. Also next month, Mother Jones magazine, AEG, Madison House, and Spire Artists will host The State of the Union, a comedy benefit for independent media; Janeane Garofalo, Eugene Mirman, Lizz Winstead, and others will perform at Town Hall in New York City the weekend following the Republican convention.

“I certainly see the nation as being at an historical crossroads,” says Riddles owner Andy Ayers, “where we either figure out a way to join with the rest of the planet to begin dealing with our really pressing mutual concerns, or else we continue to militarize, becoming more and more a Fortress America—more isolated, more jumpy, more fearful, and more inclined to lash out.”

Jay Harris, publisher of Mother Jones, agrees. “The stakes seem very high, and the public seems more engaged…in issues than they were even four years ago.”

“We’re in such dire straits right now,” says Kulash. “You can’t feel like a decent human being or a decent citizen of America and shut up. Things are too fucked up.” For him, the inspiration came from watching a friend create mobile voting registration. “He’s sitting in his cubicle in Seattle and hatching plans to save the world, whereas I’m in all these places every day as a traveling rock band, and I haven’t been doing shit.” The problem? OK Go is in the studio this summer, not on tour. “So I decided the idea was so great,” he continues, “it really should be brought to bands who are on tour. The average band is not a bunch of super-political people, and they’re not likely to know how to go about organizing voter registration or know how to speak to their fans about things.” Hence, Kulash’s instructional booklet, “How Your Band Can Fire Bush,” was born. And, of course, when Flansburgh called, the band jumped at the chance to contribute to SFA.

Flansburgh is, admittedly, a reluctant activist. “I don’t really jump on a soapbox and express these things more than anybody else. Basically, I just shake my fist at the TV; that’s my usual response. But as a citizen, I felt like it had gotten so dire that I had to do something, or I would just be angry with myself. So I thought of the things I could do, things that were available to me, and this project seemed like something that I had the skill set for.”

Music+Politics: Artists Tune In
But back to the beginning—how do you get people to the polls in the first place? Some bands are working with voter registration organizations to sign up young people at their shows. One of the best known efforts was this spring’s Plea for Peace tour, orchestrated by Mike Park and assisted by Cursive’s Matt Maginn. Working with Music for America, the drive was a nonpartisan “tour that encourages people to exercise their right to vote.” Continues Maginn, “Some people assumed we would be preaching to the choir, but I don’t believe that was always the case. If the audience was anything like us, they have been through their bouts of apathy. It was more like we were encouraging ourselves as much as the audience.”
Other indie rock bands, such as Pedro the Lion, work with Music for America at their shows. “What I would like to have happen,” said Pedro’s David Bazan, “is for people who come to see Pedro the Lion to be challenged to think for themselves about politics, to be analytical and to commit to reading about politics.” Bazan also admitted to a political rant or two. “I don’t think I could call it anything else but shooting my mouth off from stage,” he demurred.

Locally, Vintage Vinyl has also joined the voter registration game. Working with America Coming Together (a partisan-led group playing by Vintage’s strict non-partisan rules), the Delmar location is providing voter registration Saturdays through October 16 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. To turn the activity into more of an event, local bands and DJs will be giving in-store performances each Saturday at 4 p.m. Says store operations manager Steve Scariano, “We started thinking of ways to further promote this beyond the usual—signs in the store, notices on our Web site, and e-mails—and since we always have lots of in-store performances by bands all the time, I thought it would be pretty cool and give a lot of local musicians the chance to perform in the store.” (For a complete schedule, visit

Local musicians are feeling the pull toward activism, too, even if in small ways. “I’ve just registered [to vote],” says Dave AlanS, Lord Baltimore singer/songwriter. “It’s the first time that I’ve been motivated to do so because I want somebody out of office that badly.” To spread the word, AlanS has invited Rock the Vote to set up a table at all upcoming LB shows.

“It takes so little time to vote, that one should do it whether it effects change or is merely a symbolic gesture,” offers Sunyatta Marshall of Fred’s Variety Group. “People fight and die for the right to vote. We take our right to vote for granted here.”

Says Steve Earle in his introduction to The Revolution Starts…Now, “Democracy is hard work. American democracy requires constant vigilance to survive and nothing short of total engagement to flourish. Voting is vital, but in times like these, voting alone simply isn’t enough.”

For his part, Matthew Gassen, St. Louis RTV street team coordinator, is concerned about the apathy of today’s youth. “We as young people need to be more concerned about what is going on with our government, our culture, and we should be more vocal about the issues that impact us and our fellow citizens.” He continues, “I personally think that most people, young and old, are often distracted by what we think is important, not necessarily by what really is important. And this translates into a democratic process that does not function nearly as well as it could. Without an educated and mobilized voting public, we “the people” aren’t going to be taken care of; we’re going to be overrun by a minority of self-serving interests.”

Educating people on the issues is a necessity, to be sure—but is it the musician’s job? “I’m not sure,” admits Pedro’s Bazan. “I do think that we have a responsibility, not as musicians but as citizens of a democracy, or a democratic republic…a practical responsibil ty to engage with one another about political issues. It makes a lot of practical sense to use that voice that people have from stage to encourage dialogue.”

Flansburgh isn’t so sure. “I don’t particularly feel musicians have any greater insight than the average CNN-watcher,” he admits. “I think our culture gives them far too much of a platform for their un-thought-out political points of view.”

Luna’s Dean Wareham says he believes in political activism, but not as a part of his music. “Myself, I have pretty strong political opinions,” he confesses, “but I sort of keep the music separate from that, because it is not why I started a band. I guess in my life I have been inspired by musicians who are political, but ultimately, I don’t think musicians have the power to change the world.”

Matthew Good, a politically outspoken singer/songwriter from Canada, is outraged at violations of human rights and civil liberties—too many of which, lately, seem to originate from the U.S. He keeps a near-daily blog on his Web site in which he reports world politics and news and gives his views. “I know that a lot of people don’t like to listen to ‘entertainers’ talk about these kinds of things,” he says. “We’re supposed to just—what’s the title of the book?—shut up and sing. And I think that’s really unfortunate. I think it’s really unfortunate that we live in a society that proclaims its great belief in liberty, but then tells everyone to shut the hell up and learn their place.

“I’m a self-contained songwriter,” he continues. “I do other things besides [music], so to me, it would be betraying myself and lying to myself were I to divorce the [music from the politics]; one is the other. That’s why I try to reflect it in my work and, given what’s been going on, my last two records are probably far more blatant than anything I’ve done in the past.”
Sunyatta Marshall explains, “I consider myself a person who is both musical and engaged with the world around me. I do believe that music should be used as an escape from…and a fertile ground for (sometimes pushy) ideas.”

Local filmmaker Srikant Chellappa (Running Against Dick) has done some political pieces, but that’s because our political process interests him, not because he felt he needed to convey a message. “I do feel an ethical obligation that I could never misrepresent the facts,” he says. “As an artist, I do have the obligation to myself to present my point of view, which people may or may not agree with.”

Mother Jones’ Harris points out how non-news media is often a forum for news. “If you look at music, if you look at documentary film, and if you look at comedy, I think those are media where they’re naturally youthful vernacular. In a lot of ways, they’re more accessible than the nightly news, even.” By example, he gives The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. On a recent episode, Stewart, interviewing Wolf Blitzer, kept asking questions until Blitzer finally admitted that, yes, in the case of the news media supporting the supposed weapons of mass destruction as justification for the Iraq war, there was “groupthink” taking over. Says Harris, “Stewart is asking questions that any self-respecting reporter should be asking but mostly doesn’t. I think, on the one hand, it’s an incredible indictment of the news business. On the other hand, it means that these kinds of things are going to come out in other forums. I think comedy’s a place where…the politeness factor, the deference factor that seems to be so much a part of the official news culture these days—if it’s comedy, you don’t have to play by those rules.”

Educating people on the issues is an entirely new problem, one not easily remedied by the perceived lack of information in your average newscast. So where, then, can you find unbiased sources of information? Good luck.

“Other than Mother Jones?” Harris cracks. “I don’t think there’s a single source. I certainly recommend to everybody who can afford it that they subscribe to and read a major international newspaper, and if they can’t afford it, then get it free online. Just so there’s a common baseline of what the assumptions in the culture are. And there I think the independent press and the international press have been running circles around a lot of the U.S. press.”

“Publishing is the last place that you can really get radical and alternative news,” says Digger, one of four editorial confluistas of local activist newspaper Confluence. Beyond that, he continues, “I think our primary resource is people themselves.” Fellow confluista Mark Quercus concurs, “Everybody’s got a perspective, everybody’s got a story to tell.”

RTV’s Gassen offers the following: “In addition to news outlets, I think the best way to get factual information on the candidates is to visit their Web sites. Check the candidatees’ voting records and visit the Web sites of organizations and groups that you respect. Somewhere in the middle of all of that spin, you’ll be able to find the truth.”

Matthew Good, a self-professed “student of U.S. foreign policy for the better part of 20 years,” says, “I would suggest everyone read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; scare the shit right out of you.”

Pedro’s Bazan thinks it’s not just what you know, but also implementing what you’ve learned, and being able to admit when you’ve made a mistake. “There’s no way that we’re going to know, really, what’s going on; we just have to try to be as educated as we can and go with our gut and talk to people about it. And when we’re wrong, we can just admit it. That’s what this thing is. When you voted already, and you voted for the wrong guy, that’s OK.”

So it’s a sticky mess, music and politics, to be sure. But it’s an essential one, too, a voice for the people, by the people. Open discussion should be encouraged in all ways and all forms; after all, that’s the root of a democracy.

Cursive’s Maginn offers kudos and a warning. “As for political bands, I think it can be a great way to express views and help bring important topics out for others to ponder,” he says. “I think musicians need to be very careful and be sure they are fully informing themselves so that they do not inadvertently mislead their listeners. Being a ‘political band’ can unfortunately be used as a marketing tool, which can lead to greater problems. It is a dangerous situation once you are tailoring your political views in order to fit a market and sell records. Then you might as well be a politician.”

As for his parting words on the marriage of music and politics, Riddles’ Ayers says simply, “Buy local tomatoes. Hire local bands.”

Additional reporting provided by Jim Dunn.


Feel free to add to it by sending us your links and suggestions to

Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Extremes
The Greatest Sedition is Silence: William Rivers Pitt
Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States

The Parties
Politics 1: Here is a pretty comprehensive rundown of the parties in the US.

Confluence • Green Anarchy • The Guardian •
Harpers • The Los Angeles Times • Mother Jones • The Nation • The New York Times• St. Louis Post-Dispatch •
USA Today • Washington Post

BBC • Link-TV • NPR

Web Sites

Our photo shoot at the Creepy Crawl included members of Dead Celebrities and Reigning Heir, as well as friends, models, and our intern Carey Kirk—a true cross-section of America. We thank them all.

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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