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Vote for Change: Springsteen, REM, and Political Discourse in the Music World

by dan heaton

The past few years have witnessed considerable discussion regarding the appropriateness of musicians openly discussing political issues. The Dixie Chicks drew considerable flack from conservative fans and the mainstream media for their strong words against President Bush and the Iraq war. Eddie Vetter of Pearl Jam also took some shots for his use of a Bush mask and blatant criticism during their concerts. But few events in recent years have drawn as much attention as the massive Vote for Change tour, a two-week collection of shows in battleground states across the country promoting Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. This tour brought together a stunning assemblage of diverse artists, including Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, Ben Harper, Jurassic Five, John Fogerty, and numerous other top-notch acts. Split into smaller groups of several performers at each venue, these shows provided a good time while trying to educate the crowds about the upcoming election.

Spurred by both my political ideals and the excitement of catching Springsteen, I joined a few friends and embarked on a road trip to Cleveland for the Vote for Change concert on October 2nd. This show featured Springsteen, R.E.M., Bright Eyes, and John Fogerty (appearing with the E Street Band), and it delivered a powerful, enjoyable music experience. Indie favorite Bright Eyes opened the show and played a solid 30-minute set of intriguing, unique songs. The audience mostly had appeared for the two larger acts, but they still drew a positive response. R.E.M. followed and provided a solid one-hour set mixed with new tunes and fan favorites. Michael Stipe gyrated around the stage and delivered a few editorial comments while leading the band through 12 songs. Springsteen joined with a nasty guitar solo for "Bad Day" and even sang a verse on the crowd-pleasing "Man on the Moon" finale. This collaborative atmosphere would dominate the evening and help to generate some of its finest moments.

Having attended concerts by Springsteen & the E Street Band twice in the past few years, my positive reaction to their concert is obviously biased. However, the energy generated by the two-hour set helped to rouse even the skeptics in the crowd. Opening with an impressive 12-string guitar solo of "The Star Spangled Banner," Springsteen then joined the full band for intense versions of the classics "Born in the U.S.A.," "Badlands," and "No Surrender." With the exception of a brief speech later in the set, he let the songs do the talking and mostly avoided any blatant political preaching. Fogerty joined the band for "Centerfield" and a rocking version of "Fortunate Son" in which he conveyed a surprising amount of energy. Everyone returned during the final encore for an all-star jam of Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding" and Patti Smith's "People Have the Power," which completed the inspiring night.

The Vote for Change Tour drew a large amount of criticism from the right for mixing politics with rock music. One-sided individuals basically told Springsteen and his fellow artists to "shut up and play," which presents a limited opinion on the importance of music as art. If a person only considers songs as a way to pass the time in traffic or to jump around after having a few beers, then this opinion might hold some weight. However, listeners who believe that music is art and has the ability to convey a deeper message could easily poke holes in this viewpoint. Political views aside, musicians deserve the right to speak out and try to change things in society. An ignorance of this idea reveals the possibility that even an artist's most devoted fans may not be listening to the words being performed. Scanning a few popular Springsteen online forums, I noticed countless messages from fans deriding their idol for taking a partisan, anti-Bush viewpoint. However, a knowledgeable study of Springsteen's lyrics and his ideals makes this action completely understandable. He may not have directly supported a particular candidate in the past, but his support of the working class and social responsibility strongly contradicts the ideals of the Bush administration. It would have been a surprise had Springsteen not spoken out against the out-of-touch president.

Will the Vote for Change shows make a difference in the upcoming election? I'm not sure. Similar to the discussion regarding Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, it's difficult to discern whether they're just preaching to the converted. However, providing another chance for young people to register to vote cannot be diminished as an unimportant act. Additionally, the funds donated to the independent political organization America Coming Together (ACT) will help the group to present their message to a much-larger audience. The likelihood of Republican Springsteen fanatics paying big bucks just to see the concert and ignoring the message is high. But their money still goes to support John Kerry, so they unwittingly were still helping to ensure Bush's defeat. The answers will be clearer next week, when all the grass-roots support will hopefully earn the much-needed result.

Issue 27, October 2004

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