Party Music: When Musicians Get Political
As artists pick sides this election cycle, they progress an important history of rocking the vote
By Melinda Newman
As America heads into one of its most fractious election seasons ever, artists are lining up on both sides of the aisle to support their candidate of choice. Endorsing politicians is not new, but it’s never been easier: via a simple Tweet, an artist can reveal to millions of followers their presidential choice. With the general election still seven months away, a landslide of artists across genres have already voiced their preferences.
Hillary Clinton counts among her supporters Katy Perry, Cher, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé, Jay Z, Lady Gaga, James Taylor, and Snoop Dogg. Bernie Sanders has so many creatives behind him that his camp has set up a website, artistsforbernie.com, to list them publicly. His backers include Red Hot Chili Peppers, Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, The Go-Go’s Belinda Carlisle, Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and David Crosby.
These musicians follow in the long tradition of artists stumping for candidates that goes back centuries. The Hutchinson Family Singers performed “Lincoln and Liberty Too,” in support of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. Al Jolson wrote and sang Warren Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign song, “Harding, You’re the Man For Us,” warbling such lyrics as “A man who’ll make the White House/Shine out like a light house.”
Frank Sinatra, politically active for more than 40 years, revamped the lyrics of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s relentlessly optimistic, GRAMMY-nominated “High Hopes” into a John F. Kennedy rallying cry, complete with a children’s chorus, for the Democratic candidate’s successful 1960 presidential bid. His Rat Pack buddies, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford, dubbed The Jack Pack, joined Harry Belafonte and Nat “King” Cole in fundraising and promotional efforts for JFK.
Now, as in then, politicians see the benefit of aligning themselves with artists, especially when it means potentially touching voters they may not reach on their own. That means they are more than willing to come to the act’s turf, so to speak, especially via social media in 2016. Killer Mike posted a six-part interview with Sanders on his Facebook and YouTube accounts.
Perry took over Clinton’s Instagram account the day of an Iowa rally, sending out continuous updates, as well as photos of the two smiling together. Though Perry posted on Instagram in 2014 that she would write a “theme song” for Clinton, instead she has performed such pitch-perfect existing tunes as “Roar” and “Firework” while stumping for the former Secretary of State. She is not the only artist to allow past hits to take on new life during this election season: Simon & Garfunkel signed off on Sanders using their 1968 ballad, “America” in a commercial earlier this year.
Notably, more artists, including Aerosmith, R.E.M., Neil Young, and Everlast, have asked Trump to stop playing their songs. Rappers YG and Nipsey Hussle have even voiced their opposition to Trump in a new track called “FDT (F — -Donald Trump).”
Many artists who are getting involved in the political process are doing so without endorsing — or denouncing — specific candidates and have, instead, opted to encourage non-partisan voter registration, especially among young voters who may feel disenfranchised from the political process. GRAMMY Award-winning singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, Sara Watkins, and Anais Mitchell concluded the Use Your Voice tour earlier this month. The League of Women Voters sponsored the 38-city outing to promote voter registration on site, as well as help attendees find other voting information.
The trek follows in the footsteps of 2004’s Vote for Change tour, presented by MoveOn.org, with proceeds going to America Coming Together, a political action committee devoted to getting out the vote. That 10-date tour — with multiple concerts in various cities held each day — featured Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, and Babyface, among other acts.
That’s the same year that The Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein co-founded HeadCount, an organization that promotes participation by artists in the democratic process, and conducts voter registration drives at major music events. More than 300,000 people have registered to vote through HeadCount, according to the organization.
Of course when it comes to capitalizing on artists’ ability to engage voters, the granddaddy of them all remains Rock the Vote. Endorsed by more than 300 artists since its 1990 launch — including Madonna, who famously wrapped herself in an American flag for one of RTV’s first television ads — RTV drives have signed up more than six million voters since 2003 alone, the first year it began registering voters online.
It’s understandable that some artists choose to support the voting process as opposed to a specific candidate, since speaking out for a candidate may mean alienating fans holding opposing views. Carter found that out after he endorsed Trump in February and the denizens of Twitter pounced on the pop singer. He defended his views until late March, when he tweeted that the whole debacle had left him feeling so bullied and battered that he didn’t even know if he would vote.
While most political statements made by artists live for one news cycle and seldom cause the kerfuffle Carter experienced, exercising one’s freedom of speech can come at a cost — literally. For all the criticism an act may receive from his or her fans for endorsing a political candidate, the blowback can be much more severe when an artist speaks out negatively against a politician.
In 2003, The Dixie Chicks’ lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized George W. Bush on stage at a performance in London, saying she was “ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas,” her native state. The country band’s career crashed to an astonishingly rapid halt. A number of radio stations quit playing their music and ex-fans destroyed their CDs. The trio never recovered on radio, though the threesome has successfully returned to live touring, including a robust 40-date North American outing this summer. Maines is apparently still not ready to make nice. Earlier this year, she cheekily tweeted, “Just so you know… I’m ashamed Ted Cruz is from America ;).”
While many artists decide to let the music do the talking and keep their politics private, the effect of musicians and their music on social change is undeniable. Whether they raise awareness of social issues through their music or directly support or denounce specific candidates, their fans are listening and reacting. Many artists feel it is their duty to speak out, not only as someone with an elevated soapbox, but as a citizen.
British-born Graham Nash, who became a U.S. citizen nearly 40 years ago, recently told Billboard, “As artists we have a responsibility to reflect the times in which we live and as people we have a responsibility to try and make it better for the next generation. That’s how I view it… You have to put your vote where your mouth is and go for who you believe in.”
For most, the notion of civic duty is personal as each individual considers their rights and responsibilities as a citizen. For artists, their platforms may give rise to both a heightened sense of obligation and an increased concern about alienating members of their fan base with their political activism. In that sense, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have been right to take liberty with former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous line, “All politics is local,” changing a single word to drive the point that, “All politics is personal.”
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Congress must reaffirm our national commitment to music creators, writes Detroit R&B star KEMmedium.com
Top Image: Hillary Clinton arrived with singer Katy Perry during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa | Photo: Scott Morgan/Reuters