The Music of Politics

"The most important presidential election of our lifetime was less than seven months away and we desperately wanted to weigh in, both as artists and as citizens of a democracy," he writes. "All but two of these songs were recorded within 24 hours of the first line hitting the paper. We worked 12- and 14-hour days and in between takes and over meals we talked about the war, the election, baseball, and women, in precisely that order." -- Steve Earle in his liner notes to The Revolution Starts Now.

"This unprecedented coming together of musicians underscores the depth of the desire for change in our country's direction, and it feels right to use some of the freedoms granted to us in a democracy to try and effect that change." -- Mike Mills of R.E.M., in announcing the October Vote for Change concerts.

"I don't know if people go to musicians for their politics. I doubt that they do, you know, but you can rally people to think on serious issues together, and that's what we're trying to do." -- Bruce Springsteen, speaking about the Vote for Change concerts on Nightline.

Steve Earle's newest album is a lifeboat of humanity in an era of greed and violence.

With Americans and Iraqis dying everyday in Iraq in a war sold to the country with a wink and a smile, Earle's gravelly Texas draw and snarling guitars is a sharp counterpoint to President George W. Bush's vision of America.

The album, The Revolution Starts Now, thumbs its nose at the American power structure, from its hopeful opening rocker through its stories of American soldiers confused and frightened in a strange land to its evocation of America's spirit.

Jimmy Cliff, the great Jamaican reggae artist, offers a similar vision on his brilliant new disc, Black Magic, which posits a vision of hope in a world of terror and violence.

Earle and Cliff are among dozens of artists using their music to offer an alternate vision of the world. John Mellencamp, on Trouble No More, rewrote the protest spiritual "To Washington" as a critique of the Texas in the White House, R.E.M. issued an anti-war song on its website last year and rapper Chuck D and others also got into the game.

Musicians have been mixing politics with art for as long as either have been a part of this world, whether we're talking about military marches and Irving Berlin or the songs of Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bragg.

The results can be remarkable. Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" Frank Sinatra's rendition of "The House I Live In," Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is" and R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" are powerful songs that made a lot of noise on the charts and Merle Haggard's defense of patriotism and his southern roots, "Okie from Muskogee," and Johnny Cash's "Ragged Old Flag" are just flat-out great country tunes.

Despite this history, the announcement that Americans Coming Together and MoveOn were joining forces with a group of rock, folk and country musicians to sponsor the 10-day Vote for Change Tour in October met with a lot of criticism. The artists -- including Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Jackson Brown, John Mellencamp, R.E.M and others -- were attacked on rightwing radio and by the cable talking heads, accused of trying to influence the election.

And that is exactly what they are trying to do. According to organizers, the tour of key battleground states was "conceived by a loose coalition of musicians four months ago" with the idea of driving the president from office.

"I felt like I couldn't have written the music I've written, and been on stage singing about the things that I've sung about for the last 25 years and not take part in this particular election," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the tour.

The announcement generated a lot of interest among the politically progressive and created a backlash on the right. Bill O'Reilly attacked Springsteen, saying he is as far left as they come, while a New York congressional candidate is calling for a boycott of Springsteen's music and the tour. The gist of the attacks -- what does Springsteen or any other recording artist, actor or celebrity know about politics? -- is indicative of a climate in which celebrities or anyone who dare speak their mind are harshly attacked.

Springsteen answered the attacks on Nightline by saying that artists are no different than any other interest groups. Corporations, lobbyists and labor unions are not attacked for making their views known, he said.

"Artists write, and sing, and think, and this is how we get to put our two cents in, and we do it right in front of people, not in secret meetings behind closed doors," he said.

Political songwriting is not new, but its reappearance in the mainstream is a direct challenge to the consensus that has developed in the last few years. In the months after 9/11, the only artists allowed to make political records were jingoistic country singers like Alan Jackson and Toby Keith. That artists like Springsteen, who has always written what I would call political songs but who has stayed away from the partisan fray, have entered the ring maybe indicative of a change in public perception. More importantly, Springsteen and his cohorts may be able to energize some voters to get to the polls, which would be good news for the future of the country.

Hank Kalet is a poet and music critic and managing editor of two central New Jersey newspapers. Email

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