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Inside Politics

The politics of music

Musicians mobilize for and against President Bush

By David de Sola

John Mellencamp showed support for John Kerry by performing at the Democratic convention in July.
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Location: New York's Madison Square Garden, seats up to 19,763

Estimated attendees: 50,000

• Estimated budget: $91 million, according to NYC Host Committee 2004

• Delegates: 2,509 (2,344 alternates)

• Estimated volunteers: 15,000

• Hotel rooms used: 18,000+ in more than 40 hotels
America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a normal year, Bruce Springsteen and Ted Nugent would probably be more worried about record sales.

But in this year's supercharged political environment, musicians will be using their medium as a platform to promote political agendas from the right and the left.

Between now and Election Day, recording artists will be making a mad dash to record stores, concert arenas, and campaign rallies to weigh in on the presidential race.

Springsteen, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, the Dixie Chicks, and others have teamed up with anti-Bush group for the "Vote for Change" tour. The profits from the tour will benefit Americans Coming Together (ACT), a voter-registration effort dedicated to defeating President Bush in November and helping to elect progressive candidates to federal, state, and local government positions. is also sponsoring a compilation album titled "Future Soundtrack of America" featuring material from R.E.M., Blink 182, Tom Waits, and David Byrne.

The Democrats don't have a monopoly on musicians: The GOP can count on Johnny Ramone, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent (a declared independent but Bush backer), Michael W. Smith and a host of country artists, some who will perform this week at the Republican National Convention in New York City. (Special report: America Votes 2004, the Republican convention)

Nugent, answering by e-mail from an undisclosed location earlier this summer while performing for American troops on a USO tour with country music star Toby Keith, said that "a strong war on terrorism" is a major issue for him.

Nugent also criticizes John Kerry on fiscal issues. "Kerry quotes Mao Tse Tung when he insults hard-working Americans by seeking policy that would 'redistribute wealth,' " he writes.

The anti-Bush musicians have various reasons for opposing the president.

Offspring guitarist Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman does not approve of Bush's fiscal policies.

"Massive tax cuts for the richest 5 percent when acquiring huge budget deficits seems completely irresponsible," Wasserman said. "I don't know how giving more money to the people good enough at keeping it is going to help our economy."

Ministry's Al Jourgenson isn't happy about the war in Iraq. "All the money going over there [Iraq] should be spent on something useful, like health care, education, environment, and alternative energy sources, which sort of all tie in together."

Wasserman puts it more bluntly. "Iraq is one of the biggest mistakes and tragedies our country's been involved in."

Both sides now

Political activism by musicians is nothing new.

Woody Guthrie protested a variety of causes in the '30s and '40s; he was followed by folk singers such as Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, and then rock musicians of many stripes in the '60s, '70s and '80s, agitating against issues ranging from the war in Vietnam to nuclear power to Ronald Reagan's blunt Cold War rhetoric.

And musicians and politicians have been close in the past, from Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy to the Allman Brothers and Jimmy Carter.

But this year's alliances seem particularly illustrative of the blue state/red state breakdown.

The Democratic convention featured performances from singer-songwriter Carole King, hip-hop funksters the Black Eyed Peas, heartland rocker John Mellencamp and soul queen Patti LaBelle. (Special report, America Votes 2004, the Democratic convention)

Republicans will have contemporary Christian artist Michael W. Smith, operatic former New York police officer Daniel Rodriguez, country stalwarts Brooks & Dunn and reflective singer-songwriter Dana Glover.

That doesn't mean that rock and politics don't sometimes make strange bedfellows.

Earlier this year, Kid Rock earned the ire of Sen. Zell Miller, D-Georgia, for cutting a hole through an American flag to wear as a shirt during his Super Bowl performance.

"[T]he thing that yanked my chain the hardest was seeing that ignoramus with his pointed head stuck up through a hole he had cut in the flag of the United States of America, screaming about having 'a bottle of scotch and watching lots of crotch.' Think about that," said Miller in February. He added that the musician should be "tarred and feathered and ridden out of this country on a rail."

Kid Rock appears at a news conference at the 2004 Super Bowl in Houston, Texas.

Now Miller is scheduled to a primetime speech at the convention, and Kid Rock is scheduled to perform at a convention-related event in New York during the week.

And though his band, the Ramones, are considered anti-establishment heroes and once recorded a Ronald Reagan slam called "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," Johnny Ramone is a lifelong Republican who supports the NRA and George W. Bush, the Washington Times reports. When the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he took the podium and said, "God bless President Bush, and God bless America."

Urging the vote

The conventional wisdom is that musicians -- and the entertainment industry in general -- are a liberal stronghold. Statistics compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, which keeps track of financial contributions in the American political process, show that in the 2004 cycle, 82 percent of contributions from the music industry worth a total of more than $1.1 million went to the Democratic Party, compared to approximately $248,000 for the GOP.

That should come as no surprise given the socially liberal lifestyles musicians are known for, as well as the fact that the nexuses of the music industry in the United States are located in California and New York, two solidly Democrat states.

Still, musicians on both sides of the partisan fence agree on the importance of voter registration. The anti-Bush musicians are focusing their efforts on their young fan base, which historically has a low turnout rate.

Kerry supporter, Dave Grohl performed on several campaign stops this summer.

Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, reflecting on his own experiences, says, "I think it's important to get the message out as much as you can to young people, to get them involved in the political process and make sure they're not complacent. ... We need to get the message out to kids that they can really swing this thing if they all got out and voted."

His bandmate Dave Grohl performed at a Kerry fund-raiser in Hollywood earlier in the summer, and more recently has appeared at a few stops on the campaign trail.

Jourgenson -- who engaged in a public relations war of words with Urban Outfitters over their controversial "Voting is for Old People" T-shirt -- will team up with an anti-Bush political organization, Punk Voter, to register 100,000 new voters with a bit of a personal touch on Ministry's upcoming tour. "I'll be at the Punk Voter booth before the show to get that [18- to 25-year-old] voter demographic off their ass."

Nugent said he will do his part to rally the Bush faithful by promoting voter registration, as well as performing at fund-raisers and making media appearances on the president's behalf.

Country music star Ricky Skaggs has also decided to enter the election year fray. In collaboration with his fellow country musicians Marty Raybon, Josh Turner and others, Skaggs is helping with a non-partisan voter registration initiative called "Your Country, Your Vote."

Skaggs elaborates on the initiative's message: "We try to say, 'look, your vote does count.' If everybody felt that way way [that their vote didn't count] nobody would get elected."

Skaggs, a supporter of President Bush, has contributed "very nominal" sums of money to the Republican National Committee, and has performed at two Bush campaign events so far this year. But he puts the emphasis on getting out the vote in general.
Country music star Ricky Skaggs, a Bush supporter, is participating in a non-partisan voter registration initiative.

"Obviously if I'm at a Bush rally, I'm going to encourage people to vote for President Bush, but at my own concerts I'm trying to get people just to vote," he said.

Still, he takes issue with Bush critics. "The left seems to be Bush-bashers from the stage, in the media, through movies, on the Internet. There seems to be a movement of getting President Bush out of the White House at all costs."

Neither side will give an inch.

"Our American government has strayed too far from American values," Springsteen wrote in a New York Times column. "It is time to move forward. The country we carry in our hearts is waiting."

Nugent, not surprisingly, doesn't agree. President Bush, he writes, "[is] a good man and the right man for the job."

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