September 4, 2008

Donkey Jams and Elephant Jives: The Election Playlist

Print More

Towards the end of last year, I was planning my summer jaunt through Israel and Palestine and watching the debate about human rights and China’s Olympics, and it was suddenly very difficult to find good topics for my Arts columns. Music just didn’t feel weighty in the same way that the political opinions and discussions that seem to push the world around did.
Watching the process of the ongoing election with a lot of skepticism, however, I’ve come to see the lines between politics and the arts as a lot blurrier. I hope to help make those lines blurrier this semester.
No two celebrities figure into conversations this semester as much Barack Obama and John McCain. Already, we are in the midst of the pageantry of the conventions, the daily reports of who verbally attacked whom and how, and which movie stars and musicians are endorsing the two candidates. Somehow, every publication finds a way to work itself into the fray: Rolling Stone published “What’s on Barack’s iPod,” and NPR discussed McCain’s endearing affinity for ABBA.
At the same time, famous musicians don’t feel bashful about relentlessly expressing their political opinions, and the way the hip-hop and country communities have galvanized behind Obama and McCain respectively go to show that a big part of this campaign is a cultural game involving identity, subculture and taste. Music, while it may seem removed, plays a massive role in all of this. It may not matter to the policy buff what is on the candidate’s iPods, but it matters deeply to many voters who want those representing them to share their interests and habits.
What does not seem as important in this election is music’s role as protest against the entire system. I remember in 2000 how Rage Against the Machine, the angry rock group that later depoliticized itself as Audioslave, played a protest outside the Democratic National Convention. They had included quotes by Ralph Nader in their music videos, and followed his lead by publicly criticizing the Democratic Party’s argued lack of true progressive values. “Brother and sisters,” shouted lead singer Zach de la Rocha, “our democracy has been hijacked!”
By the end of the day, rocks and glass thrown by the protesters were answered with the police’s rubber bullets, tear-gas and pepper-spray. At least six were arrested and fierce criticism of the police response was voiced by MTV and the American Civil Liberties Union, and the events were covered by most major media outlets.
As I write on Wednesday of this year’s DNC, the band is preparing to play again, and will repeat the performance in Minneapolis during the Republican convention next week along with other political acts like hip-hop group The Coup.
I can’t imagine that either show will elicit the kind of outrage, action and response that we saw in 2000. At the DNC this year, the band’s main issue is the Iraq war, which is arguably a much less radical thing to criticize than the American political system, and the general level of intensity just seems to have receded.
What is different about this election? Nader is running again, but with none of the fanfare he had back then. Many who would have voted for him and chanted along to Rage Against the Machine now either believe in or are willing to work with Obama. McCain is being demonized as “the next Bush,” but it is questionable if his more moderate policies would lead to quite the same neoconservative free-for-all in Washington.
The spirit of protest simply is’t there anymore, and while I support one of the two main candidates and am not ready to get tear-gassed, I can’t help but wish that music was playing more of an angry outsider role in this election.
The ‘60s could not be more over as Rolling Stone cheekily slaps a heroic headshot of Obama on their cover and curiously asks about his iPod selections.
Surely most of mainstream musicians probably backed Kerry, Gore and Bush in the past few elections, but it still feels as though the music community has entered the political mainstream in a new way, supporting Obama and treating him as a youthful rockstar, while implicitly treating McCain as a bit of a stodgy old man who listens to the oldies. Has protest gone mainstream? Is Obama a new kind of Mick Jagger? As I write, I’m watching Clinton cede the nomination to him with all of the spectacle of a Rolling Stones concert, and the answer is looking like yes.