Stephen King on musicians voicing their political opinions
''Just so you know,'' Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines told a concert audience in March of 2003, ''we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.'' The result was immediate. Many fans called for a boycott of the Chicks' music, and not a few country-music stations were happy to comply; less airtime for the Dixie Chicks provided that much more for the earnest but somewhat sheeplike warble of Toby Keith. Angry fans, some wearing T-shirts reading ''Send the Dixie Chicks to Iraq,'' burned their records in scenes reminiscent of the mass album burnings after John Lennon declared the Beatles more popular than Jesus. (And both scenes were not dissimilar to the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s.)
Now, 18 months later, the Dixie Chicks are joining an impressive array of musical artists, headed by elder statesman Bruce Springsteen, in what is being called the Vote for Change tour (which lacks the pizzazz of, say, the Voodoo Lounge tour). The plan is ambitious: six different touring combinations featuring the likes of Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band, Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, Springsteen, and the Chicks touring the 12 so-called ''swing states'' over a two-week period before the election.
As America becomes ever more entertainment-oriented (witness the splendid success of this very magazine, if you doubt), the talking heads who hang out on the news channels have become ever more wary of actors, writers, and rockers who want to get involved in the political process. These talk-for-their-supper specialists (as opposed to those who only sing for theirs) often disparage entertainers as dilettantes who only dabble in politics every four years, while at the same time ignoring guys like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who have used their celebrity and relaxed, camera-friendly personae to attain high public office.
I asked Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen's longtime manager, how much of this sort of negative ''shut up 'n play yer guitar'' press the Vote for Change tour had attracted, being aware of Bill O'Reilly's fairly confrontational interview on the subject with Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone. ''We have [tried to interview him],'' O'Reilly said of Springsteen, ''but we can't get through the gates in the Beverly Hills mansion. They're very thick.'' You know, like he could just breeze through the gates at Ah-nuld's place.
Landau agreed that all artists who support a political cause face that kind of criticism; he calls it the stay-in-your-box syndrome. During the initial publicity push for the swing-state concerts, Springsteen appeared on ABC's Nightline, and Ted Koppel asked him bluntly: ''Who the hell is Bruce Springsteen to tell anybody how to vote?''
Springsteen's response: ''It's an interesting question that seems to only be asked of musicians and artists, for some reason. Big corporations...influence the government [their] way.... Labor unions influence the government their way. Artists write, and sing, and think, and this is how we get to put our two cents in.''
What probably worries a fair number of folks up for reelection (whether or not they have imaginations big enough to be outright scared is, I think, very much open to question) is that the two cents musicians put in can sometimes be worth a fortune in terms of social, economic, and political change. When Woody Guthrie wrote ''Union Maid'' to the tune of ''Red Wing,'' he gave the labor movement its last great rallying cry of the Depression. An obscure Negro spiritual called ''No More Auction Block for Me'' became ''I'll Overcome Some Day'' in 1900, and then, as ''We Shall Overcome,'' the anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Around the same time, Phil Ochs' fiery protest song ''I Ain't Marching Anymore'' became the anthem of the antiwar movement...even without radio airplay.
''To some extent we may be out there preaching to the choir,'' Landau said when I asked him what these musicians hope to accomplish. ''Otherwise, I think that Bruce and John [Fogerty] and Jackson [Browne] and the rest want to inspire people and make them feel uplifted, which is something music always does when it's good. There aren't going to be any long speeches. These aren't going to be rallies.'' He pauses, then says with great emphasis and apparent relish: ''These are going to be rock shows.''
And the money? Where does that go?
To liberal advocacy groups like America Coming Together. And the artists involved, from Babyface to James Taylor, are clear about one thing above all else: They want Dubya gone, and like most of the political talkers who dismiss them as part-time politicos, these artists see the 12 swing states as key to making it happen.
The question, of course, is whether or not such an unprecedented series of tours, culminating in one monster Washington, D.C., show on Oct. 11 where 13 of the 23 artists are expected to play, can have an effect. I think it's hardly out of the question. I also think the politicians, George W. Bush in particular, who happen to be on the wrong end of this guitar attack may have reason to be worried. Music is powerful. Music can change hearts. And hearts can change minds.
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