Friday, October 08, 2004

Youth Cool to Bush-Bashing Bands

Posted on Thu, Oct. 07, 2004
Musical youth fault today's political music as long on Bush-bashing
By Adam Smeltz
Knight Ridder Newspapers

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - As big-name bands storm the country with an anti-Bush,
pro-voting vigor this fall, young adults in this musical hot spot have a
message for the lefty crooners:

Cool it on the hatin' - and serve up some hopeful vision instead of just
knocking Republicans.

"A lot of musicians bash the current administration rather than forwarding a
specific agenda," said Shawn Wilson, 19, an English major at the University
of North Carolina who calls himself socially liberal but fiscally
conservative.

"I find it slightly offensive that they're going out of their way to
influence young people's politics."

Today's political tunes may not be as inspired or as impassioned as the
anti-war lyrics of the Vietnam War era, UNC students said. But even in this
Democratic bastion in a Bush-leaning state, some Generation Y'ers are
concerned that current "political" music centers on ripping apart
Republicans and lacks any John Lennon-like utopian goals.

The MoveOn.org-sponsored "Vote for Change" tour is taking 40 left-leaning
shows nationwide before Election Day, touting appearances by Bruce
Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews Band,
Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds and James Taylor.

At the same time, punk rockers promoted through PunkVoter.com are pushing
Bush-knocking sentiments through cyberspace. Hip-hop artists have boarded
the train as well, with Mary J. Blige, Chingy, Ashanti and others joining
forces for a redo of the 1970s hit "Wake Up, Everybody." That song is billed
online as a get-out-the-vote effort, but proceeds from sales are supporting
America Coming Together, an anti-Bush group.

Many of the musicians exhort young people to become more politically aware,
and they call repeatedly for change - a not-so-subtle slap at the Bush
administration.

That's leaving young people in Chapel Hill, N.C., long an incubator for
musical talent, weary and a little wary, even as the Vote for Change tour
has bypassed their area.

Political music now, they say, is less formative and more reactionary.

"I don't think it's as defined as it was in the `60s," said Southey Blanton,
21, who's studying communications at UNC. He said political rhetoric in
popular music is more subliminal and that his peers "search for music that
relates to their political views."

Even then, he guessed that only about half of his generation looks to music
for political substance. Others said even politically driven listeners are
skeptical of lyrical political messages.

"Top 100 (songs) are big on campus, but nobody probably pays attention to
politics in them," said Courtney Richardson, 20, a geography major. She said
the underground music scene in Chapel Hill is far more politically charged
than mass-produced recordings and offers a more global perspective.

At its core, though, popular music's place as an outpost of unconventional
ideas has been constant across the last 70 years, said an expert at the
University of Southern California.

"I doubt that there's all that much change at all in terms of the underlying
fundamental role," said Matthew Baum, 39, an associate professor of
political science and communication studies. "Popular music is the same as
it was in the 1930s, `40s, `50s. It got harder over time."

But setting this election cycle apart, he said, is a centralization of
politicization. That is, where politically groundbreaking anti-war bands in
the 1960s trekked across the country in a jumble of activism, the MoveOn.org
concerts today are choreographed on a national level. Such concerts with a
common political thread got started in the `80s, Baum said.

"What's arguably happening on a larger scale now is endorsement of a
partisan position or a candidate," he said. The proliferating endorsements
are a relatively new plane for music - well removed from the social
commentary of earlier artists, including Bob Dylan, who didn't endorse
particular candidates but instead advanced ideas, Baum said.

"I don't think any contemporary artist has anything on Dylan in terms of
social commentary," he said.

Back at Chapel Hill, musician Stephen Levitin, 28, said most college
students are so liberal that political "preaching to the choir" isn't
terribly effective.

The musical response during Vietnam was more vigorous and effective "partly
because the war then was drafting young people," said Levitin, who bills
himself as the Apple Juice Kid. "I think people would respond if someone
came out in a serious way with a statement against the war."

But there could be a credibility problem in that, too, some twentysomethings
suggested. Trouble is, faced with political music that consistently skews to
the left, young people tend to gloss over lyrics and aren't especially
inspired to shake up the government, said Christiana Johnson, 20.

"I don't feel comfortable playing only liberal stuff," said Richard Cross,
23, an aerospace student at Georgia Tech who works at a student radio
station there. "If we're going to play only liberal stuff. ... I think it's
better to err on the side of caution and be apolitical."

Which isn't to say that his station, WREK, has many current political tunes
in its library. Of 250 albums that it's received in the past several weeks -
all of them jockeying for airtime - only 10 are politically charged, Cross
said. And all 10 of those, he said, lean left.

It echoes a political diversity problem, young North Carolinians said,
adding that the only musical places they can find conservative perspectives
are Ted Nugent songs, country music and Christian rock.

"I don't think it's wrong for them (musicians) to tell people who they've
chosen, who they support and campaign for," said Christopher Dickson, 22, a
psychology major at UNC.

Still, he said, young people "need to do our own homework."

(Smeltz, 22, a reporter for the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa., is
covering young voters for Knight Ridder. His youth-oriented blog, Life of
the Parties, can be viewed at http://asmeltz.blogspot.com.)