Detroit -- Last night, I felt old. In Cobo Hall, an old hockey arena downtown, Michael Stipe took the stage and a sea of bald heads rushed toward him in the pit. Yes, REM, a band of my youth, is now officially Dad Rock.
When Vote for Change, a Kerry-supporting concert series, was announced this summer, Democrats I know hoped the bands would bring out the youth vote. I nearly choked. Bruce Springsteen is not a draw for any 18-24-year-olds in my life. But, who would Vote for Change bring out and what impact would the music have?
Vote for Change is only touring battleground states, which excluded California. But the bands descended in full force on Michigan last night, and my hotel across from Cobo filled with people in vintage Springsteen shirts, all ordering Miller Genuine Draft at the bar. REM, Bruce Springsteen and Bright Eyes almost filled Cobo, while down the street the Dixie Chicks played with James Taylor and somewhere in town Dave Matthews Band and Jurassic 5 reminded Detroiters to vote for Kerry. Pearl Jam was in Kalamazoo. There was a festival feeling in the city from having so many bands play all at once.
The concert wasn’t as political as I expected. There were a few signs and Michael Stipe wore a Kerry shirt. Between sets, the musicians explained on videos why they supported Kerry. The evening’s strongest political message came when Springsteen, acting like a revivalist preacher, “saved” a man in a bow-tie he pulled onstage from the audience. He exorcised the man’s Republican associations by having the audience shout “Halliburton” three times.
He also summarized Kerry’s points from Thursday’s debate about "flip-flopping" in one eloquent, beautiful slogan. Seriously, the man should be writing speeches, not songs.
“America isn’t always right,” he told the audience, “but it is always true.”
Still, this was hardly an evening of strident political pronouncements, and the emphasis was definitely on the music.
Interspersed with the minutes-long wails of “Bruuuuuuuce,” were the shouts of “Four more years.” The two men who sat in front of me may not be voting for Kerry and they may not have had any rhythm, but they still loved the Boss. The nearly four-hour concert didn’t change their minds. It just seemed to make them more defensive of their beliefs.
The man at the end of my aisle came to see REM. An independent businessman, he’s lived in Detroit his entire life. Right before the war, he had a sign that read “Yee-haw is not a foreign policy.” On Michigan streets, people in Jaguars and old beat-up trucks honked at him, flicked him off, and even ran him off the road for his sign. Yes, he said, people here are angry on both sides and the election will be tight. But, he also said, since the invasion of Iraq his political statements have been met with less violence and less contempt. The concert was an affirmation for him.
As for Bruce Springsteen, the woman next to me recognized his twelve-string version of “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Born in the USA.” She also knew a couple of REM’s songs. It was a pleasant evening for her. She’d been leaning toward Kerry and this made her want to vote for him a little more, but she wasn’t inspired to take political action. She came with a friend, and we all noted there was almost no hype for the concert. No signs, no radio ads.
So, then, what are these concerts about besides entertainment? Not the youth vote. Not conversion.
They’re here to galvanize voters. Voting is boring, mundane, and even difficult. We’re supposed to go to the polls at the end of the work day, stand in line and wait for a woman old enough to have baby-sat Moses to stop explaining why Eisenhower was the greatest man who ever lived and get her ballot. Then we’re supposed take our own ballots into a booth and hope that the holes we’re punching in a card mean something.
But Bruce and Michael are turning voting into a party. Those not only discouraged from voting by the process, but by the fact people in their states overwhelmingly support the other guy for President, get a stadium show and can hear an interminable song where the chorus is “People have the power.” They get to feel like they aren’t being run off the road by the other half of the population. And, in swing states, this type of anti-voter-suppression activity may be key to the election.
Posted by Lisa Lambert at October 4, 2004 08:34 AM