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.
Detroit -- What could be creepier than standing a few inches away from the car where JFK was shot? For one, standing next to that car and knowing the chair where Lincoln sat when he was killed was a few yards away (accompanied by a sketch indicating which stains were blood). For two, reading on a placard that Kennedy's blue convertible was painted black and then used by succeeding presidents all the way until Carter. But the situation wasn’t creepy enough to keep tourists at the Ford Museum yesterday from taking photos of the most infamous four-wheeler in American history.
As I watched families quietly pass through the museum exhibitions with the reverence and passivity reserved for church, I began to think the museum was more of a place of the dying than a tourist destination.
The Ford Museum, a gargantuan warehouse attached to an old brick house, pays homage to work and automation, with great American conveniences such as pink toilets chugging overhead on a track in the ceiling. There’s the flight exhibit, the furniture exhibit, and, of course the car exhibit, where you can see each of the automobiles used by presidents past.
A narrator in the occasional exhibition video might warn about “air pollution,” or illustrated signs next to a display may ask kids to guess the percentage breakdown of wastes in landfills, but the museum's underlying theme is that Ford’s vision of the future was the right vision. Here, we might witness a happy evolution where worker and tool melt into a system of greater efficiency, productivity, perfection.
One placard reads, “these engines represented for Mr. Ford the pinnacle of power, efficiency and beauty.”
Michigan has been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs and no one knows if they’re coming back. The blue-collar, white men and women I saw in the museum are a dying group. In the futurist world of Ford’s museum, they had a place, but not any more. Call it outsourcing. Call it changes in how we live and think. But it's not the same any more. And I felt it strange to stand in a room full of metal and plastic where signs indicate that the Industrial Revolution still churns and where one man’s idea of ordering society still exists. It’s also strange to wonder what world comes after the demise of those beliefs.
What happens to the Democrats when the auto unions die? After all, the United Auto Workers here hesitated to endorse Kerry because they feared his emphasis on tighter Café standards would jeopardize car production.
Who is the heartland any more that politicians reach to? It doesn’t seem those living in Detroit can relate to the two men from Yale who’ve had enough spare change to run companies into the ground or to actually choose to go to war.
Detroit -- Last night, a source told me there were fabulous Arab restaurants that stayed open late in Dearborn. I misunderstood exactly where he meant and when I took my rental blue Chevy through road construction and over potholes after the debates, I couldn’t find anything. The pictures I had of people eating hashing out what Kerry and Bush had said over fresh tabouleh didn’t fit the well-lit and busy Bob’s Big Boy I passed. I ended up at Kroger’s, a super-super grocery store, where working-class families and crazies were still shopping.
The sales clerk said she works nights and her husband works days, because they can’t afford daycare for their daughter. I’m in Michigan to learn about the sea-change in Muslim voting during this election, and have been hearing a lot about the issues argued in the debate. But it’s hard to ignore that all of Michigan was hit hard by the recession. In poll after poll, residents say economy is their number one concern in the election, and whoever runs the country has to solve the problems.
I interviewed a business professor who said that when the economy turns south people stop buying cars, and so Detroit is the first hit by a recession and the last to recover. So, what would bring Detroit back up? His answer was to get cash into the pockets of poorer people. It was a trickle-up theory, where the poor will spend the money they get, not save or invest. That spending will circulate cash back into the economy and create demand. He pointed out they may not spend it where policy-makers and economists want it spent. Cars, I thought, aren’t cheap, and I doubt the government wants to give enough cash out so everyone gets a new Mustang. So, I don't know how this would help his specific region, unless it becomes a service economy.
In other words, while the debates last night were illuminating and exciting, the ones that matter in Detroit are still to come. And neither man running for president may be able to do anything that really helps.