WHEN JAMES TAYLOR announced he would perform a string of free concerts to support Barack Obama, it brought to mind a poster from 1972 advertising JT, Carole King and Barbra Streisand singing for George McGovern.
Nine presidential elections ago, the idea that a new generation of songwriters — represented by Taylor and King — had the sway to make a difference for a candidate was radical. The word “change” was not being bandied about the way it is today, but the signs were certainly there, especially when it came to a candidate embracing the culture of youth and its artistic leaders.
Taylor’s recent perfs in North Carolina for Obama came from a position as wizened sage, his political p.o.v. presented from a fatherly, or even grandfatherly, place. That’s true, too, of Bruce Springsteen, who made Obama only the second candidate he has rallied even though the Boss has given social issues a priority on par with his music since the Reagan Administration.
What we don’t see in these modern campaigns are the musicians who were in Taylor’s position when he was stumping for McGovern. In part that’s because current musical acts don’t have the widespread appeal of Springsteen in the ’80s or Taylor in the ’70s; another reason is the potential backlash against the artist and the candidate. As Linda Ronstadt, John Mellencamp and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young have witnessed during the Bush years, some in their respective audiences have vastly different political views from their own.
Taylor and Springsteen, who obviously have not had the best of luck helping presidents get elected, represent a consistency in character and a lack of ambiguity in their messages of hope and reconciliation. Both men often sing about a better tomorrow. Their lyrical ideas work for any of America’s political parties, even when misinterpreted. There is not a voting American hitmaker since Obama first took political office who can project a similar image of integrity.
ACTORS ARE MUCH safer. Their fame is built on the language and stories penned and conceived by others. In front of a television camera, they stay on point and, through enunciation and inflection, help rally troops around issues and candidates. That’s a struggle for most musicians.
News stories regarding musicians and politicians often concern a dispute over songs used at candidates’ rallies. Mellencamp, Foo Fighters, Van Halen, Heart and John Fogerty have all launched “just say no” campaigns this year asking the candidates not to use their songs at rallies; a few country acts have issued wishy-washy statements to avoid offending either party when it comes to the use of their music.
The safe tack for musicians who want to be involved is to encourage people to vote. Last week Usher added to his credentials by releasing the politically oriented single “Hush” to raise money for his foundation, which supports his call-to-service for teens and college-age kids. The lyrics are especially striking for a man whose most popular music are club anthems, tracks such as “Yea” and “Love in This Club.”
Throughout the campaign, Usher has led youth rallies, organized voter registration drives and participated in voter registration PSAs. He’s the national co-chair for Obama’s voter registration campaign and, as a press release noted in all caps, he has led a dozen nonpartisan rallies in nine cities for teens.
Usher, whose albums and singles sell in the millions, is about as safe a performer as any politician could ever bring aboard a campaign. But is he safe enough? Can he galvanize more potential voters than he could turn off? While his intentions are above reproach, does the fact that his music is insufficiently serious make him fine for the sidelines but not the spotlight?
It would have been fascinating if Obama, when asked to disclose the contents of his iPod, had a list that was truly all over the map. He’s a fan of Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Springsteen and Jay-Z, with safe doses of classical and R&B. His taste is pure middle of the road, the sort of music that pleases crowds and offends no one. All we know about John McCain is that he’s a fan of Abba.
We have yet to learn about Sarah Palin’s musical tastes. Perhaps it’s a wise decision to keep them private.