Does it matter who plays the conventions?

by Ben Wener

Orange County Register (MCT)

2 September 2008

Music artist Melissa Etheridge performs at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, Wednesday, August 27, 2008. (Chuck Myers/MCT) 

Every four years it’s the same story: The Democratic National Convention attracts all the cool rockers (whether party officials want them there or not) while the safer, tamer Republican National Convention enlists the same stodgy acts it did the last time ‘round.

The star power turning out during this most ballyhooed part of the ‘08 race has proven no different. The list of names that have performed at or near or in protest of the DNC this week is ridiculously long, and as I write this it’s still growing.

Jennifer Hudson is due to sing the national anthem any second now, at the request of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald and Black Eyed Pea will.i.am are also slated to appear.

The convention itself has coughed up moments from soul man John Legend as well as Melissa Etheridge and singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, but outside the hall it’s as if South by Southwest had relocated to Denver.

Crow took part in Green Sunday at Red Rocks, an eco-awareness welcoming concert that also featured Sugarland and an acoustic set from Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds. Etheridge and Cyndi Lauper headlined a Rock the Benefit side party, while Kanye West and Jamie Foxx turned up in support of Bono’s ONE Campaign.

Rock the Vote is back again, and in the Mile High City presented a show featuring Jakob Dylan, N.E.R.D. and Fall Out Boy. Lupe Fiasco turned up at a History of Progressive America panel. Ashanti played the Every Woman Counts party. Old Dem pros Willie Nelson and David Crosby have floated about, as have the Black Keys, My Morning Jacket, the Allman Brothers Band and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

NOFX played its album Punk in Drublic in its entirety. Silversun Pickups and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie took part in a show dubbed Unconventional ‘08. Rapper Fat Joe headlined the Voto Latino party.

And that citizen-hassling Recording Industry Association of America wasn’t about to get left out - it brought Daughtry, Flobots and Everclear to the DNC, and next week will bring the guy who wrote “Jesus Take the Wheel” and, inexplicably, acclaimed singer-songwriter Greg Laswell to the RNC.

Then there was the most anticipated and discussed event of all: The Tent State Music Festival to End the War, a protest featuring Oakland revolutionaries the Coup, the great Wayne Kramer (who played during the riotous 1968 DNC with the MC5) and those reunited firebrands Rage Against the Machine, who, you’ll recall, caused quite a stir at the 2000 DNC outside Staples Center. (Check ‘em out above, doing “Guerrilla Radio” earlier this week.)

Meanwhile, who else is scheduled to appear at the RNC? The Beach Boys. And why do I suspect Lee Greenwood will turn up to belt “God Bless the U.S.A.” at some point?

The cranky cynic in me could spend all day cracking jokes about the obvious polarity here. But I’ve got a more burning question to resolve: Does any of this even matter?

Sure, it’s nice to have heartfelt performances part of the proceedings - who doesn’t like to hear a nifty, uplifting tune while they’re deciding which candidate most deserves a hanging chad? But does it really rally supporters? Does it actually motivate anyone to vote one way or the other? “What, Barack got Stevie?!? He’s my man!” Or, to be fair: “Mike Love’s doing ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’?!? Dude, McCain is SO in!”

And for all the admirable work so many artists have done this week out of sincere protest or to inspire change, does anyone really think it has had any impact? I realize this isn’t ‘92 and we don’t have to rely strictly on MTV News briefs for footage - search “DNC performance” on YouTube and you’ll find clips from most every bash. But are these stars anything more than entertaining distractions that preach to their respective choirs?

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