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Politicians: Beware the Power of Rock

Simon Warner

When a giant of the rock industry like Bruce Springsteen weighs in with his tuppence worth, tens of thousands of ordinary voters feel they are being offered the benefit of impartial common sense from a source they can trust.

For almost a decade I have taught a course at the University of Leeds on the relationship between the political and popular music. "Raised Voices: Pop, Protest, Politics" attempts to survey the more significant interactions between music-making and policy-making in the post-war period. It is a module which attracts a good deal of student interest, provides some opportunities for lively debate, and sets in context some momentous developments in the latter half of the 20th century: from the House Un-American Activities Committee to Vietnam, black rights to gay rights, folk to hippie, punk to hip-hop, from Woodstock to Live Aid, Joseph McCarthy and Martin Luther King to Reagan and Thatcher.

Yet, however, engaging this story may be — and I stress that I am talking about the intrinsic value of the material, not my delivery of it — I am still left wondering each year, at the end of this annual overview, how much difference does the sound of music actually make in shaping political mindsets, social consciousnesses or governmental strategies? Does it have a bearing on the lives of those in the West or the developing world? Is the land of pop one that thrives merely on the notion of style and gesture, while realpolitik is the place where substance is all and decisions are taken in the white-hot environment of reality?

Of course, the answer cannot be so clear cut. There are musicians who mean it: Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs, Bob Geldof and Billy Bragg come to mind. As, too, there are politicians with conviction: Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair, for instance. Just as there are rock stars that swan into the realm of politics to swell their status and credibility, there are, as well, political figureheads that are driven by ambition and ego rather than by ideology. But whatever, the contending values of the players in this drama, there remains an enduring connection, if an ill-defined one, between these separate spheres of activity.

It only takes a US presidential election to bring these matters into clear focus, particularly an electoral struggle which is polarising the populace quite like the Bush v Kerry battle. Following the precise detail of the Democratic programme or the fine print of Republican proposals is one thing — something certainly for the columnists and analysts — but when a giant of the rock industry like Bruce Springsteen weighs in with his tuppence worth, tens of thousands of ordinary voters feel they are being offered the benefit of impartial common sense from a source they can trust.

Whether Springsteen personally penned those words or not, as printed in the New York Times in early August, a statement re-printed in the Guardian in the UK the following day, there was still a sense that a decent, principled individual was presenting a pretty unequivocal case: the nation's destiny depends on dispensing with Bush and starting with someone else anew. The New Jersey-born songwriter has, for all his success, all his millions, long assumed the guise of blue collar Bill. His is the voice of an older, better America, blending passion and nostalgia, speaking of lasting values and a faith in hope, all in a manner that has engrossed at least two generations of white Americans.

Springsteen confessed that he had not pinned his colours to a mast so dogmatically in the past. "Personally, for the last 25 years I have always stayed one step away from partisan politics. Instead, I have been partisan about a set of ideals: economic justice, civil rights, a humane foreign policy, freedom and a decent life for all of our citizens. This year, however, for many of us the stakes have risen too high to sit this election out.

"Through my work, I've always tried to ask hard questions. Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens? Why do we continue to find it so difficult to see beyond the veil of race? How do we conduct ourselves during difficult times without killing the things we hold dear? Why does the fulfilment of our promise as a people always seem to be just within grasp yet forever out of reach?

I don't think John Kerry and John Edwards have all the answers. I do believe they are sincerely interested in asking the right questions and working their way toward honest solutions. They understand that we need an administration that places a priority on fairness, curiosity, openness, humility, concern for all America's citizens, courage and faith."

Nor did the Boss stop there. The newspaper column coincided with the announcement of a series of Vote for Change concerts that will take place in early October and gather a coalition of rockers — REM, Pearl Jam, Jackson Browne, Ben Harper and others, all joining Bruce — and even country stars like the controversial Dixie Chicks, bidding to sway undecided voters in the run up to the presidential ballot.

This raises interesting echoes of Britain the mid-'90s when a seemingly eternal Conservative administration — led principally by Margaret Thatcher, then by her successor John Major — finally faced serious and sustained challenge by a galvanised socialist party, re-branded as New Labour and fronted by the genuinely bright and ever-smiling Tony Blair. Blair, a barrister with an Oxbridge history, was hardly a typical working class hero, but he exuded the sincerity and sanity, the rigour and realism, that appealed to a broad constituency and further undermined a Tory government in disarray. He was also the first potential prime minister of the post-rock era and he exploited this to good effect. Not only had he played guitar in a long forgotten university band called Ugly Rumours, he also appealed to the younger generation in terms they could grasp. Blair allied himself with the surging vitality of Britpop — Blur, Suede and the Spice Girls all sheltered under that umbrella -—and when he won the 1997 election, Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Alan McGee of Creation Records were among the first to visit 10 Downing Street to celebrate a fresh political dawn.

But in the cauldron of politics, the coals of optimism soon cool. It is one thing to attach oneself to a creative renaissance, but rock'n'roll never solved the problems of employment, education and the health service. Seven years on, Blair, like Bush, is fighting a rearguard action. Both are tarred and feathered by the perceived calamity of Iraq. Yet there is a curious paradox: Bush the Republican is never likely to attract the backing of the kind of progressive liberalism that rock stars tend to espouse; Blair, on the other hand, fronts a Labour party that has, in the past, pooled significant rock backers like Bragg, Paul Weller and Elvis Costello, under the banner Red Wedge.

Bush will face the probable ill wind of the ballot all too soon and Springsteen's commitment to the Kerry/Edwards ticket could prove crucial in those states that hang in the balance. Blair's judgement by the British people will come later — there won't be an election until spring 2005 at the earliest — but the bubble of Britpop burst way back and the endorsement of its associated stars has long since evaporated. We may, in fact, when the time comes, face the curious spectacle of an unholy anti-Blair alliance: Conservative politicians and anti-war rock bands, combining to crush the New Labour dream for good.

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