x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Tuned in to elections

Music In the US, Obama is enjoying support from rockers while McCain struggles.

Bruce Springsteen performs earlier this month at Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio, to encourage Barack Obama supporters to register and take advantage of Ohio's early voting period.
Bruce Springsteen performs earlier this month at Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio, to encourage Barack Obama supporters to register and take advantage of Ohio's early voting period.

Recently, the rock legend Bruce Springsteen went on the campaign trail for Barack Obama in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, mixing blue-collar anthems with eloquent speeches about reclaiming America's highest ideals. Meanwhile, the superstar rapper Jay-Z headlined two promotional shows for the Democratic presidential candidate in Detroit and Miami. Tomorrow night, Springsteen will perform again with Billy Joel at the glitzy Change Rocks fundraiser in New York City. Obama will be guest of honour. Ticket prices start at a cool $500 (Dh1,837), rising to an ice-cold $10,000.

Of course, it is not unusual for celebrities to lend support to US presidential candidates, either through non-partisan organisations such as Rock The Vote or clearly targeted concert tours like John Kerry's unsuccessful Vote For Change in 2004. But the key difference in this contest is the unprecedented scale of rock-star involvement. From Springsteen to Dylan, Jay-Z to Madonna, Stevie Wonder to Boy George, musicians of every age, race and nationality are pushing to get Obama elected.

As the US election campaign moves into its final weeks, the musical battle for the White House is playing a more prominent role than ever before. According to Rock The Vote, around two million more first-timers will be registered by election day next month. This is significant, as surveys consistently show younger voters favour Obama over John McCain by almost two to one. By harnessing the multimedia potential of online networking and viral marketing, it seems the Democratic campaign team have struck a power chord with the iPod generation. All year, the internet has been ablaze with unofficial Obama tribute songs and videos. The Illinois Senator's image and speeches have been endlessly sampled and recycled by musicians, filmmakers and visual artists.

In a July cover interview for the best-selling US rock magazine Rolling Stone, Obama was quizzed about his phenomenal appeal to artists. "Musicians and creative folks, generally, may be inclined toward the idea of change," he suggested. "To not just settle for what is, but what might be." According to Rolling Stone's executive editor Jason Fine, the surge in musicians backing Obama began as an angry protest against President Bush and the Iraq war. But it has since gathered the kind of wildfire idealistic momentum not seen since the 1960s.

"Obama is young, he has fresh and interesting ideas, he's perceived as a very humanitarian guy, and speaks the same language as many musicians," Fine says. "There's a tremendous amount of excitement that good things can happen in this country for the first time in years, if Obama is elected." In truth, Obama makes an unlikely rock star. His personal style is more old-school jazz: smooth, unflappable, understated. But his image as a kind of political Bono figure was cemented at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last month. In front of 84,000 people, and more than 38 million TV viewers, he effectively became the headline act at a political pop festival alongside Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow, John Legend and others.

His rousing performance in Denver did not disappoint. "It's like stadium rock, only the sound is better," noted the UK newspaper The Observer. A week after the convention, the Democratic team kept the momentum rolling by releasing an official pro-Obama compilation album featuring tracks by Wonder, Kanye West, Lionel Richie and more. From another candidate, Yes We Can: Voices of a Grass-roots Movement might have seemed a vainglorious stunt. But in his Rolling Stone interview, Obama certainly came across as a sincere music fan, particularly on the subject of Stevie Wonder. The R&B legend has repaid Obama's praise many times over, likening the presidential contender to JFK and Martin Luther King.

"Barack Obama encourages me to believe that there can be an even greater America tomorrow," Wonder declared at a benefit show in Los Angeles. One of the first DIY Obama anthems, Yes We Can, became a hugely popular viral video back in February. Featuring Will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas, John Legend and the screen starlet Scarlett Johansson, the clip has been viewed more than 16 million times on YouTube.

"He's the right generation to do it," says Legend, who has campaigned for Obama in Pennsylvania and Florida. "It's time to move on from the baby boomer set into a younger generation of leaders that is more globally aware, that is more culturally liberal, and that understands how globalisation works. It's more of a natural thing to him than to those older American leaders." Dozens of African-American artists, including Will Smith, Macy Gray, Herbie Hancock, Usher, Mary J Blige and Chuck Berry have pledged their support. Numerous hip-hop stars, including Jay-Z, Nas, Jadakiss, Ne-Yo and Common have written pro-Obama raps. But not all of these hip-hop champions have served the senator well.

In July, Nas unveiled a controversial pro-Obama anthem, Black President, which warns the "post-racial" candidate not to forget his roots. Another rap tune, Politics by Ludacris, contained below-the-belt attacks on Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Jesse Jackson and George Bush. The Obama camp swiftly issued a statement disowning the track as "offensive to all of us who are trying to raise our children with the values we hold dear".

As America's first ever African-American presidential candidate, it is no surprise that Obama appeals to black artists. More remarkable is how he has inspired musicians of every age, race and nationality. Boy George releases a download single next week, Yes We Can, built around Obama's upbeat catchphrase. Meanwhile, REM and Madonna are using giant video images of the Democratic candidate on their current world tours.

"With Obama, we have the possibility to have someone who represents what we are in the 21st century," the REM singer Michael Stipe told Rolling Stone. "For the first time in my life, I can vote for someone younger than me." Even veterans of the Woodstock generation have hailed Obama as a second chance, possibly even a second coming. San Francisco's psychedelic trailblazers The Grateful Dead regrouped in February to play a benefit show for him. Meanwhile, the protest-folk icon Peggy Seeger has just released a sweet download ditty entitled Obama Is the One For Me.

Neil Young prophetically tipped the Illinois Senator as a potential president on his Living With War album two years ago. "I love what Barack Obama stands for," Young says. "I happen to believe in what he believes. I hope he is elected, I hope his dreams for America come true. He's very idealistic." Even the legendary Bob Dylan, notoriously non-committal on political issues for decades, threw his hat in the ring in June. "We've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up," Dylan told the London Times. "Barack Obama. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change." It may be significant that Dylan's filmmaker son, Jesse, directed the Yes We Can video.

The punk poet Patti Smith recognises Obama's appeal to flower power veterans, but cautions against narrow generational labels. "It's not about fads or psychedelics or what happened in the 1960s," Smith argues. "This is a collective power that always exists. Young people immediately responded to Obama, they are registering in record numbers in response to him, because it's the same kind of energy, the same kind of hope."

By contrast, John McCain's attempts to mobilise the rock-fan vote have fallen on deaf ears. Like Obama, the Republican candidate has published his iPod Top Ten: a creditable easy-listening selection including Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond and Abba. But unlike his rival, McCain has struggled to muster any musical backers besides the washed-up surf-rockers The Beach Boys. The Republican camp would clearly like to harness music as an electioneering tool, but their attempts keep backfiring. A recent attempt by the country singer John Rich to claim the late Johnny Cash as a natural McCain supporter turned sour when Cash's daughter Rosanne, a successful recording artist in her own right, issued a stinging rebuke to Rich.

Meanwhile, the veteran protest singer Jackson Browne is currently suing the McCain team for using his 1977 hit Running on Empty without permission in an anti-Obama commercial. Heart, John Mellencamp and Foo Fighters have also attacked the Republicans for appropriating their songs without approval. Such protests are a double blow against McCain, effectively outing the performer in question as an Obama supporter.

"I do like Obama's sense of hope," says the Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. "I know it's not a race issue, but if anything represents change in America it could be a strong, hopeful, black president. I'm ready for it." In fairness, Republicans and rock have never been good mixers. In 1992, the former president George Bush Sr tried to use Bill Clinton's growing friendship with Irish rockers U2 to mock his Democratic rival as a political lightweight. But he fluffed the joke, sounding like a square old relic. Clinton, the Elvis Presley of US leaders, romped to victory two months later. Members of U2 and REM played at his inauguration party.

But when George W Bush hosted his own inaugural bash eight years later, musical guests were pointedly thin on the ground. The Latino pop icon Ricky Martin was the only real coup. As the Hollywood publicist Michael Levine told the The Los Angeles Times, "booking entertainment for a Republican inaugural is like trying to push a wet mattress up a spiral staircase". Much like Bush Sr in 1992, the Republican camp have cited Obama's army of famous fans as proof that he lacks political substance. "Sure, McCain is going to associate Obama with a bunch of celebrities," says Jason Fine of Rolling Stone, who this week publish their third Obama cover story of 2008. "But he's just jealous because there are no celebrities on his side."

Fine also argues that the nature of Obama's celebrity backers helps his cause. "Bruce Springsteen is a guy who unites a lot of people, whose fans cross party lines. Someone like him stepping in is a big statement," he says. Of course, it remains debatable just how far musicians and music magazines can influence the US presidential race. A 2007 study concluded that celebrity endorsements make little difference to political campaigns. Then again, no previous contender has attracted such a phenomenal number of artistic cheerleaders. As election day approaches, Obama is fronting the biggest rock supergroup ever assembled. If he becomes America's first jazz president next month, it might just be thanks to a little help from his famous friends.