It’s November 5, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. Jay Z stands on a constructed stage with an enormous American flag behind him; the beat for “99 Problems” drops as the lights start to flash. Some people in the crowd dance, many scream the lyrics, others whip out their phones to record the moment—just another Jay-Z show. When the chorus comes, however, Jay-Z belts out, “If you’re having world problems, I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a Mitt ain’t one” to roaring cheers from the ebullient crowd. On this occasion, Jay-Z and his opening act, Bruce Springsteen, had teamed up to combine their popularity and influence for one simple purpose: to get Barack Obama re-elected.
Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen certainly were not the only musicians to express publicly their political views during the 2012 election. In fact, celebrity endorsements have saturated the past three presidential elections, including those from both prominent and lesser-known musicians, vociferously backing whichever particular candidate they favored. Since the 2004 election, the frequency of musicians endorsing candidates, both on the left and right, forces a new understanding of a political reality in which political and musical personalities now overlap to a much greater extent than before. Yet, despite the trend among musicians to vocally endorse or schedule an appearance with a candidate to support the campaign, this does not appear to motivate registered voters to behave any differently. Where musicians do seem to be able to affect campaigns, and increase the probability of their desired candidate getting elected, is by encouraging greater voter participation or contributing music.
What’s It Worth?
Though many musicians have begun to speak out about their political opinions, it’s unclear how their endorsements influence or alter public voting behavior. Patrick Warfield, a specialist in American musical culture at the University of Maryland, told the HPR that he suspects that a musician backing a candidate has, “virtually no impact on the way people vote.” He would be surprised if a particular artist’s endorsement “swayed someone to vote for Obama that wasn’t inclined to already.” Essentially, a staunch conservative who adores John Legend or Neil Diamond will not vote for Obama simply because of either musician’s endorsement. For that very reason James Deaville, a musicologist at Carleton University, acknowledged to the HPR that he is “much more skeptical about” a music personality actually altering the way a voter behaves. As Craig Garthwaite and Timothy J. Moore point out in their paper, “The Role of Celebrity Endorsements in Politics,” although candidates seem to believe that endorsements are a valuable asset, media and pundits are skeptical, usually commenting that such endorsements have little or no effect on vote share.
An endorsement by a big-name celebrity or musicians, however, can undoubtedly create momentum for a higher voter turnout. Warfield noted that a popular musician could have “a fair amount of impact on certain enthusiasm to be involved in a campaign,” and “encourage people to get out and vote.” In reference particularly toward the 2008 election, Dan Cantor, the national director of the Working Families Party, told the HPR that the, “role of artists, especially musicians, in creating cultural buzz is not trivial.” As more musicians and celebrities endorse a given politician, the campaign takes on a palpable energy that attracts even more attention; as such, it can be a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
Scott Goodstein, a former music promoter and the external online director for Obama for America in 2008, counters Warfield’s claims, with a key qualification. As Goodstein explained to the HPR, an endorsement by a musician with a history of “reflecting on society and being politically conscious…lends a significant amount of credibility on different issues.” He sees two different types of musicians who endorse major candidates: those who get involved “based on issues” very early on and “generic celebrities” with no prior political participation but get involved because of all of the excitement around a campaign. Goodstein reiterated that without a documented political interest, the ‘wow’ effect, of say Justin Timberlake, will not actually motivate people to vote for that candidate. Examining endorsements by musicians in order to evaluate any substantial or meaningful impact can only be made through this particular lens.
What are musicians to do?
Musicians can most effectively contribute to a campaign through their own medium. MC5’s Wayne Kramer donated the music used in many of the Obama campaign’s YouTube videos, while Common mentioned Obama in his lyrics. These individuals are two examples of knowledgeable, politically aware musicians whose contributions to the Obama campaign were, according to Goodstein, “tangible.” In fact, Deaville believes that “there is a whole industry about producing this kind of music that can help people along in clarifying their thoughts…music helps to sell a given candidate.” He explained that “the sounds of music” could subtly influence voters since music can have a profound effect on an experience not necessarily with the listener’s awareness, just as it does in feature films. Thus, Deaville says, “it’s harder to assess the impact [of music].”
Rock the Vote, a nonprofit initially founded by artists and musicians to inform and engage young voters, provides an ideal format for musicians to participate in political efforts. Because it is a non-partisan organization, Rock the Vote enables musicians to “encourage their audiences to get registered,” as Heather Smith, its president, told the HPR, as well as “express their voice on issues they care about.” Head Count, an organization that stages voter registration drives at concert events, also has the potential to help musicians politically engage their fans. As Cantor explained, “85 percent of those registered to vote, vote, but only 65 percent are registered.” While an endorsement alone probably will not get infrequent voters to the polls, actively attempting to rectify the apathetic voting culture through concerts can transcend politics, a la 2008. More musicians could become truly influential if they were to get involved in these particular ventures; though entertainers lack the gravitas to persuade someone how to vote, they certainly can convince someone to cast a ballot.
Fundamentally, endorsements in general appear to have little impact on vote preference. However, musicians can help shape the tone and timbre of a campaign, which is extremely important. By providing music or making voting appear trendy, musicians can heavily influence the dynamic of any given race by attracting new voters to the polls increasing certain demographics that tend to vote one way or another. For example, Rock the Vote registered 2.6 million voters in 2008, which contributed to enormous voter turnout among the young voters (18-29 year olds) in that election. According to the U.S. Census, that election witnessed the highest youth voter turnout since 1972. From the musician’s perspective, participating in this particular light poses no consequences or detriments for the musician because such organizations promote positive, generally accepted qualities. Smith put it bluntly: “It’s hard to be against freedom of speech and democracy.” Unlike a musician backing or insulting individual candidates, and potentially splintering fan bases in the process, getting involved through the medium of music or a non-partisan organization appears to provide more tangible outcomes.
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