Wish upon a star

Bush-bashers are hoping that entertainment celebrities will turn out crucial first-time voters. But the audiences aren't sold.

Published December 5, 2003 10:28PM (EST)

Janeane Garofalo strolls across a Boston stage, feeding anti-Bush humor to about 1,000 seated fans. As the host of the Tell Us the Truth tour that's taking aim at media consolidation and free trade -- with Audioslave's Tom Morello, Billy Bragg and Steve Earle doing the musical heavy lifting -- Garofalo is about two hours into the show and she's clearly warmed up. After attacking Bush's "war on the English language" and his war in Iraq, she moves on to new material and a new target: Bush supporters.

"Every time someone says, 'I'm a George Bush Republican, I hear them saying, 'I'm a dick,'" she says.

As for the so-called red states that voted for Bush, well, says Garofalo, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, "I call them the 'pee-on-me states.'" The level of self-loathing required to vote for George W. Bush, she says, calls for a drastic solution. "We should hire a dominatrix -- just to get it over with."

The audience response, though, is decidedly mixed. An enthusiastic shout of "he is crazy" comes from the front, but then I spot a few people standing up to leave. A tall woman with red hair, standing near the exit, tells me that she's had enough musical activism for the night.

"Something in that room doesn't really represent how I feel," says Helen Sheldon, 30, an Aveda salesperson. "I'm very far left, but [Garofalo's] jokes were representing exactly what I don't like about the Bush administration. She didn't have any facts to back up what she was saying; it was uneducated and pompous." Two other women say that they are also fleeing in protest -- but not because they've been offended by Garofalo. "I enjoyed her," says Melissa Perkins, 26. "We just wanted more information about how to be more involved."

Millions of dollars, big egos and an election are wrapped up in large-scale liberal entertainment tours aimed mainly at bringing the 18- to 30-year-old voter to polls next November. In addition to Tell Us the Truth, events are being planned by Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit rallies, the now veteran Rock the Vote, Punkvoter.com and Norman Lear's multimillion-dollar Declare Yourself -- not to mention invariable celebrity testimonials for specific candidates. With the election less than a year away, the left has become dependent not just on celebrity money, but also action. Today, pop culture and Democratic politics are more unified than Outkast. Even once-complacent stars such as Jay-Z, Natalie Maines, Dave Matthews and Drew Barrymore are giving their time and reputations to liberal causes.

But in interviews with more than 30 fans attending the Tell Us the Truth tour in New York and Boston, two criticisms repeatedly emerged. First, concert-goers were turned off by the shrillness of the political rhetoric. Second, they wanted to know how to become more politically active; they weren't content with simply being in the audience. Such is the tricky challenge for today's political stars: satisfy large, diverse crowds -- from radicals to skittish new converts -- and productively turn the experience into action, all without getting in the way of an entertaining show.

Can the stars pull it off -- and if they do, will it make a difference? Absolutely, says Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager: "Their ability to get out the vote could make the difference in the upcoming election, which is going to be close." And yet, if informal polling of young fans is to be believed, pop politics still has a lot to learn. Tell Us the Truth may be a sincere first attempt, but it's also a warning to other tours heading out on the road: Bush-bashing, acoustic guitars and a few petitions might not be enough to galvanize a youth movement.

Tell Us the Truth began as an attempt to lobby against media consolidation. In March, Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington nonprofit focused on musicians' rights, tried to persuade Billy Bragg to play a November media conference in Madison, Wis. When his manager suggested something broader, the idea for the tour was born. Globalization was included both because the cause appealed to Bragg and because the Free Trade of the Americas meetings (and protests) would be taking place in Miami only a few weeks after the tour started. "It seemed to make a lot of sense to us," says Toomey. "It seemed like it fit together."

The other artists, Steve Earle, Jill Sobule, Lester Chambers, Boots Riley from the Coup and Audioslave's Tom Morello, generally agreed, as did the key funders, the AFL-CIO and Common Cause, a liberal lobbying organization in Washington. Both groups had already lobbied against corporate globalization and media consolidation, respectively; supporting the tour made sense.

Over the course of the three-week tour, however, the message moved beyond these two issues. Earle, Morello and Bragg agreed to play the same number of songs -- five, six or seven -- but otherwise artists had complete freedom to sing and speak. Many focused their attention on Bush's litany of failures, from Iraq to poverty and the environment. Even before Garofalo joined the tour in Philadelphia, "We all let our freak flag fly," says Morello, who played solo. "It's just a matter of what works, what you feel like playing. This tour is really a way of finding out how to do this."

Morello, like the other artists, tried to do more entertaining than preaching. He avoided his darkest songs, and occasionally skipped political speeches. (In New York, he did take time out to tell the crowd that, according to a friend in Baghdad, "Every man, woman and child said, 'We want every damn American to get the hell out of here.'")

The musical mix also morphed and changed. Mike Mills of R.E.M. played a set in Indianapolis; Jill Sobule added her heartfelt humor to the tour in Philadelphia. Riley, a rapper and spoken-word poet, also "really shook things up," says Bragg. Along with inspiring Bragg to go electric, he brought a hip-hop element to the show that was otherwise lacking. When he agreed to stay beyond the four shows he'd signed up for, the show became less folky. "He kept us from being Crosby, Stills and Nash," Bragg says.

But not completely. Even with Riley, the shows in New York and Boston were dominated by solo acoustic sets, mellow songs and angry protest. Earle, after playing songs like "John Walker's Blues," typically spoke about economic inequality. Morello mixed talk of the Miami protests with songs reminiscent of Johnny Cash, while Garofalo hurled insults at Fox News, Bush, Cheney and all Republicans.

When I caught up with the performers at the New York show's after-party, in the VIP balcony of Webster Hall -- where Woody Guthrie's grandson was also hanging out -- they all seemed happy with the mix. Morello told me, between plastic cups of Jameson, that "tonight felt electric." Garofalo said that she saw in the crowd "that look of 'we can have a better life, we can work toward social justice'" -- a thought that was no doubt encouraged by the after-party experience, where fans praised the stars before asking for autographs.

But whatever the source, their optimism is not unique. Other artists who are digging into politics this year sound equally sure of their own influence. When I interviewed Dave Matthews before Thanksgiving, he said that stars and fans are already moving toward "a point at which there's just a general outrage." Russell Simmons told me in person and on the phone that politics is now "in style" for young people, while Moby, co-founder of MoveOn.org's anti-Bush ad contest, argued that "it's not like we have to convince people that Bush is a bad man. All we have to do is tell the truth."

Beltway strategists are also confident in the power of celebrity influence over the much-hyped first-time voter, the 18- to 30-year-olds who didn't vote in the last election. Already "there has been an awakening that, A) the election matters and B) they can affect the outcome," says Michael Feldman, a former senior advisor to Al Gore who now consults for Norman Lear's Declare Yourself campaign. With celebrities pushing them toward the polls, says Feldman, young people have the potential to become a powerful voting bloc, not unlike the ballyhooed soccer moms of 1996. NOFX's Mike Burkett (aka Fat Mike) agrees. He says that he founded Punkvoter.com because he believes that music and its fans can keep Bush from reelection.

Young fans, however, won't necessarily be easy to convince.

I'm standing near the back of New York's Webster Hall, by the radical bookstore's table, when Morello appears onstage with his acoustic guitar. Most of the dozen young people I've met so far have come to hear Morello, so I expect mostly praise from the crowd of sources who surround me. Instead, Mike Levin -- a sideburned graduate student at New York University -- tells me that he's not pleased. "I feel alienated by it," he says. Morello's speech -- including the reference to Iraqis wanting Americans to leave, and a tale of being tear-gassed at the Miami FTAA protests -- seemed "kind of preachy," says Levin, 28. "Kind of clichéd." His cousin Kate, 22, a politically active intern at the Nation magazine, agrees: "It seemed like he was trying to make the music fit the politics."

Four of six fans I speak to offer a similar critique -- Morello and the other artists seem a retread of '60s counterculture that's not quite able to fuse politics and music into a persuasive whole. Some critics simply see holes in the content; Jason Lyons, a tall 24-year-old in baggy jeans, says that he doubts that all Iraqis, or even most, actually want U.S. troops to leave immediately, as Morello claims. Similarly, in Boston, Sheldon found the rhetoric fast and loose. "It wasn't driven by factual evidence," she says. "It was driven by their opinion."

Said Lindsay Sullivan, a fan I met in the Webster Hall stairway: "There's a great message and I agree with it, but there isn't anything new." Her friend Anna Hurley agreed: "There's not much inspiring going on."

According to Danny Goldberg, CEO of Artemis Records and the author of "Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit," stars tend to alienate their fans "if they become preachy, didactic, too predictable." Despite the artists' best efforts, this seems to be what happened, at least at times, during Tell Us the Truth.

This also points to a key generational split. To those who were alive during Watergate and Vietnam -- including Morello and Garofalo, who are both pushing 40 -- government can't be trusted, and angry emotional pleas are the best way to rally opposition. "That go-get-'em tough stuff really gets us going," says Daniel M. Shea, a political science professor at Allegheny College and the author of "Mass Politics: The Politics of Popular Culture." But, he warns: "It's not like that for young people. Hardcore partisan attacks just don't resonate with these folks."

In fact, research shows that 18- to 30-year-olds have more faith in government than they did in 2000, and they are increasingly registered as independents. The angry negativity that spurs older liberals to action only turns young people off, says Feldman. "Kids don't want to be preached to, period," he says, citing a comprehensive Declare Yourself survey on young people's voting patterns. "They want to arrive at conclusions themselves." Which is why Declare Yourself stresses its "nonpartisan, nonprofit" credentials, and its spoken word/concert series next year is expected to be high on entertainment and voter registration information -- and low on political agitprop. Drew Barrymore attended the group's launch in November as spokeswoman, but kept any fiery rhetoric to herself.

That's not to suggest that no rhetoric works. Many Tell Us the Truth attendees interviewed appreciated the subtler, comic approach of Jill Sobule. "I fell in love with her," says Stephanie Ferrara, a student at Montclair State College in New Jersey. "She was, by far, the most entertaining performer." Other concert-goers agreed. The model should be "The Daily Show": "Comedy good, overt bashing bad," Hurley says.

Fans I spoke to also said that they didn't mind pure political speech, as long as the message was focused and informative. "I think the message has to be represented uniformly to be strong enough to inspire people," says Hurley, a contributor to MoveOn.org's anti-Bush ad contest. Stars speaking out should go deep, fans argue, rather than wide. Build an argument with information and multimedia sources, says Kate Levin, the Nation intern. Tell Us the Truth, for example, could have suggested alternative media Web sites and "done some cool A/V stuff, too -- like a 'Bowling for Columbine'-esque series of clips of all of the administration's lies about the link between Saddam and 9/11," Levin says. "It would have made it a little more interesting and added more substance to the tour's theme."

Finally, the young fans I interviewed -- most of whom were already registered to vote -- say that they also wanted more direction. Sure, Billy Bragg ended his sets with mention of petitions people could sign on their way out, and suggested that people write letters to Congress about radio consolidation. But the artists "could have said more about how to get active locally," says Julia Kowal, 27, publisher of activist media materials in Connecticut. "People have to feel that there's something to join up with." In other words, signature drives alone are not enough. Discuss local action groups or meet-ups run by the sponsor, Common Cause; point people to organizations seeking volunteers. "There are already a lot of young people who go to rallies," says Kowal, at the end of the Boston concert. "You have to get grass-roots stuff going."

Toomey stresses that the tour did more than concert-goers might have noticed. Artists didn't just play music and speak from the stage; they also marched with union workers in Miami, met with a co-op in North Carolina and regularly held press conferences that focused on politics in depth. "People are criticizing the effectiveness, but we had almost sold-out shows with very little coverage," she says. "In Chicago, we didn't have one preview in the three arts weeklies. And yet, people found these shows. There wasn't a single night when there wasn't an encore. So how are we not effective?"

Garofalo struck an even more defensive note. Critics, she says, are simply trying to avoid responsibility. "It's a way to let yourself off the hook," she says. "It's easier to be cynical and walk out of here and say I didn't get it because then you can emotionally disengage and pretend that you're a liberal."

And yet, even if the fans I spoke to are not representative of the whole -- with less than half praising elements of the show and half condemning it -- it's clear that the tour didn't exactly mobilize its audience. The anti-FTAA referendum that Bragg mentioned from the New York stage, for example, collected only 94 signatures from a crowd of close to 1,000. This is about 14 more than organizers, using four volunteers, usually gather outside a Whole Foods supermarket on a Saturday afternoon. Common Cause, which says it was happy with the tour and would sponsor another, also failed to gather its goal of 400 signatures per concert. About 300 people per show signed the group's petition, which called for tougher laws on media concentration.

Next time, Bragg says, the musicians from Tell Us the Truth will do a better job. "I would say more -- from the beginning -- about what people can do to get involved," he says. Toomey also admits that she learned a thing or two from the tour, including the fact that if you list a concert under a title (like Tell Us the Truth), Ticketmaster doesn't necessarily publish the names of the artists involved. But for Boots Riley, a more substantive change might be in order. "If you want to get new people involved, you can't have us all together," he says. "Have one of us, maybe, but we need artists who aren't so similar in their views."

At this point, fans seem to agree.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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