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GRAMMY WATCH

Hoping the Vote Keeps On Rocking

Politics * Rock the Vote sees new relevance for youth activism in the wake of the 2000 election.

February 19, 2001|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rock the Vote started off with a bang in 1989, generating so much interest among young people that some even credit the organization with helping to elect Bill Clinton as president in 1992.

Spurred by attacks on rock and rap lyrics, the venture enlisted such top stars as Madonna, who wrapped herself in the U.S. flag for a public-service commercial, in a campaign to increase the number of young voters and make youth issues a priority for politicians.

Clinton took advantage of the Rock the Vote campaign, even making a Rock the Vote-sponsored appearance on MTV for a groundbreaking youth forum, discussing issues both serious (AIDS) and silly ("boxers or briefs?").

But after eight years of peace and prosperity with rock-friendly Clinton in the White House, the organization's profile and impact has diminished--whether from complacency or from disaffection due to the partisan rancor surrounding various scandals. With its constituency less interested in politics, Rock the Vote simply couldn't match the intensity of its breakthrough effort.

Where 42% of eligible voters in the 18-to-24 age bracket voted in 1992, the figure slipped to 38% in 2000, despite this being among the most closely contested presidential races in history.

That's the background against which Rock the Vote will hold its annual Patrick Lippert Awards ceremony Tuesday at the House of Blues. It has become a regular Grammy-week affair, following the music industry's gala back and forth between New York and Los Angeles and drawing some of the top stars and power elite of the music business. Grammy winners Carlos Santana and Mary J. Blige will be honored at Tuesday's ceremony for their activism, as will the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Best new artist Grammy nominee Jill Scott will perform, along with Foo Fighters and Black Eyed Peas.

The founder of the organization is hardly downcast about its status. Rather, he's re-energized.

"Right now we're on the cusp of a very important time for Rock the Vote," says Jeff Ayeroff, who was co-president of Virgin Records America when he founded Rock the Vote and has been overseeing the release of the Beatles' "1" collection as a consultant to EMI.

"Look what happened with the electoral process. And look at the protests at the World Trade Organization meetings and the [Ralph] Nader campaign. There is a very active political movement going on."

And despite the nonpartisan stance of Rock the Vote, there is a perception among many involved with it that the return of Republicans to the White House might be just what it takes to spur new youth activism.

"I was talking to a friend just as Bush was elected, and he said that this will be a good thing as far as action and art and protest are concerned," says Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl. "It really may do some good. I look back at the '80s, and some of my favorite music was sparked and ignited because of the Reagan administration. I went to every Rock Against Reagan concert in D.C. back when I was a little punk rocker."

In 2000, though, neither major candidate seemed to excite young people, positively or negatively.

"There was an increase in youth impact in 1992 because Bill Clinton made a conscious effort to reach out to young people who hadn't been voting," says Jehmu Greene, who first registered at a Rock the Vote booth at a music festival in 1991 and is now the organization's political director. "You don't see the same thing in 2000's results. Gore didn't do it effectively. Bush didn't do it effectively. The issues they focused on didn't resonate with youth."

On the other hand, young citizens made it easy for the politicians to ignore them.

"I'd say 75% of the people I encounter don't care about politics," says rapper Will I Am of the Black Eyed Peas, one of the leading acts in the "positive" rap wing. "People are all chasing their own rabbits. Most of the pop songs on the radio are about material objects."

And while Rock the Vote officials cite active participation from rap duo OutKast and others in the past year, star participation on the level of Madonna's flag ads a decade ago have been absent. Instead, the organization shifted to noncelebrity campaign strategies, such as a recent series of print ads.

The lack of impact shouldn't be attributed to a lack of interest in effecting change, says Judy McGrath, president of the MTV Group and part of Rock the Vote's leadership since its inception. It's just a sign of the lack of a unifying issue--no Vietnam or another crisis that is igniting youth activism.

"We do tons of research and look at other research, and what we've learned is the level of local volunteerism and activism is at an all-time high--70% of young people say they volunteer at a local level," she says. "That's the trend, rather than the national level."

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