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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Musicians Banding Together to Beat Bush

Top artists including Springsteen, Pearl Jam and James Taylor plan battleground-state blitz.

August 05, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In one of the most ambitious efforts by entertainers to influence a presidential election, a group of marquee-level pop musicians announced Wednesday an October concert blitz aimed at mobilizing opposition to President Bush.

The tour will send more than 20 artists -- including rock icon Bruce Springsteen -- to perform more than 34 shows during a single week in nine states viewed as campaign battlegrounds. Concert organizers hope to not only raise money for efforts to defeat Bush, but attract publicity to that cause and sway voters.

Along with Springsteen, who will be making his first direct foray into electoral politics, those participating include the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and John Mellencamp.

Many of these artists long have been politically active. But Springsteen has held back from overt partisan activities, although his music has long explored working-class frustrations and other social themes in spare and poetic language.

"What we are doing here is the direct outgrowth from the ideas that I've tried to sing about for the past 25 years," Springsteen said in an interview. "Hopefully, we have built up a lot of credibility with our fans over the years. There comes a moment when you have to spend some of it. This is that moment."

The tour is bound to intensify the simmering conflict between Bush's campaign and the entertainment industry's liberal elements, which have become a rapidly growing source of support for his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry.

After several entertainers ridiculed Bush at a Kerry fund-raiser in New York last month, the Bush campaign derided the event as a "Hollywood hate fest."

Privately, some conservative strategists welcome the growing activism for Kerry among entertainers, believing it could help them portray him as part of a "cultural elite" hostile to traditional social values.

"Most people don't look at these big-name entertainers as representing mainstream values," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush's campaign. "I think it could backfire for John Kerry, who is going around the country saying he represents conservative values."

The musicians participating in the shows rejected the idea that they were out of the mainstream.

"We're from Georgia; Springsteen is from New Jersey," said Mike Mills, the bassist for R.E.M. "This is no media elite. These are concerned citizens speaking out in the most efficient manner we know how."

The groups signed up for the tour appeal to a broad spectrum of audiences, from Springsteen's predominantly baby boomer following to the Dixie Chicks' heavily female base and the younger fans that flock to Dave Matthews and hip-hoppers Jurassic 5.

Springsteen, like many, is dubious that many people will switch their vote simply because a musician they admire endorses a candidate. "People say [that] people are hypnotized by celebrity," he said. "To some degree that's true. But they are not hypnotized by celebrity opinion. In the end, you're just another voice."

But the artists and concert organizers are hoping that, across all the demographic slices the various acts reach, the tour will present a case against Bush to many Americans who don't usually follow politics.

"This has the power to sound the alarm bell that will convince a lot of people who have given up on politics that they can't wait this [election] out," said Eli Pariser, director of the political action committee linked with the liberal online advocacy group MoveOn.Org.

The MoveOn PAC is helping organize the tour.

Sensitive to the backlash from Kerry's July fundraiser in New York, several of the tour's performers say they intend to take a respectful tone toward Bush.

"I think it's important to speak in a measured voice," said Springsteen, whose closest previous brush with partisan politics occurred when he chided then-President Reagan for associating with his music in the 1984 campaign.

"We want respect for the office of the presidency," Springsteen said. "We don't want to be Bush bashers. We are Bush questioners, is the way I would put it."

Boyd Tinsley, the fiddle player in the Dave Matthews Band, was even more conciliatory. "I want to say this: I don't hate George Bush," he said. "I think George Bush, like me, loves America. And I am here speaking to you because I love America. He's doing what he's doing because he loves America. I disagree with him."

It remains to be seen, of course, if all the musicians hold to this standard. Some already have been sharply critical of the president -- Pearl Jam recorded a dismissive song called "Bushleaguer."

And in interviews Tuesday at a New York recording studio, a few tour participants made clear they would aggressively critique his presidency, especially the decision to invade Iraq.

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