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Reasons to hold their fire

Despite others' songs of discontent, some activist-style artists find grounds for caution about speaking out sharply.

July 02, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

HERE, in 2006, the rhythm of politics and music is making for a complicated composition.

Take John Mellencamp, who for weeks sat at his kitchen table in Bloomington, Ind., and channeled his rage and heartache into a few dozen songs about war and politics. But now he's decided to scrap every one of them, even the ones he loves.

The heartland singer is rethinking more than just his songbook. Mellencamp got a call not too long ago from an aide to Baron Hill, an old high school chum and a prominent Indiana Democrat. Hill is looking to reclaim his lost seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and he invited Mellencamp to bring his guitar to some stump events. Mellencamp turned him down flat. "Tell him I won't be there," the singer told the aide.

Does this mean that Mellencamp -- an activist artist of the first order-- is shedding his side career as a political troubadour? Far from it, he says. It just that now, unlike in the 2004 election season, he thinks the wise thing to do is to occasionally turn down the volume or quietly step off the stage.

The reason he has shelved "Commander-in-Chief" and his other new agitprop songs is because he believes his core audience is hearing too many war songs right now ("Neil Young just did a whole album, Paul Simon has his new songs," he said, starting a small list of recent recordings). And as for Hill, Mellencamp's old Seymour High School classmate, he is learning that not every Democratic candidate can expect liberal rockers to amplify their campaigns.

"I told his people to tell Baron that he voted for the war, so I can't do it," Mellencamp said, referring to the congressional vote in 2002 on the invasion of Iraq. "I sat next to him there in Sunday school and I never heard anybody tell us that it was OK to kill people as long as there were a certain set of circumstances."

Back in 2004, divining what to do was pretty easy for liberal-leaning rock stars. With President Bush seeking a second term and the roiling situation in Iraq, a gallery of top music stars came together for the Vote for Change concerts. It was an "all hands on deck" moment for the guitar crowd.

Bruce Springsteen, who had always kept above or away from partisan politics, led a small army of musicians who teamed up and toured battleground states to raise money and attention for the cause of ousting Bush. Perhaps they made a difference, but they certainly didn't bring about change. Not surprisingly, it didn't silence the common criticism of celebrity activism.

Kenneth L. Khachigian, a noted political consultant and veteran of the White House under both Nixon and Reagan, said among campaign strategists there is a building cynicism about these public exercises in star power.

"I don't know anyone who can say whether these types of things actually help, and I know that, if they are speaking confidentially, they will tell you they would rather have the celebrities doing private-event fundraising rather than some of the public speaking," Khachigian said. "I think most of them don't do any great harm, but at the end of the day they also don't move the ballot."


Dealing with aftermath

WHILE an election wasn't won, Vote for Change did create a new and tighter circuitry among a group of artists, their managers and politically minded organizations that put a high premium on the presence of stars for reasons of celebrity, fundraising and simple inspiration. Some insiders say that circuitry will intensify activism by the amplifier-stack crowd for years to come. This year, though, with the presidency off the table, it will feel like a stripped-down, unplugged version of 2004.

"I'm not sure you will ever see anything like 2004 again," says Jeff Pollack, a consultant for television and radio who also was among the producers for the Live 8 benefit concerts in 2005, which targeted world poverty and Third World debt. Pollack believes, at least for the artists, "It was a combination of a hugely unpopular president, an unpopular war and a focused moment of interest for these artists."

And, in the end, an election night of bruising defeat. Not only did Bush win, there was a fair amount of artistbashing among pundits who questioned their qualifications and suggested that they had done more harm than good.

One of the key organizers of the Vote for Change shows was Bertis Downs, longtime manager for R.E.M. Downs rejects the notion that the artists who came together then somehow rankled workaday voters. He said Vote for Change "raised a lot of money, they got a ton of press and they highlighted what the issues were for a lot of people and communicated that this was the time to vote." The concerts raised about $8 million for voter outreach efforts.

Downs also pointed out that Springsteen's presence in Wisconsin at a memorable appearance with Sen. John Kerry was perceived as a valuable part of the Democratic nominee's narrow victory in that state.

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