Vote, You Robots!
College campuses are the perfect place for a concert, where a young crowd is guaranteed to be up for a party. Sometimes you'll even hear some good bands brought in by an enlightened student activity group or a campus radio station. But more often than not, big events at So-and-So State are the result of some corporation trying to get a piece of Johnny Fratboy and Cindy Coed's discretionary income.
Profit is probably the main reason for MTV's Campus Invasion tour, which is scheduled to make a stop at Florida International University. The network has placed Hoobastank and Lostprophets on the marquee for the tour, though the most innovative and exciting band in the lineup -- California electro-punk outfit Ima Robot -- is being billed a "special guest." The group doesn't exactly fit in with the nü-metal vibe of the other two bands, as its music is a little too dance-friendly. Its self-titled debut album was released in September, but was overshadowed by the hype surrounding the Rapture, a New York-based band with a similar sound. For some reason MTV has gotten behind Ima Robot rather than one of an endless number of stylish peers. If you found yourself entranced by the network's recent spring break coverage, you may have heard the bridge from the band's single "Alive" playing in the background while a hilarious wet T-shirt contest took place onstage.
In addition to soaking up some cash, the Campus Invasion tour features volunteers from the network's Choose or Lose 2004 Campaign, a hip political organization devoted to registering young people to vote and providing nonpartisan information. It and its partner, Rock the Vote (www.rockthevote.com), are probably the most well-known and successful among the many organizations targeting music fans and club hipsters for one of the most elemental aspects of the democratic process: casting a ballot.
As idealistic as Rock the Vote's mission appears to be, the group still has its critics. Some note the group's nonpartisan stance prevents it from staking out a position on issues -- financial aid for higher education, drug decriminalization, gay marriage, or racial profiling -- that might be relevant to the young folks they are trying to bring out to the polls. Without taking a stance, its detractors say, Rock the Vote is simply registering people without giving them reasons to actually come out and vote.
That is why there are a number of smaller, more specialized groups getting involved with political education and voter registration. The Hip Hop Summit Action Network (www.hsan.org), created in 2001 by Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, targets class inequality in U.S. education, freedom of speech, and various issues affecting at-risk youth. It definitely has the potential to reach millions of people, a fact drilled home by the legions of hip-hop heads who listen to Def Jam artists like Jay-Z, Ludacris, and Kanye West. The main obstacle for the group, though, will be actually getting African-American youth -- one of the most underrepresented groups at the polls -- out to vote.
The people who listen to "jam band" music are just as fanatical as hip-hoppers. They're often willing to drive across the country to catch a Phish show or head out to middle-of-nowhere Tennessee for the Bonnaroo Music Festival, an event which attracted upward of 75,000 people each of the past two years. But they can also be extremely apathetic when it comes to politics, a fact Bob Weir, guitarist for the Grateful Dead, laments. "If every Deadhead in the State of Florida had voted in the last presidential election," he has reportedly said, "it would be a very different world today." Weir is just one of the members on the board of directors of HeadCount (www.headcount.org), a group formed this year by sports journalist and "Phish head" Andy Bernstein and Marc Brownstein, bassist for trance fusion group the Disco Biscuits. HeadCount plans to organize voter registration drives at concerts and music festivals around the country.
Rock stars may have no desire to be role models for their fans. But vote-oriented groups like these only want their constituents to emulate responsible voting behavior, or rather, any voting behavior at all. In addition, MTV has a new initiative called 20 Million Loud (www.mtv.com/chooseorlose). Partnering with several other organizations such as the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, they are calling on twenty million Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty to make their voices heard during the November 2 election. It's a lofty goal, but if everyone who buys a CD, sees a concert, or watches the network's comparatively banal programming votes this year, the world could be, to paraphrase Mr. Weir, a very different place.
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