Clip: Sex, Drugs, and On The Rolls
Sex, Drugs, and On The Rolls
The music scene turns its get-out-the-vote efforts up to 11
Writer: JUSTIN HOPPER
Kids for Kerry; America Coming Together; W-04.com; MoveOn.org; Veterans
for, well, everybody. The 2004 presidential election is already infamous
for many things -- negativity, partisanship, divisive activism. Yet next to
footnotes on 527s, Diebold voting machines and the "Dean scream," future
historians may remember some lesser-known political oddities: legions of
mohawked voters and Pimp Juice-energized get-out-the-vote posses from
Anti-Flag to Xiu Xiu. If 1991 was "The Year That Punk Broke," then 2004
might be the year it voted.
Toby Jeg hopes so: "Look at states like New Mexico, where the difference in
the 2000 election was a few hundred votes," ruminates the founder of San
Francisco-based label Fat Wreck Chords. "At the Chicago Warped Tour show,
we registered 400 people to vote. Those 400 kids in Chicago, maybe in 2004
they're the difference."
Jeg is one of an army of brand-new young political organizers who are so
upset with the current "dismal situation" in politics that expressing their
views through direct action, protest and self-sacrifice is no longer
enough: This year, dammit, they're voting.
Jeg joined with "Fat Mike" Burkett, Fat label owner and singer for punk
band NOFX, to found Punkvoter.com. Punkvoter channeled their frustration
following the 2000 election -- not just with politics, but also with the
apolitical nature of so much punk music. Between Burkett's personal
experience and his record label's, Punkvoter had enough swing to cobble
together a coalition of some of the genre's biggest bands for the Rock
Against Bush concert series and this spring's Rock Against Bush Volume 1
compilation, with Volume 2 to follow Aug. 10. But unlike so much
politically minded music, Punkvoter is going beyond a CD, onstage rhetoric
and T-shirt slogans ("Not My President").
"We sold over 250,000 [CDs]," says Jeg. "We've raised a shitload of money,
but we're still taking a real hit this year, because we're sinking all
[Fat's] resources into this project."
Jeg sees hopeful signs that the gamble may pay: "Look at all these people
who are usually completely against any organized political movement -- the
fact that kids with bright red mohawks want to go to the Democratic
convention, that even anarchists are organizing into groups. I think we're
really seeing that punk isn't as watered down as we thought."
Punkvoter isn't only registering voters as it travels the country with Rock
Against Bush and the 49-date Warped Tour: They'll also tell you why you
should vote. It's not an easy pitch to people who, if they were registered
-- or even old enough -- to vote in 2000, most likely voted for Nader or
nobody at all. To counter the political cynicism of the punk crowd,
Punkvoter created its own ad campaign that challenges, "Think the
presidential candidates are the same? Think again." The ads present
thumbs-up/thumbs-down simplifications of nine issues that influence young
progressive voters, like "environment," or "tax breaks for the rich."
You'll see the scorecards at the shows -- but also as (expensive!)
full-page ads in a recent Rolling Stone and in the weekly papers in 19
"battleground" cities (including Pittsburgh City Paper).
If Punkvoter.com's stated goal, "to register and mobilize 500,000 of
today's youth" seems ambitious, the group's Warped Tour political partner
(in the world of punk politics, the more the merrier) is a veritable Icarus
"This is about creating a social movement out of music, nothing less than
that," says Music For America co-founder and political director Franz
Hartl. "This is an entirely new way of thinking about politics, and it is
going to happen."
Music For America began as a spin-off of the Howard Dean campaign for the
Democratic nomination, already famous for its influential use of the
Internet as a fund-raising and organizing tool. Hartl says MFA hopes to
take that model and transfer it to mobilizing young people to act and to
vote, using the music scene as a convergence point, from which ideas and
enthusiasm can radiate via personal relationships and the Internet. Since
its October inception, MFA has been involved in over 1,200 concerts by
groups as diverse as indie-rockers Modest Mouse and hip-hop artist Del tha
Funky Homosapien. Many groups have even invited MFA reps with them on tour
-- according to Hartl, the group is now averaging six to eight shows every
And unlike many voter-registration efforts, Hartl says, "We definitely take
sides on the issues.
"They say, 'go vote,' and the kids ask why they should. Because these
organizations are legally non-partisan, they have to answer, 'because it's
your civic duty.' That's not effective with young voters. We're on the
Warped tour with Punkvoter, and they've got specific issues that pertain to
the punk community -- healthcare, rethinking the drug war. We can answer
that 'why vote?' question [with] 'because your friends are being sent to
Iraq,' or 'because you don't have a job.'"
Whether approaching 20,000 kids at Warped or 200 at a show by Xiu Xiu
(another MFA-affiliated band), one thing the new breed of music-oriented
politicos have in common is a disdain for the old way of motivating young
Pat Clark, a consultant with Jackson-Clark Partners and an activist with
the Ground Zero network, is helping to coordinate several young-voter
registration efforts locally. He says traditional voter drives have failed
here -- and it shows.
In 1999 Allegheny County Executive election, Clark points out, only 3.6
percent of registered voters aged 18-24 actually cast ballots. "It's the
third most powerful position in the state, and to have that group
completely disengaged runs against the popular history of the past 40 years
in America," Clark says.
Clark says that reaching young voters isn't just a matter of "young
issues," it's also methodology. "The standard is going door-to-door in
targeted precincts. That turns people off, it's essentially cold calling. A
lot of what the [new] organizations do is much more virtual. You have a
network of friends, chances are that out of 10 at least three of them
didn't vote last time. Talk to them!"
Matt Preston of Pittsburgh Voter Initiative and Education (VIE), one of the
non-partisan registration groups Clark is affiliated with, wants his group
to bring political and social resources together. Pittsburgh VIE is a
network of over 100 volunteers who stand ready to register voters at events
around the city like '80s Night at the Upstage, or shows at Club Café and
the 31st Street Pub. Some music and art venues have given the group
standing invitations. Also, thanks to a recent addition on the Ground
Zero-spawned, Web-based This Is Happening events list
(www.thisishappening.com), promoters of the city's ever-metastasizing ad
hoc events can also summon voter-registration volunteers by simply checking
a box when they post an event.
"I'd guess that about 30% of the people we talk to [at an event] aren't
registered," says Preston. "But registering people is the easy part -- the
hard part is then getting them to vote." That's where the peer-to-peer
strategy comes in, he says: "Everyone we register, we'll be getting in
touch with them to make sure they received their voter registration card,
to help them find the right polling place and get them out to vote."
Punkvoter, Music For America, and Pittsburgh VIE all dream that registering
voters could spawn a movement combining the music scene and political
activism. Once established as a recognizable demographic, the politically
savvy youth of 2004 could make organizations like these political forces.
But first things first.
Preston says 2004 is the first presidential election under the new Help
America Vote Act -- whose new identification requirements, ironically,
could make voting more difficult. To cope with this, Pittsburgh VIE plans
to put volunteers at the polling places to answer questions and inform new
voters of their rights.
"If some kid has a question or gets intimidated because they're demanding
I.D., there's gonna be a 20-year-old with green hair standing outside there
-- someone they know they can talk to."
The Warped Tour, featuring New Found Glory, Anti-Flag, Yellowcard, Flogging
Molly, NOFX, and dozens of others, begins at noon, Thu., Aug. 5, at
Post-Gazette Pavilion, Burgettstown. 412-323-1919.