The Business of Political Music

Country music historian Bill Malone said the artists' motivations and the music's rabid following are likely fueled as much by personal feelings about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as strictly political partisanship. In fact, Keith calls himself a lifelong Democrat who now supports Bush and the war in Iraq.

And, oh yeah, there's probably at least a little salesmanship involved, too.

Marketing the Message

Malone, whose book "Country Music USA" is considered the most comprehensive work on the history of the genre, cited country precursors that tapped into strong political messages to sell albums, most notably Merle Haggard's Vietnam-era hit "Okie From Muskogee." The song, which Malone said was written as a joke, was a conservative anthem supporting the Vietnam war. It became Haggard's biggest-selling record.

Realizing the market demand, Haggard followed it with the similarly political "Fightin' Side of Me," which also became a big hit.

"The first time it was an accident, but it turned out to be his biggest seller and he won the top performer at the Country Music Awards. The second time it was on purpose," said Malone, who suspects that today's artists are equally aware of the marketability of their patriotism.

"The recent spate of patriotic songs reflects the spirit of individuals standing up for their country, but they also recognize there's a constituency out there that goes for it, so they know they can sell records," he said.

Rock Leans Toward Liberals

On the flip side of the country-Republican connection, rock and folk artists have long been squarely in the liberal corner of the political arena. The 33 concerts on the Vote For Change tour raised $15 million for Americans Coming Together, whose stated goal is to elect Democrats in federal and state elections.

In addition to Springsteen, the tour included such big-name acts as the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, John Mellencamp and many others. Bands of such huge stature have the luxury of not worrying about the divisiveness of joining a political cause, particularly because the fans of their music formats are not generally conservative.

"None of them are played in a format that is rife with conservatism," said Billboard's Mayfield. "If it was country artists, that could be more of a problem."

But that doesn't mean that big names can't reap publicity benefits as well.

Rap star Eminem made news recently with a politically charged attack on Bush on his newest album, suggesting the president arm himself with a gun and "fight his own war." Of course, attacking others is nothing new for Eminem, who also stirred controversy this month with a video that mocked Michael Jackson.

One of the most popular artists working today, the multiplatinum rapper hardly needs to piggy-back politics to sell albums. But reinforcing his reputation as an iconoclast willing to musically skewer anyone and everyone could benefit Eminem's marketing potential.

"It's a way to extend your brand name. And it's really a great way to get publicity for your music," said Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University and author of the book "Celebrity Politics."

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