The Business of Political Music

Oct. 27, 2004 — -- Tirelessly stumping across America as the clock ticks toward zero in the 2004 presidential campaign, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry greet throngs of onlookers every day, taking the stage to a rock star's welcome while their campaign music blares in the background.

For Kerry, Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" drives the campaign soundtrack. Bush sticks with the 2001 Brooks & Dunn country hit "Only in America." Their choices mirror a generally accepted red state/blue state division between country and rock music, but maybe more importantly, they've chosen artists with ideals similar to their respective campaigns.

Springsteen was the headliner of this month's Vote For Change concert tour benefiting Americans Coming Together, a voter registration organization hoping to oust Bush from the presidency. And though Brooks & Dunn have said "Only in America" is an apolitical song, the duo reportedly support Bush's re-election.

Apparently the two campaigns learned from Bob Dole's embarrassing gaffe in 1996, when the license holders to the song "Soul Man" threatened legal action over his campaign's unauthorized use of the song -- after he changed the words to "Dole Man." The campaign was also rebuked by Springsteen, who didn't want his "Born in the U.S.A" played at Dole events.

Yes, the candidates' choice of music, like everything else in politics, is now vetted as thoroughly as a stump speech. Music has become just another part of the political process.

So where does that leave the artists? Can they still reach the masses with songs of protest or patriotic support in an increasingly manufactured political landscape?

Apparently so. Or at the very least, they're not afraid to try.

Despite the potential potholes of alienating a fan base that may not agree with their views, musicians are as willing as ever to enter the political fray. From the Springsteen-led Vote For Change to the patriotic anthems of country singer Toby Keith, musicians are tackling the some of the country's most controversial issues.

"There has always been a trend that the issues of the day are heard in music," said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts and senior analyst with Billboard magazine. "Entertainers have long been willing to espouse their political views. There can be consequences, but fortunately there are still a lot of people willing to go out on that limb."

And for the most savvy and motivated, the public's post-9/11 political awareness can be a marketing and sales bonanza.

Country's Conservative Connection

Keith has released two multiplatinum albums with political messages in the past three years. The first, "Unleashed," was headlined by the song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," a patriotic rant supporting the Iraq war and threatening a boot in the backside of any country daring to cross the United States. The song's wildly popular, chest-thumping message pushed the album to more than 4 million sales, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

The follow-up, "Shockin' Y'all," featured songs titled "The Taliban Song" and "The American Soldier" and sold another 3.8 million copies. And in 2003 Keith performed for troops at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., at the request of Bush.

The themes clearly struck a cord with country music fans, who have pushed similar works like Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" to the top of the country music charts.

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."

Smaller Bands Get Out the Vote

Another group of bands led by the group Punk Voter released two volumes of compilation CDs called "Rock Against Bush" earlier this year. The albums sold more than 200,000 copies combined, a pretty small number compared to the nearly 8 million sold by Toby Keith. But the "Against Bush" CDs and the accompanying 21-city tour were more about spreading the anti-Bush word and registering voters than making sales, according to the Web site Punkvoter.Com.

Big acts like No Doubt, Green Day and Foo Fighters contributed to the albums, but the concert tour featured mostly lesser-known punk bands. And though the album sales were modest, West said the smaller bands can get more out of political affiliations than just sales.

"If you can find an audience in the political world, you can really expand your audience base," he said.

Musicians are expected to continue their political crusades right up until Election Day. Notables, including Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, reportedly plan to join Kerry at campaign stops over the weekend.

The benefit candidates get from these famous backers is unclear, but it's safe to say the musicians' efforts will not go unrecognized. Intentional or not, their support of political causes taps into a passionate vein for many fans, and anything that stirs passion can lead to extra sales.

"The musicians believe in the cause, but if they can sell copies at the same time, all the better," West said.

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