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Musicians and the Campaigns

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 - 11:48 AM

From “Yes We Can”

I’m glad that so many musicians are getting involved in this presidential campaign, and gladder still that so many are supporting the same candidate I like. But I must confess to having mixed feelings. The idea of using music as a political tool is an old and still slightly unsavory one. And the demands of making a cogent statement and those of writing a great song are usually quite different. So you end up with screed set to mediocre music – or, in the event that someone gets it right, a piece of music that wields an almost scary power.

You listen to old campaign songs from election years past, or look at the well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective Vote For Change tour that supported Kerry’s campaign in 2004, and you wonder if music really can sway an election, or even change a few minds along the way. As with all things musical, this is very much a matter of taste. I have long felt that serving two masters, politics and music, serves neither one very well. But that changed this spring, for me, when I saw the will.i.am video of his musical setting of Barack Obama’s New Hampshire speech. I liked both Clinton and Obama, and was having a hard time picking between the two, but had eventually settled on Clinton as being more likely to defeat the Republicans (and Obama, being younger, would have another chance later). This struck me as a reasonable decision. But the video was so stirring, the speech’s message of hope and change so beautifully amplified by will.i.am’s music, that I chucked reason and went with the gut feeling that a vote for Obama was a chance to do something dramatically different and necessary.

I looked at the video again today – I see how clever it is, how politically astute the original speech is, and the media-savvy part of my brain can spot how the editing was done to ramp up the effect, while marveling at how subtly it’s all done. In other words, I see how I’ve been manipulated. And I’m fine with that. But back to those mixed feelings I mentioned before: the video still works for me; but I do feel a little uncomfortable with the power that a really effective piece of political art can have, because as we’ve seen in the past, it can work just as well for the “other side” as well.

Do endorsements from artists or athletes or other public figures you admire ever sway your vote? Has a work of art - a song or a poster or a campaign commercial (an artform in itself, after all) - every caused you to rethink or at least reconsider your opinion? Leave a comment.

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