Politics & Media
Jun 27, 2008, 05:55AM

Rockin' in the Free World

Politics and pop music have gone together since at least folk era, but Barack Obama is the first politician to capitalize on acting like a rock star.

Joan baez.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Joan Baez at the March on Washington,1963. Copyright United States National Archives and Records Administration.

Last weekend, for the first time in my life, I felt like a square. I had free tickets to a Pearl Jam concert in Washington D.C. that my friend had won on a radio show, and we made the trip with mixed expectations. We had nosebleed seats at the Verizon Center, two non-fans wedged in the middle of the drunken, screaming crowd, but I’ll never pass up a free show. I had grown up listening to classic rock, so in a sense I missed the 90s, and Pearl Jam was one of the bands that passed below my radar. My knowledge of the band was limited to the song “Even Flow,” which I knew from the Guitar Hero video game, and I felt like one of the only people who didn’t know the words to every song. But I have been in that situation before, and that was not why I felt “uncool.”

The concert was nothing impressive, but one significant moment blew me away. The band had just finished a long, hard-rocking jam session, and Eddie Vedder spoke to the audience. Taking advantage of his position in the nation’s capital, he turned to politics, spilling out a stream of environmental facts that I’m sure he just recently looked up on Wikipedia, spliced with cliché phrases of “change” and “making a difference.” Between each sentence, the fans went wild. I rolled my eyes. Finally, at the conclusion of his spiel, Vedder said, “You have the power to change the world, and maybe now it’s time to get some color in the White House.” And there it was. A full-fledged political endorsement in the middle of a concert.

The crowd went nuts, and the band took advantage of the uproar to continue rocking on, while I sat silent in my seat like a businessman in the middle of Woodstock. In fairness, Vedder didn’t captivate the entire audience with his speech. Amidst the roar of support, I heard a faint whisper of a booing section, and the guy a few rows behind me (drunk out of his mind) was screaming “Shut up and play!” throughout the whole thing. However, the effect of the endorsement was an overwhelmingly positive one.

There’s no denying that music and politics have been tied together for years. From Bob Dylan to Rage Against the Machine, rock stars have voiced their opinions, often shaping those of their fans in the process. However, while political musicians have always been a part of the liberal counter-culture, they haven’t had a major influence. In the current election, for the first time as far as I can tell, the two personalities of real politics and cultural politics have merged.

Barack Obama is commonly called a rock star. His words are his guitar, and when he’s blaring out an insane solo, he drives the crowd crazy, and they never catch his slip-ups. He’s a lean, mean, fist-bumping machine, and that’s what scares me the most.

At my extremely liberal college, I see Obama posters splayed across hallways and dorm room doors. I see students campaigning and handing out flyers in the quad. A classic example of the conservative minority was when both the College Democrats and the College Republicans hosted events at the beginning of the school year. The Dems rented out “The Beach,” which is a huge, grassy hill that serves as the focal point of the Johns Hopkins campus. They had music blaring, free food and drinks, and the grass was packed. The College Republicans had a small classroom with less than 20 people attending, eating pizza and quietly discussing the economy.

Universities have always been liberal hubs, but Obama Nation looks to be one of the most active Democratic college movements since the Vietnam era. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is the contrast of old and young. Students can relate more to a young, energetic 46-year-old candidate than they can to the old, wizened, 71-year-old John McCain. Obama is trendy and charismatic. He’s a cool guy. But is this persona genuine, or is he really just a politician and this is a part of his game?

Take the “fist bump heard round the world” for instance. All the ludicrous Fox News terrorist propaganda aside, at the time, it was a hip and clever thing for him to do. However, I’d be willing to bet that it was orchestrated, for the same reason I believe that Hillary Clinton was cutting onions backstage before her weeping session earlier in the primary season.

But that’s one significant difference between Obama and McCain: Obama knows how to use the Internet and the media to its full potential. He knows that a fist bump or a sly comment will make it on YouTube to be viewed by thousands of potential voters, and in a way, this can be even more powerful than even the most moving speech. McCain has yet to realize this.

There’s no doubt that Obama will claim the support of younger voters, and that vote will be more significant in this upcoming election than it has been in years. For example, my best friend’s girlfriend told him, “I’ll probably vote for Obama. All my friends are.” Granted, that’s the illogical decision of one not-so-informed freshman girl, but it’s still one vote. Obama has the capability to stir up and motivate all the voters, young and old, who normally wouldn’t give a shit. Through his speeches and his “cool guy” mannerisms, he can get people out to the polls. He knows the game, he knows how to play it, and right now, he’s winning

  • Now, really, what did you expect from Eddie Vedder? Maybe you should've passed up this free show.

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  • Maybe you've forgotten that Bill Clinton had the same "cool" appeal back in the '92 presidential race -- his appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, for example.

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  • I don't think there's any comparison between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the cool department. Blowing sax on Arsenio Hall might've been cool to some people, just as discussing his choice of underwear, but Obama wouldn't stoop to such transparent pandering. You don't have to like his politics (as they evolve during the campaign), but Obama's the most electric, articulate politician in modern times. Unlike Clinton, who spoke well about nothing, Obama's speeches read almost as well as they sound.

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  • Can't stand Pearl Jam and wasn't sure they were still around. Obama's a different story and he ain't no square. But what I'm wondering, Demian, is why you went in the first place, and second, why you're for McCain. I'm assuming that's so, although you didn't say so explicitly in the article.

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  • I went to the concert because it was free and "free" is my favorite four-letter "f" word. I never pass up free anything. Plus I just love going to concerts and I did have a good time. And truth be told, I'm for McCain out of default. I don't really like him and I honestly think he's too old, but Obama's inexperience, his constant slip-ups, and most of his policies just scare me. The ideal candidate for me would have been Romney.

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  • Yes, it's only June, but Obama looks like a landslide winner. Demian's lukewarm support for McCain typifies, I think, the GOP this year, which means the turnout for Republicans will be most likely be muted. It'll take an event, or revelation, of significant proportion to knock out Obama, something 10 times more damaging than a Rev. Wright. I don't get Demian's habit of never passing up anything free--do you take the bite-size brownie samples at a Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts, for example--but he has cleared up the Pearl Jam mystery. You couldn't pay me to see that band.

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  • Keep in mind Sourpuss, we live in California. I think Obama may look like a "landslide winner" from our left coast, but I still think it's FAR too early to tell. As for the obsession with free stuff, the author's still in college. C'mon Sourpuss. You're only 23, you must remember what that was like.

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  • You're right, Mort, that Californians are used to Democrats winning big here, and I agree it's too early to tell. But it ain't THAT early, since McCain is bumbling around and having, at least according to current polls, trouble holding on to some traditionally GOP states. As for the free stuff, I dropped out of college after a year since I wanted to get on with a job and not go into debt paying tuition. So, while I like Demian Kendall's articles, and he seems like a good guy, my brief stint in college seems like a long time ago.

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  • There's so much wrong with this article it's hard to know where to begin. Political music did not begin with Bob Dylan, nor is it best exemplified by Rage Against the Machine, nor have political musicians "always been part of the liberal counter-culture" ('Okie from Muscogee' sold more copies than 'The Times They Are A-Changin'). Furthermore, Johns Hopkins is not a particularly liberal college. Most college student bodies, at least on the east coast, are left-leaning, but a 2003 poll, by a newspaper that Kendall works for, JHU's News-Letter, found that 20% of the student body votes republicatn (http://media.www.jhunewsletter.com/media/storage/paper932/news/2003/10/31/News/Measuring.Political.Opinions-2245821.shtml) . And you can't just refer to a few random people, like for example, your best friend's dumbass girlfriend, or attendance at a Johns Hopkins College Republican pizza party, as representative of a trend among young people, just like you're never going to convince me that you heard eddie vedder spout a bunch of cliches without ACTUALLY quoting him. This article, far from actually being journalism, is just a long whine about how the author once again feels "uncool" and left out of the whole scene -- "those crazy kids and oh, how much they love obama! gee whiz!" -- not because the scene isn't for him, but because, as with pearl jam, he never took the time to learn any of the words to the songs. We're all stupider for reading this piece of junk.

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  • I'd have to say that the Democratic National Committee would be thrilled if the American public was as moderate at the student body at Johns Hopkins, where (at least in 2003, and a lot has changed since then) a whopping 20 percent of students voted Republican. That's a pretty liberal student body and obviously not surprising; an elite institution in an East Coast city. I've no idea whether Stillerz21 is a student at Hopkins, but Kendall's observations were obviously made on the basis of more than one or two rallies. He's a student there, and absorbs the campus culture. As for the point of being "stupider" for reading an article that you think is wrong or disagree with, that's hooey. I can't stand either Paul Krugman or David Brooks, from the Times, and get agitated upon reading what I think are wrong opinions, but don't feel "stupider" for reading them.

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  • 1) I didn't say it began with Dylan, nor did I say that it was "best exemplified" by Rage. I gave two examples of politically-charged musicians. 2) I probably should have looked up the statistics regarding the ideologies of students three years before I went there, because demographics never change over the years. And I'm not a math major, but I think that an 80 percent Democratic vote is a gross enough majority to be considered a liberal school. 3) They were examples based on observations. If I had toured the country to gather the opinions of every student in the nation, I would have come up with a different article. 4) I didn't quote Vedder because I didn't bring my recorder to the concert. I wasn't planning on writing the article. I heard him speak, it got me thinking, I wrote to the best of my memory. 5) I guess you got me. I just don't like Pearl Jam.

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  • I may just be a dog, but I loved this story. Stillerz's comments sounded more like personal attacks than constructed responses, and I think he missed the point of the article.

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