The Vote for Change tour, the series of anti-Bush concerts organized by the political action committee MoveOn, is now being called a failure. But was it?
What is the role of the songwriter in modern American society? Is it merely to entertain? Or should the songwriter urge changes, tell the stories that are often ignored by the mainstream media and report on what he has observed based on the rather unique viewpoint afforded by his profession?
Sounds like a tag line from a syllabus for a graduate-level American studies course, doesn't it? But in the post-election landscape, the question has exploded out of the hallways of the pedagogy and into the main corridors of the American experience.
No kidding. There's a war outside still raging, though so many are saying it has already been won. Just ask a crop of contemporary columnists, who are making their disgust with songwriters who have crossed the imaginary line between entertainment and activism quite well-known. Their gloating anger is screaming from the op-ed sections of newspapers across the country.
Conservative columnist George F. Will led the charge with a Nov. 10 column that ran in The News under the headline "A Loss for the Boss."
"In 2000, Americans were reminded that electoral votes select presidents," wrote Will. "In 2004, Democrats were reminded that Bruce Springsteen does not."
In the Washington Times, Diana West opined: "What is most extraordinary about Election 2004 is that the president did win, despite the shameful affinity of the mainstream media and the Kerry campaign. . . . The American people . . . managed to see through Springsteen and . . . through the millions of George Soros and the mouth of Michael Moore."
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas let us know just exactly what turns him on. "For conservatives, part of the thrill of this election is that filmmaker Michael Moore, rockers like Bruce Springsteen, billionaire George Soros, MoveOn.org and the rest of the left-wing rabble must be wearing long faces."
Writing at www.drudge.com, Mark Steyn presumed to speak for the American people when he praised them for "(declining) to have their vote rocked by Bruce Springsteen or any other pop-culture poseur."
A post-election column at www.freerepublic.com dispensed with the niceties altogether, verbally attacking the "the self-important nobodies who fancy that their dissent is even worth crushing." The writer then offers a "one-fingered victory salute to some specific individuals and groups," including Springsteen, Rock the Vote, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., P Diddy and others.
Can you feel the hatred, brothers and sisters?
This isn't a political column, but rather, one concerned with music.
Given this, it shouldn't really matter what the victors in this year's election have to say about songwriters who exercised their right to make their opinion known via their forum, the stage. But there is something troubling here, whether you are a patron of the political left, right or center. It's the notion that songs and the performers who write them have no place in modern American society, aside from mere diversionary entertainment
It's ironic that Springsteen is at the heart of this current rash of invective. In 1984, Ronald Reagan attempted to co-opt the singer's popularity at a campaign stop in New Jersey. Around this same time, one columnist tried quite hard to claim Springsteen as representative of Republican values in a piece he wrote after seeing Springsteen perform during his "Born in the U.S.A." tour. His name is George F. Will.
Partisan rhetoric aside, let's look at what Springsteen actually said while campaigning for Sen. John Kerry in Ohio.
"As a songwriter, I have written about America for 30 years and tried to write about who we are, what we stand for, what we fight for. And I believe that these essential ideas of America are what's at stake on Nov. 2," Springsteen said, while strumming his guitar. "They are the human principles of economic justice, healing the sick, health care, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, a living wage so folks don't have to break their backs to support a family, protection of our environment, a sane and responsible foreign policy, civil rights and the protection and safeguarding of our precious democracy here at home."
Then he played "No Surrender," a song about loyalty, faith, hope and hard work, and how, for Springsteen, those beliefs were once at the core of rock music's transformative power.
You don't have to agree. But to suggest that songwriters had no business making their opinions known during this year's controversial presidential election runs contrary to the continued relevance of what has always been a populist art form.