Cleveland Rocked

Vote for Change and Vote Often

But, to turn a phrase, that's what the terrorists want us to think. In Cleveland, democracy's in trouble, sure, but democracy has always been in trouble. In a vital way, democracy's supposed to be in trouble. Its health depends, in fact, on Americans repeatedly discovering that our politically complacent and irresponsible asses are capable of getting out of our seats, rediscovering the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, and realizing that what once was lost can now be found. Ohio, for instance, just completed an almost unprecedentedly successful voter-registration drive. The ratings for the debates in the state skyrocketed this year to their highest levels since the Clinton/Bush/Perot encounters of 1992. Partisan activity of the more rabid kind is way up (there are reports all over Ohio of, for instance, people stealing and burning political signs off other people's lawns), and newspaper editors are reporting huge volumes of angry but informed letters to the editor.

And then rock & roll got into the act. As we like to say around here, Hello, Cleveland!

2. Sky of Rage, Sky of Blessed Life

"Who the hell is Bruce Springsteen to tell anybody how to vote?"

--Ted Koppel, to his guest on Nightline

Back in August, Bruce Springsteen wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he announced that for the first time, he'd try to use his influence as a pop star not just in support of a set of ideals or causes--that he's been doing for decades--but for a political candidate, specifically John Kerry. He announced he'd be joining fellow artists such as REM, the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks, Jurassic 5, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and others on a benefit tour called Vote for Change. The idea was that the nearly two dozen acts that signed up would split up--Bruce with REM, the Dixie Chicks with James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt with Jackson Browne, and so on--and play shows in 11 swing states, including Ohio, rustling up as many millions as they could for the liberal political organizing group America Coming Together, which would in turn use the money to get out the message--and the vote--for Kerry and other Democrats. On the night I saw Springsteen and REM in Cleveland's Gund Arena (along with Bright Eyes and a special appearance by John Fogerty), for instance, the Dixie Chicks and James Taylor were also playing in town, and Pearl Jam (and surprise walk-on Neil Young) was rocking a house across the state in Toledo. Other acts were playing other states from Iowa to Florida.

For the record, Springsteen's answer to Ted Koppel's testy little interrogation about the relevance of artists to the political process was this: "It's an interesting question that seems to only be asked of musicians and artists, for some reason. Big corporations . . . influence the government [their] way. . . . Labor unions influence the government their way. Artists write and sing and think, and this is how we get to put our two cents in." This seems impressively restrained to me. Koppel was aiming for good confrontational TV, of course, but Springsteen, in his polite way, wouldn't take the bait (the way, say, Susan Sarandon might). He pointed out, simply and truly enough, that--blond Fox News analysts and right-wing authoresses aside--musicians are under no obligation to shut up and sing, that he's an artist-citizen, and he's got every bit as much a right--and, finally, the obligation--to use his clout to extend into the political arena the message he's been sending in his own music for at least 25 years.

If Koppel had had, I don't know, Christina Aguilera on his show, we might take his point, but Aguilera is even less Springsteen than Dan Quayle is Jack Kennedy. And it seems silly to have to point out that pop art by now is not only hugely more influential than forms of high art, but that it also can, in the hands of people like Springsteen, be as subtle, relevant and moving as any other form of discourse. Look only at Springsteen's "The Rising," Bruce's elegy to Sept. 11, which he sang in Cleveland with enormous passion. The song was the first single from the album The Rising and on the radio briefly in late 2002, but given the vicious climate Bush and company were cultivating to get us to invade Iraq at the time, the song's expression of searing loss, confusion, vulnerability and wonder never had the chance to become the unifying, healing anthem it could and should have been.

Now, I have read, watched and listened to a great amount of commentary and art about the meaning of Sept. 11--from such writers as Joan Didion, Noam Chomsky, Jean Baudrillard, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, Jacques Derrida, Tom Stoppard, Art Spiegelman, E.L. Doctorow and Nicholson Baker; from musicians such as Sonic Youth, David Bowie and (in an album that just came out) REM; from filmmakers such as Michael Moore and David O. Russell. Some of this material has been extraordinary in its analysis of global events, in its evocation of pain, in its cathartic rage or polemical anger, but with the possible exceptions of an essay by DeLillo and an interview with Derrida, none of it has affected me the way "The Rising" does. Nobody plays it on the radio anymore, so except for Springsteen fans, the song's gone down pop's memory hole. But it's the best art I know that's come out of that horrible day, and it's worth resuscitating here because the emotional tone it sounds is so humanly compassionate, its vision of sacrifice and heroism so meticulously measured yet transcendent, that if more of its sensibility had affected the war makers in Washington or rubbed off on an electorate that cared to make the war makers accountable, this election might not be about Iraq at all.

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