In the past week, two world-renowned popular musicians held free and seemingly spontaneous concerts in our own backyard. On Saturday, Jay-Z had a show in downtown Detroit, while Monday saw Bruce Springsteen brave the chilly Michigan weather to get through an acoustic set on the Eastern Michigan University campus in Ypsilanti. The news may have come as a pleasant surprise, but the location was far from random. In an election year where Michigan is widely touted as a key battleground state, the two artists came to register voters in support of Barack Obama.
It’s no surprise that many iconic musicians stand behind a Democratic candidate for president — many have done it before them. But that this support is given through free concerts by two of the biggest names in the business? Well, that’s cause for excitement. And nowhere was this excitement more obvious than in Cobo Arena on Saturday night. The long line of Michiganders waiting to see Jay-Z perform stretched all the way around Cobo Hall and started to form hours before the event began. Once the gates opened and the excited crowd filled the venue to near capacity, there were plenty more signs that this was no normal concert. For close to one hour before Jay-Z came out, the fans were addressed by everyone from Michigan Supreme Court candidate Diane Hathaway to a group of 20-somethings in charge of Obama’s Detroit field operations.
Not surprisingly, when Jay-Z finally did make his way to the stage, he gave probably the most politically charged performance of his career. Granted, he made sure to explain he wasn’t “telling you what to do, (but) just telling you what I’m gonna do.” But disclaimers aside, his intentions were so obvious that even he couldn’t help but slip an occasional grin. In between his hits, Jay-Z rapped about Katrina, urged his fans to register to vote and kick-started chants of Obama’s name and the “Yes We Can” campaign slogan. The young, largely black and very enthusiastic crowd of 10,000 rapped along, danced and cheered the emcee on throughout the performance.
When it came time for the last song, Jay-Z teased the crowd, sampling several different tracks before making a choice. It was a testament to his colossal catalog that any of the potential picks — ranging from the Beyonce duet “Crazy in Love” to marijuana manifesto “Feelin’ It” — could have brought his fans to rapture. There were at least five instantly recognizable classics there, and a wave of excitement would ripple through the audience within moments of each. The rapper finally decided to go with the less iconic but appropriately titled “Encore” — and the crowd still went nuts.
But the most poignant moment of the night came when Jay-Z stopped the music to talk about African Americans and the American Dream. Referring to the cliché line that “kids in America can grow up to be whatever they want,” he said, and that for the first time in his life, he truly believed it.
“The promise and the hope are bigger than anything,” he told the crowd. Jay-Z might not be the first to bring this up, but the depth and implications this holds for our country remain profound. It’s especially thought-provoking coming from a guy who, more than a decade ago, bitterly rapped that “all us blacks got is sports and entertainment.”
Two days later in Ypsilanti, Bruce Springsteen also interrupted his set to give his take on the election and the American Dream. The similarities between the two performances, however, end there. Where Jay-Z’s message was personal and clearly meant to resonate with a largely black audience, Springsteen gave a broader speech on the “difference between American promise and American reality.” The crowd he was addressing was markedly different too, with the navy blue “African Americans for Obama” signs giving way to occasional flashes of their emerald green “Irish Americans for Obama” counterparts. A quick glance over the mass of people gathered on EMU’s baseball field revealed an older group, full of families, war vets, retirees and fire fighters.
Beyond the veneer of big-name artists and flashy stage shows, these concerts were essentially political rallies for a well-oiled Democratic machine. At the exits in Ypsilanti, fresh-faced college volunteers handed out little yellow slips of paper listing all the “correct” candidates for office. Beyond the baseball diamond, scores of scruffy opportunists competed with campaign representatives to sell Obama posters, T-shirts and other memorabilia. Even in the more festive confines of Cobo Arena, the politics were never far from center stage; an army of volunteers lined the walls, proudly wielding clipboards and voter registration forms.
So was this a return to the ’60s — that long-prophesized, much-heralded and eagerly-awaited comeback of the activist masses? The synchronization of popular music and liberal activism into one great, youthful thrust at political change?
No. And it shouldn’t be.
Woodstock may be an iconic moment in American history, but the baby boomers who experienced it have idealized the movement it represents beyond all recognition. What we’re left with is an exaggerated image of that age and generation — an image of extraordinarily involved students protesting to the tune of Jimi Hendrix — that’s as misleading as it is fascinating. It’s an ideal that the babyboomers’ millennial children might find appealing, but couldn’t live up to if they tried. And really, they have no reason to. As the protests to the Iraq war showed, the techniques that once defined American political activism no longer apply.
In a way, then, these concerts for Obama point to what might come next. They were not spontaneous gatherings of people with a common cause just trying to be heard. Nor did they come off as shallow, largely nonpartisan celebrity appeals to “Vote or Die.” From top to bottom, they were events organized by a specific party and political candidate with a very specific goal in mind — to get votes. And the artists employed here were simply willing draws for a targeted constituency. It’s why Jay-Z performed in a black metropolis while the Boss showed up in a whiter town. And if Springsteen’s acoustic strumming harkened back to the days of Dylan, the Obama staffers spread among the crowd were a constant reminder that, for once, such idealism had a very practical backbone.
Is this a winning formula? We’ll know soon enough. Bruce Springsteen and Shawn Carter may have long since left our state, but the thousands of left-leaning voters they’ve helped register remain. And if these thousands of new voters translate to a blue state on Election Day, come 2012, we might see a few more free shows thrown our way.