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MTV's Rock the Vote: Beyond useless


Rock the Vote (RtV), the MTV-themed campaign to channel youthful energy into electoral politics through the power of celebrity and the cachet of cool has proven over its nearly fifteen years of existence to be useless. A simple comparison of RtV’s mission statement and the voting statistics for young voters during the election cycles in which RtV has participated tells the story.

Youth voting has actually declined since RtV has been in existence. Only in 1992 did youth voting tick upward from its continuing downward descent (but so did all other age groups that year). Voter turnout among 18-24 year-olds was around 45% in 1990, RtV’s first year in business, but by 2000, this age group was voting in the range of 38%. There were about 27 million young people aged 18-24 in 1990 and around 29 million in 2000. That means around 11 million young people voted in 2000, and 12.1 million young people voted in 1990, for a net loss of one million young voters.

On RtV’s “Our Mission” page on their website they claim, “the goal of Rock the Vote’s media campaigns and street team activities is to increase youth voter turnout.” Well, a little visit to the Federal Election Commission,, or, or any number of other sources with data on youth voting confirm the ugly truth: RtV has failed miserably in its mission.


Yet the self-aggrandizing, self-important RtV awards presentations go on, and countless slick media campaigns with an artsy-skanky Gen-X bent have hit the airwaves for over a decade with serious-looking rock stars and actors admonishing young and hip people to vote. If one reads the “Timeline” page (linked through the “Action” page) on the RtV site, it reads like an orgy of celebrity and media back-slapping.

For 2004, the organization is at it again, with a multi-million dollar media blitz to galvanize the youth vote for the election in November. Perhaps you’ve seen the newly civic-minded Sean Combs, aka P. Diddy (best known for his one-time relationship with J-Lo and a nightclub shooting and getaway in which he involved her back when he called himself Puff Daddy ), wearing his new ’04 campaign t-shirt with the charming slogan: Vote or Die.

On the RtV website there are images of many people of color and many slacker faces of all ethnicities all over the site — people who look stoned, people who look dirty, people with not-so-good skin, and even the ubiquitous Xers staring that blank, smug Xer stare. But based on the sixteen names of those listed as RtV’s leadership (not counting assistants) it doesn’t seem that very many people of color are running the campaign. The ethnic faces seem like so much politically-correct window-dressing.

In fact there seems to be a real focus on getting out the black youth vote this time around, with a whole page dedicated to Rap the Vote. Yet when one clicks on the link to the Rap the Vote website, which promises, “poetry slams meet politics,” the link is dead, yet the page lists no less than 46 “Advisory Board Members.”

Ethnic faces may be all the rage in selling cool to the masses, but it defies the statistics that show youth voting among blacks to be remarkably consistent over time, with less of a decline than overall youth voting. Why the focus on black youth voting when they’re not the problem? Hispanic voting, although underrepresented has been trending upward among youth voters, as has Asian and Native American voting among those aged 18-24.

When one looks more closely at P. Diddy’s involvement on the RtV site, one is directed to his own campaign called Citizen Change, which states that it, “plans to make responsibility and activism the new ‘in’ for young people, and young minorities. With a new line of clothing — which looks like the anti-Urban Outfitters — that sports lines such as ‘Vote or Die’ and ‘Gone Voting’ he aims to get his message on the chests of young men and women throughout the country.” With Combs’ past success at self-promotion and product sales, one wonders what he’s really after — votes or dollars.

The Citizen Change logo features the altered images of US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black-Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City — with a Che-looking female added and one guy turned white (and possibly gay with a hand-on-the-hip pose). It is yet another example of Gen-X belittling an iconic image of social import for short-term gain. Anyone truly interested in what the Black Power salute meant in those days might read the short explanation on PBS’s website.

There are at least 32 pages on the RtV website, including product and donation pages, all with very little text lest they overwhelm the short-attention-span Xers and Gen-Y (or GENexters depending upon what you want to call the post-Xers). You can buy a black RtV thong among the 12 products offered — for a mere $14.99, or a “Give a Sh*t” t-shirt in keeping with their tradition of low-road and vulgar appeals to youth as with the RtV "Piss off a Politician" PSAs the campaign ran in 2000. How daring and subversive.

On the “Donate” page RtV claims to have helped a “revolution” in its first campaign season in 1992 — I guess they’re counting the uptick in all voter groups that year. A real revolution by RtV would be to make sure that its celebrity spokespeople actually vote, since flag-draped Madonna failed to after her RtV commercials in 1990 and Ben Affleck voted only once the previous decade according to The Smoking Gun, after admonishing others to vote in the 2000 campaign.

On another page we see that RtV has 29 corporate partners, 9 of which are record labels or media companies. I wonder how many of the artists listed as affiliated with the campaign are signed to those same companies that give the money? Twenty-four nonprofit partners are listed, this must be the altruism section, where people who really give a damn can be found? One wonders.

Once a visitor digs through the entire site a few worthy sections emerge, namely information and links to voter registration. But just how dumbed-down are Gen-X and Gen-Y if they can’t figure out how to register to vote by themselves? If you enter the term “voter registration” on Google, the first return is the website for the Federal Election Commission with a printable Voter Registration Form.

Another section on the RtV website lists Community Street Teams, to register young people to vote at selected concerts and other places, reaching how many few thousands of people with its scattershot focus?

The only non-celebrity, non-media, non-voter-registration-related campaign given prominence on the site (other than to send money to somebody or buy something or look at celebrity pictures) was for healthcare, but its goals are embarrassingly timid: to simply raise the cutoff on family health insurance plans to age 26 is their goal. There is no discussion of universal coverage — for an affordable national health insurance, or for a more progressive single-payer plan from this organization.

RtV claims that in 1992 it registered 350,000 young people and help lead over two million new young voters to the polls and that these young people reversed a 20-year cycle of declining participation with a 20 percent increase in youth turnout compared to the previous Presidential election. Statistics show that RtV likely rode a statistical blip, as overall turnout was higher among all age groups that year. In 1996, RtV claimed to register 500,000 new voters, still short of what it was losing over time.

Rock the Vote describes itself as a “non-profit, non-partisan organization, founded in 1990 in response to a wave of attacks on freedom of speech and artistic expression.” In the 80s Tipper Gore (wife of Al) and others led the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC) and successfully lobbied Congress to pass laws to issue warning labels on music which it considered to contain excessively vulgar lyrics. There was also the attacks by president George Herbert Walker Bush’s administration on the so-called NEA Four, four artists receiving federal funding for their avant-garde (or merely tedious and self-absorbed depending upon your point of view) performance art which the right-wing Christian conservatives sought to ridicule for political gain.

Free speech advocates saw these as infringements upon First Amendment rights, and they had a valid argument. But given the ensuing years of a flood of vulgarity, mostly in Hip-Hop music, which debased women, glorified gangs, violence and drugs for a mostly white audience buying these records, the labeling effort seems — in hindsight — downright quaint.

RtV’s sales pitch continues, “Rock the Vote engages youth in the political process by incorporating the entertainment community and youth culture into its activities. From actors to musicians, comedians to athletes, Rock the Vote harnesses cutting-edge trends and pop culture to make political participation cool.” Ah, here’s the core of the problem, and why RtV ended up such a failure.

Since when is civic participation cool? The Beats and Hippies and other social activists of the 50s, 60s and 70s were mostly creating change outside the system — through direct action, artistic expression and demonstrations.

There was an intellectual core to the previous decades’ political activism. Our new anti-intellectual and hollow age — where posing seems and end in itself — seemed predetermined to manifest an organization like Rock the Vote, with such limited goals, such superficial meaning, and with such dismal results.


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