Music and Politics: the Greatest Combination
Although Music for America has only been around for three years, it has made significant impact on the way young people view and participate in politics. Its fusion of various genres of live music shows with the often lackluster world of politics is undoubtedly a stroke of genius.
Its long roster of partnerships with bands, which includes acts like Green Day, Usher, Blackalicious, Tori Amos, Beastie Boys, just to name of few, may be impressive, but it's the work they do on the sidelines that stands out. With its radars set on the younger demographic of America, it is constantly registering voters, mobilizing young people and encouraging voting stances at various concerts every day of the week, all over the nation. Since its inception, MFA has registered about 35,000 new voters and reached audiences of over 3 million through live music shows.
Molly Neitzel, the executive director of MFA took some time out of her musically infused political schedule to catch up with WireTap Magazine about MFA and some of her personal theories on today's youth and politics.
WireTap: Can you briefly expand on the organization and how you got involved?
Molly Neitzel: MFA started because a group of guys in Brooklyn were friends. They did not like that there was going to be a war and their friend was being sent to Iraq. They were like, 'What can we do?' One of them recently read an article about Howard Dean. They thought he was awesome -- anti-war, running for president and saying all these good things. They liked how real he was. He wasn't a typical politician. They started going to Howard Dean meetups.
They realized that Dean was cool, but the meetups didn't have any young people in New York. They weren't very hip. They knew how to get their own friends involved and that was music. So they started bringing DJs and bands to Dean meetups in New York. That was how the model started. They thought, "Let's bring a little bit of Dean to concerts and a little bit of music to Dean stuff." That's the way they started the organization. They were very Dean-centric in the beginning.
I found them on the Howard Dean blog. I lived in Seattle at the time, and I was really into Dean. I was trying to figure out if I wanted to get involved in the elections. So I started to go to Dean meetups, and I had the same experience. I thought, "There are no young people here, what's up?!" When I found them on the Dean blog, I said, "Hey! I want to be your West Coast chapter!" So I started doing shows in Seattle. That all happened in the spring of 2003. In fall of 2003, we got some funding, and we started hiring in swing states and started partnering with bands to take the organization national. So whenever bands went out on tour, we started sending voter registration material and issue education cards with the bands on tour. They would let our volunteers get into the concert for free and register voters. That's sort of how it started, and it is the current model that MFA uses.
WT: Approximately how many voters has MFA registered since the organization's start?
MN: Since we've started we have registered about 30,000 to 35,000 and we've reached audiences of about over 3 million. Our major metric isn't voter registration, though. MFA's mission is to just engage young people in progressive topics through music communities -- and that can take on a lot of meaning. It can be voter registration or voter mobilization for those who are already registered. It's also making politics more culturally normal -- making politics "cool" and fitting it into our everyday lives. Taking a political stand becomes more normal for our friends and communities -- we're trying to un-nerdify politics.
WT: What works best to politically engage your music fans? What doesn't work?
MN: There's a lot of research done on the millennial generation (generally those born between 1976-2000) and how we react to things. What we found was that mobilizing young people to get involved in politics works best when they are asked by a friend. It's all about the peer-to-peer interaction. It's also about our language and our messaging.
If you're trying to be the "Democratic Party Light" or "Democratic Party Youth" -- we're not into it. No one wants to get a politics with all the corruption and have it shoved down your throat. What we do want is to talk about real things that really affect our lives with our friends. So we found that music works because it's a place where we all convene. The music and artists are powerful, but something that is as powerful, if not more, is the community that music creates. So, you're in a room with a thousand kids that you share a lot with. You like the same music, which tends to mean that you share the same values. You identify with what the singer is singing about -- even if it's not political at all. Punk rockers, indie rockers, hip-hoppers -- we all share values even if we don't talk about it. What MFA started doing was talking a little bit about issues and how we connect.
You can't say to a young person, "Politics affect your life everyday! You have to vote!" and then only try to get them to vote two months out of the year every four years -- it's crazy. Politics affects our lives every day. Every time a pothole is filled or a friend gets arrested or doesn't get arrested -- you get a school loan and can't afford it, your wages -- all these things are political. At MFA, you have to organize every day. That's what we've been doing since 2003. We have concerts every night. We probably have three or four concerts tonight somewhere in the nation. Our volunteers are out in music communities every night of every week of every year all over the country registering voters, talking about issues, talking about politics and making it a part of our everyday life because that's what it's going to take to really broaden our voter turnout and our power.
WT: Why do you think there is a misconception that today's youth are apathetic?
MN: I think it's like that because that's what the grownups want to believe. Part of it is how they look at how Generation X is and how this new millennial generation is. Generation X are all in their 30s now and they are the most apathetic, the most individualistic generation in America's history, but they are a small generation. They're not youth anymore. I think some of those holdovers are still there.
There's a lot to prove and disprove about the millennial generation. We are not apathetic, we are extremely involved in our communities, we volunteer at higher rates than any generation before us. We care deeply about our communities. We listen to our parents more than any other generation. Teenagers and twentysomethings are closer to their parents and ask them for help on their decisions more than ever before. Crime rates, teen pregnancy and drinking rates are down. Condom use is up. We're good kids and we care. The top issues for young people that we've seen are money and school loans. The war and how we handle terrorism is important to young people as well. It's not like we're handling terrorism right by going to war, we're scared to go fight and on top of that we have school loans.
WT: What's the most surprising thing that you discovered about youth and politics through MFA?
MN: I think the most surprising thing to me is how much the Democratic Party and generally liberal adults oversimplify their youth vote.
Also, another thing that surprises me is how the grownup liberal community cannot play nice together -- all these young people doing young voter work can play really nice together. MFA has really great partnerships with the League of Young Voters. We have awesome partnerships with Punk Voter, Voto Latino, Better Donkey, Everybody Vote -- young progressive organizers can really figure out how to help each other partially because resources are scarce for us. It makes me really surprised and sad that the grown folk don't seem to play nicely together.
WT: What is needed most by MFA in order to make it more effective?
MN: I think what we need most are the resources to build our capacity. It's really having the left-of-center community understand that you need to invest in long-term voter and political organizing every day of every year. You can't pump these millions of dollars into campaigns and expect young people to turn on and turn off, because we're savvier than that. This generation isn't going to take that. It's really about having the progressive communities realize that we are the ticket for them -- that they have to invest in year-round support for the very, very few organizations that are doing young voter work like MFA and the League of Young Voters.
WT: How careful are you in choosing music acts to associate with MFA?
MN: It's not like we have a rule book. I don't think we have turned any artist away, but we do carefully choose the level of involvement with each band. To fit into our model and do really well, you need to be a touring band. You need to want to get your fans to vote. You don't have to be progressive. If you just want to get people to vote, and you don't want to push a political stand -- MFAc3 (MFA's nonpartisan sister organization) is very neutral. For smaller bands who don't tour, you can still blog on our website; we can put a voter registration link on your website. The touring model works for everybody. We're kind of "come one, come all" because we'll definitely find a place for you.
WT: Have any "poppy" acts shown interest in working with MFA?
MN: It's a real balance to protect our brand. Donors and grownups want us to go and get someone like Britney Spears. You know what, if she came to us and said, "I want MFA voter registration on my concert tour!" we would hook her up with MFAc3. They have this great program called "text voter." You can register all your fans in the room to vote at once with a cell phone. That would be the perfect program to offer to Britney Spears. I don't think that would taint our brand. We're pretty happy to work with anyone. It's just figuring how to go about doing it.
WT: Have you considered working in other cultural outlets like film, fashion, literature, art, theatre, etc.?
MN: Well, we have started our own clothing -- I wouldn't call it clothing line yet, but we're dabbling. We are interested in other cultural things. In terms of one cultural medium that connects young people, it's really music. The example I always give is that if you put two 15-year-olds in a room who don't know each other at all, almost always the first thing they ask each other is, "What kind of music do you listen to?" It's an identifier and connects people. It seems that music connects more young people and creates communities more than any other media.
WT: What makes MFA different from other youth-oriented politically driven machines?
MN: One thing is that we operate every day of every year. We have volunteers that are out in the field in every state and a membership in a political organization of 70,000 people. They read our newsletter, register voters -- that's unique. There have been other organizations in the past that put music and politics together, but it's pretty much for the election year. We're about the community, fan-to-fan basis rather than the mentality of "the celebrity says to do this." If we slowly over the years insert politics into communities and concerts, it will be very effective in the long run.
For more information on Music for America and a chance to attend free concerts (by volunteering), visit its website: Musicforamerica.org.