This song will fall on deaf ears

It will take more than a pop campaign to win over a generation of disaffected voters, warns Sheryl Garratt
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The Independent Online
Election time is drawing near, and so it's time once more for a token stab at mobilising the elusive youth vote. This time the initiative is called Rock the Vote, after the successful 1992 US campaign that featured REM, Pearl Jam and Madonna and led to a significant rise in the numbers of young Americans choosing to exercise their vote in the presidential election.

In Britain, where more people queued for National Lottery tickets in the week of the pounds 42m prize than voted in the last election, any initiative should be welcomed. But Rock the Vote has an air of dreary predictability that leaves you wondering whether its pounds 1m budget could be better spent elsewhere. There will be a series of events leading to a televised, Live Aid-style concert, and possibly a record. There will be ads featuring leading pop stars (although only Blur's Damon Albarn has been named). There will be stickers on CDs and cassettes in shops and a campaign to target young clubbers by Ministry of Sound, the London "superclub".

It was Albarn himself who recently complained that it was impossible to preach from the stage any more. Exhorting his audience to use condoms at a recent show, he was barracked with cries of "Shut up, old man!" More media-literate than any generation before them, the young know how to decode an ad, to read between the lines, and they can see a sermon coming a mile away.

The generation being targeted by Rock the Vote pledged their pocket money to Live Aid, probably the biggest mobilisation of the rock industry ever, and learnt that despite the best intentions, a bunch of pop stars could not end famine or even make a significant dent in the misery.

Music has lost its potency to effect change: the most it can ever hope to do is raise funds or make an issue or an attitude fashionable: in the Seventies, Rock against Racism helped end a worrying trend among young punks to play with Nazi imagery, as well as solemnising the wedding between reggae rhythms and rock thrash; in the Eighties, the Specials' single "Free Nelson Mandela" put the name of the man who is now president of South Africa into the pop charts and into hearts and minds with the help of a catchy chorus. Benefit concerts, records and club nights have helped raise huge amounts for causes as diverse as Greenpeace and Aids charities.

But any attempts to tie pop more closely to party politics is doomed to failure. Remember Neil Kinnock mugging that sad Tracey Ullman video? The Eighties' Red Wedge campaign in which left-leaning pop performers such as Paul Weller and Billy Bragg awkwardly shared a stage with Labour MPs in order to mobilise the youth vote is something that most remember with regret and embarrassment. The truth is, we do not want our political leaders to be hip. We want them to be effective.

Contrary to popular belief, this generation is not apathetic. Every survey shows them to be more liberal than their parents on race, gender and sexuality, and more likely to be concerned about the environment and personal freedom. They also know that marching along carrying placards achieves nothing, that many of the old forms of protest are dead. Activists tend to get involved in local, single-issue campaigns such as the anti- roads or free party movement. But few of the issues they care about are ever addressed by parliamentary politicians.

It is telling that Rock the Vote comes not from the young themselves but from the music industry. The campaign is chaired by John Preston, chairman of the mighty BMG record conglomerate, a close friend of Tony Blair and chairman of the music business's main mouthpiece, the British Phonographic Industry.

In Britain, the price of CDs is higher than in almost any other country - a fact that has already attracted the attention of the Monopolies Commission, and a state of affairs the BPI has campaigned vigorously to continue. Meanwhile, "superclubs" rightly feel aggrieved that, despite showing the kind of entrepreneurship that Mrs Thatcher always asked of the young, they are still not taken seriously as businesses and find that their relationship with their authorities is still largely adversarial. The young do not vote because they feel they have nothing to gain by it. But by supporting Rock the Vote, the music industry has something to gain.

The writer is former editor of 'The Face' magazine.