They still cheer for Barack Obama at Bonnaroo. It wasn't exactly an explosion, but when Jay-Z congratulated a crowd of 85,000 last weekend for putting some "quality in the White House," he got a mildly enthusiastic response and no audible boos. That underscored the fact that young voters not only supported candidate Obama from the beginning, but still largely believe in Obama the president.
As you can see in this crude video clip shot from the crowd at America's most acclaimed music festival, Jay-Z credited his audience for their role in electing the first black President. "Our generation changed the world," he said. "We absolutely changed the world. So it just goes to show anything is possible as long as you fight for what's right. Fight for what you believe in, and stay forever young."
For me, executive director of a youth-oriented voter registration group called HeadCount, this was the most seminal moment of the 9th annual Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival, as it embodied both the potential and the challenges of the youth vote in 2010. Jay-Z's message of empowerment was timely, inspiring and historically accurate. But I also couldn't help but hear a lack of conviction in the crowd's response, a tepidness that points to just how disillusioned young voters are and just how much ground could be lost this year.
I have a point of comparison here, as way back in 2004 I stood on a stage at Bonnaroo and watched 50,000 arms fly in the air to celebrate the very concept of voting. That was the year HeadCount was founded, and we headed to Bonnaroo to register voters and film PSA's. As our volunteers canvassed the crowd, Dave Matthews, members of the Grateful Dead and Phish, Les Claypool of Primus, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and several other artists sat before our cameras, extolling the virtues of electoral participation. Our creative concept called for a shot of an entire crowd cheering, and so one of our board members - Al Schnier of the band moe. - stopped his set right in the middle to give the schpiel about voting and cue up the crowd for the money shot. On his count, the crowd went completely crazy. It was captured on that year's Bonnaroo DVD, and formed the end of PSA's eventually seen about 100 million times. Our board member Bob Weir of the Dead also gave voting and HeadCount a shout-out from stage, beginning a tradition he'd carry to every show that summer and many shows since.
That was 2004, at a time when anti George Bush sentiment fueled incredible energy behind even strictly nonpartisan voter registration campaigns like ours. That year, the youth vote popped up 11 percentage points, by far the largest gain of any age bracket.
Now, with seven years of Bonnaroos as a measuring stick, I can report that the discourse around electoral participation has changed dramatically and that our job has become a lot harder than at any time before.
This year we got half a dozen artists on camera speaking about issues and the upcoming election. Members of The National, Dr. Dog, Ozomatli, Thievery Corporation, Lotus and The Disco Biscuits all spoke eloquently about topics like the oil spill, immigration, and the blockade of Gaza. But when asked to tie those issues back to the election, or simply why people should vote, they struggled for the succinct words that seemed to come so naturally just a few years ago.
These musicians, so in tune with their audience and so gifted in their ability to channel the pulse of a nation into art, are picking up on something both profound and ominous.
As democrats have lost their footing, calls to participate in the democratic system have become difficult to articulate in believable, relevant terms.
It was easy to think in black and white terms before. A lot of people hated George W. Bush, and voting was the fastest potential route toward change. HeadCount allowed artists to express that in a nonpartisan way. So as rookies, we seamlessly managed to turn Bonnaroo 2004 into a giant Get Out the Vote-themed event.
Now, the dichotomies aren't clear. Democratic in-fighting held up health care. A Democratic Senate hasn't moved on climate change. A Democrat is in office while oil gushes into the gulf, and the President's Press Secretary is staying "on message" by saying the U.S. government can't do anything about it. Meanwhile, the only group that presents a clear alternative to the status quo is the Tea Party, which also happens to be the most organized and motivated.
The average Bonnaroo attendee probably voted for Obama and is now wondering what he or she got out of the deal. She knows it's a bitch to get a decent job. He knows the earth is bleeding. So it shouldn't come as a surprise if a cry of empowerment doesn't illicit screams from the crowd.
To anyone who cares about the youth vote, this means we have a very big problem on our hands. We risk losing the incredible, hard-fought gains made over the last 10 years. The youth vote has increased turnout in three straight federal elections. The youngest voters were the only age group to show an increase in 2008. But all of this could violently jerk backwards in November.
Look no further than statewide elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. In each of those races, youth turnout plunged; the percentage of the total votes that came from young people was cut in about half.
The solutions to this problem are not obvious. But what is obvious is that we are in need of bold ideas. We need game-changing plays. And we need spokespeople like Jay-Z with the power to make young people feel good about their role in America. We have to do more than spin a positive story about the youth vote. We have to create the story from the ground up, and make it a living truth. America needs young people to be engaged and hold elected officials accountable, and we as leaders of the youth movement need to find ways to inspire during challenging times.
As difficult as our prospects are this year, we can't expect to motivate young people unless we ourselves are reaching deep within. To paraphrase Jay-Z "Anything is possible as long as you fight for what you believe in."