A History of Rock the Vote, Which Made Politics Cool For a Skeptical Generation

A History of Rock the Vote, Which Made Politics Cool For a Skeptical Generation

When the music video ruled the world, it seemed like everything wanted to be one: movies, TV intros, commercials, and eventually voting PSAs. In 1990, a voter-registration campaign called Rock the Vote began sexifying the concept of voting to MTV viewers. The initiative lifted off with the help of two cultural rocket boosters: celebrity connections and controversy. Its most notorious early clip featured an underwear-clad Madonna against a blank background, draped in an American flag, performing a riff on her hit “Vogue” that was reoutfitted with political lyrics. Backing her up (and goofing off with her) were two dancers she had plucked from New York’s ballroom community, Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Camacho Xtravaganza. “And if you don’t vote, you’re going to get a spanky,” she said at the minute-long clip’s closing.

“Madonna was the one that put us on the map. Everybody goes, ‘What the fuck is that?,’” industry vet and Rock the Vote founder Jeff Ayeroff recently told to Jezebel via phone. The clip was eventually criticized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for “border[ing] on desecration.” (“My sense is that wrapping the American flag around her is not insulting,” was Madonna’s rep’s response. “It is essential that people should vote. She’s trying to get that message across in a humorous, dramatic way. But she’s very serious about the issue.”)

Ayeroff said the idea for Rock the Vote emerged from his mind “fully formed” after he’d watched a news report about the June 1990 arrests of Miami-based rap group 2 Live Crew on obscenity charges. The furor over 2 Live Crew’s sexually explicit lyrics, though, fit into a larger cultural narrative of the suppression and censorship of art. The Recording Industry Association of America had in the ’80s agreed to slap parental advisory labels on albums with potentially objectionable content as a result of growing uproar over the debasement of modern music, most notably evinced in the work of the Parents Music Resource Center, which was co-founded by Tipper Gore and argued for restrictions in front of the Senate. With the National Endowment for the Arts regularly threatened by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, it was a time in which American art—and free expression—was under attack.

“All the way back to Sinatra and the bobbysoxers, there was a political role to be played by the right-wing of this country: the undermining of young girls by the sexuality implied in music,” said Ayeroff, drawing the throughline from Sinatra to Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley to the Beatles to the dawn of hip-hop. “Rock and roll was a great cudgel for the right-wing to get older people to vote. It’s the fear of Hollywood—creativity as a liberal thought machine. There was no constituency in the voting population that was on our side.”

The now-retired Ayeroff is, by any definition, a character, someone who has known such culture-shifting power that when he speaks about it, he sounds Zen-like. “I might be a rock and roll theorist, but I’m also a political theorist, I guess,” he said regarding the organization he created that combined the two forces.

“It’s not outrageous to say that we invented the concept of youth voting in today’s vernacular, the idea that youth voting is something that can shift an election,” he said of Rock the Vote, which remains active and celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.

By 1990, Ayeroff had ascended to the post of founder and co-chairman of Virgin Records’ American division. He had worked at A&M and then Warner Bros., during that label’s titanic reign in the ’80s when superstars like Prince and Madonna were on its roster. A sort of video A&R guy at Warner, Ayeroff was responsible for helping put together many of those artists’ videos as well as decade-defining clips from Don Henley (“Boys of Summer”) and a-ha (“Take on Me”). He had a uniquely visual sensibility during the music video’s golden era, as well as political science and law degrees under his belt.

“Politics was sports in my family,” he recalled.

“We [in the music industry] were accused of unplugging a generation. It was a thing we had in the back of our heads, those of us who gave a shit. Judy McGrath [then creative VP of MTV] gave a shit. [MTV Networks chairman and CEO Tom Freston] gave a shit,” Ayeroff said. “[Rock the Vote] was civic-minded and it alleviated the issue of irresponsibility and rock and roll. All of a sudden it’s like, we’re doing something good here. We’re plugging a generation back in.”

Ayeroff soon enlisted Virgin America co-chair Jordan Harris and Virgin exec Beverly Lund as Rock the Vote co-founders, and their plan was unveiled at a July 11, 1990, luncheon at the Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons. The RIAA as well as execs from Warner Bros., Capitol, Geffen, MCA, A&M, and Giant Records got on board, and MTV donated airtime. The creative began shortly after with spots recorded by Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, and club kid pop crossovers Deee-Lite.

Rock the Vote’s early spots emphasized the importance of free expression: For the artist and the viewer, who could have her say by taking part in the political process. Ayeroff enlisted music video director Paula Grief (the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”) to helm the early Rock the Vote spots. Despite seeming rough and off the cuff, Grief told Jezebel they were scripted. Madonna’s clip, which replaced the old Hollywood references in her rap during the breakdown of “Vogue” with political ones (“Dr. King, Malcolm X/Freedom of speech is as good as sex”), was written by Glenn O’Brien, who edited Interview in the ’70s and went on to edit Madonna’s infamous Sex book.

“Madonna came in being Madonna. She was kind of crabby, didn’t really want to be there, “ Greif recalled. “I said, ‘I want to do these different shots and angles.’ She said, ‘I’m not doing shots.’ That’s why it’s all jump cuts. I had one camera positioned and one lighting setup and she wouldn’t do another one. We just made it work.”

Greif told me that nobody on the creative side—at least her creative side—of Rock the Vote was paid for their work: It was strictly a volunteer endeavor for those who made the spots, which ran on donated MTV airtime (in June 1992, McGrath estimated MTV had given Rock the Vote about $20 million of ad space by that point). But lest you assume that rock stars gave up their images for free out of the goodness of their hearts, in January 1991, Rolling Stone dropped a bombshell in a piece that reported about half of the celebrities who lent their likenesses to Rock the Vote, including Kravitz, Hammer, and Justine Bateman hadn’t actually voted. Iggy Pop and Madonna, in fact, weren’t even registered.

So if they weren’t getting paid or attached enough to the issue that they would bother to practice what they preached, why did the stars get involved? “Because Jeff Ayeroff told them to do it,” said Grief. “Anybody involved with Jeff trusted his instincts, basically. If Jeff tells you to do something, you do it and you know it’s going to work for you and your career.”

Ayeroff was able to convince artists’ managers who were apprehensive about their clients getting political by framing the spots in terms of exposure on a much-coveted channel. “It adds another element of airtime, so to speak,” he recalled telling them. “So if they ran your spot three or four times a day, that’s a couple of minutes. Very few people said no.” Ayeroff knew how to speak the language of stars, and, by extension, that of American pop culture.

Madonna, still in peak media-mastery mode, would turn the controversy into content in her next Rock the Vote spot, a three-and-half minute black-and-white bit that aired as part of a Fox one-hour special in 1992. Through unmitigated savvy, Madonna, as usual, avoided getting got.

Commercials were one thing; they potentially galvanized a neglected segment of potential voters by vaguely encouraging them to vote. Though the implication was that by having artists talk about free speech, youth voters would vote against the conservative forces that sought to suppress it, like Helms. In the press, Rock the Vote described itself as “nonpartisan,” though in actuality it was packed with progressives. “It wasn’t a bunch of right-wing people in our business. It was the entertainment business,” Ayeroff reminded me.

One such liberal operative was Steve Barr, the organization’s political director who was given the title of co-founder by its board (to Jezebel, Barr pointed out that designation was nominal). Barr had worked for future presidential hopeful Jerry Brown, then the chair of the California Democratic Party. Part of his function with Brown was to register nonvoters. That, too, aligned with the goals of Rock the Vote, which soon took on the so-called Motor Voter Bill as one of its chief causes.

The proposed National Voter Registration Act of 1989 would have allowed people to register to vote when they applied for a driver’s license. It passed in the House but not the Senate. A similar bill in 1991 passed both chambers, but was ultimately vetoed by George H. W. Bush (the legislation was eventually signed into law in 1993 by Bill Clinton). Barr said the reluctance to make voting easier to underserved populations amounted to suppression.

“They’re afraid of your culture, they’re afraid of your politics. They don’t want you to vote,” was the way he explained it at the time. He told the Associated Press in 1991 that, “Changing to a system tied to drivers licenses will affect the 18 to 24-year-olds more than anyone else because they are the most transient part of the electorate.” The idea that requiring documentation like a birth certificate from people who weren’t living at home was restrictive, seemingly by design. As Bill Clinton put it at a rally at the University of Oregon in Eugene on October 22: “George Bush doesn’t want you to vote. He vetoed the Motor Voter bill. Rock the vote on November 3 and send him a message that the vote is yours and the country is yours and the future is yours.”

One of Rock the Vote’s main methods of advancing support for the Motor Voter bill was by turning future landfill useful and taking advantage of the cardboard that CDs were initially sold in, a soon-to-be-relic called the “longbox.” Most notably, R.E.M.’s landmark Out of Time album featured a Rock the Vote-branded postcard on the back of its longbox titled “Dear Mr. Senator.” Effectively a petition in postcard form, this campaign yielded a reported 50,000 responses in support that were forwarded to the Senate, according to Billboard. Cards placed in the longboxes of albums by the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, and Hammer, among artists, brought the total haul up to 150,000 cards. When the Senate passed the bill in June 1992, some staffers praised Rock the Vote for its effectiveness. Senator Wendell H. Ford, a Kentucky Democrat, told Billboard, “Oh, yeah, they were helpful. Of course, there was a larger coalition of groups active in this effort, from People for the American Way to the NAACP, and they all contributed, but certainly the Rock the Vote effort to get support from young people really worked.”

Though Ayeroff had several artist contacts that he could call and ask to participate directly, he didn’t know everyone and Barr was tasked with getting rappers on board after McGrath told him MTV had tons of advertising slots open in Yo! MTV Raps, a result of advertisers’ wariness of Black culture. Barr recalled staking out the lobby of West Hollywood’s Hyatt on Sunset hotel, which was known as the preferred hotel of rappers. He said he walked right up to Queen Latifah and cold pitched her to join the Rap the Vote campaign. She agreed.

“What I sold to artists was the subversion of it,” recalled Barr. “It looks all ‘Yay democracy!,’ but it’s really a scam on the system because the Motor Voter bill was created by two liberal professors in a response to Ronald Reagan.”

“One time KRS-One called me cranky,” he continued. “I couldn’t convince him to register to vote. I said, “Chris, you’re George Bush’s wet dream. You’re a Black man who doesn’t vote and you’re a Black man that a lot of Black dudes and white dudes listen to. You have an influence over them and by you not standing up, you should just be Republican.’ He would actually speak about the Motor Voter Bill when he wasn’t registered to vote. He loved the subversion of it.”

Barr toured with Lollapalooza during that most ’90s of festival’s first year—Billboard reported that 20,000 voters registered on that the tour alone. He’d also speak in front of Congress alongside MF Doom (then, a member of KMD) on behalf of Motor Voter.

By the summer of 1992, Rock the Vote had a reported seven paid employees and operated on a $750,000 budget. (Ayeroff said the organization received $50,000 annually from every major record company until George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000.) Well into the 1992 presidential campaign, Rock the Vote’s profile continued expanding, as the campaign made its way onto Fox (via the aforementioned special, to which Pepsi donated a reported $1.2 million, as well as in the form of quick ad spots) and VH1 (Diane Keaton, Michael Douglas, and Woody Harrelson were among the celebs to take part in ads that skewed more “adult”). Fifty national retailer chains carried Rock the Vote merch, Taco Bell hosted voting drives, there were marketing collaborations with Ford and Reebok.

Critics suggested that the participation of some apparently apathetic rock stars and the rampant marketing opportunities trivialized voting. “Rock the Vote facilely combines libertarian politics with corporate-sponsored paternalism, spreading an absolutist position on free speech while its record company sponsors quietly knuckle under to pressure groups,” wrote Alexander Star in an excoriating 1993 piece on youth culture in The New Republic. But as Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine, who covered that year’s Democratic National Convention on MTV, put it to the St. Petersburg Times: “If it’s a fad, they’ve started it off on a high note.”

“The fact that they were giving us so much time validated the idea that young people aren’t apathetic, you just have to reach them with the things that are interesting to them,” said Barr. “It was a great validation of a lot of work.”

It looked like the organization’s efforts paid off, too. Reports of the numbers of voters it registered ahead of the 1992 election varied: Newsday claimed 400,000, while Van Riker, RTV’s national program coordinator, told the Seattle Times the number was closer to a million.

“One of the burning post-election questions is: Was the vote rocked? The answer is… maybe,” read the lede of a Palm Beach Post story that ran two days after the 1992 election. Rock the Vote’s exit polls suggested that youth voting was up 20 percent from 1988, with more than 11 million voting, according to Billboard. According to the Chicago Tribune, RTV claimed 18-to-24-year-olds made up 11 percent of total voters, up from 9 percent. Later, researchers found that youth voter turn out increased to 42.8 percent, up from 36.2 percent in 1988.

Rock the Vote, whose logo Clinton wore while jogging and his Vice President Al Gore had worn (via a pin) on MTV, sponsored MTV’s 1993 Rock ‘n’ Roll Inaugural Ball, which the Clintons and Gores attended. At one point (perhaps not during the ball), Ayeroff brought up Gore’s wife’s pro-censorship work to the vice president.

“I was such a dick that I said, ‘You know, if it wasn’t for your wife, Rock the Vote wouldn’t exist.’ He gave me such a fuckin’ dirty look. I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I overstepped, that was the Vice President of the United States,’” said Ayeroff.

On May 20, Clinton signed the Motor Voter bill into law (it was the second bill he signed into law). Ayeroff and other Rock the Vote employees attended the signing at the White House.

“We collected on our promise,” said the former exec., who remains on the organization’s board in a hands-off capacity. Barr, though, left Rock the Vote shortly after the bill was signed.

“I loved that job and I felt like it was a major accomplishment, but I was like, “I can’t walk through that record company anymore. Our town just got burned down. What am I doing?,’” he said in reference to the Los Angeles riots the previous year.

Rock the Vote lives on today in spots, collaborations (including this recent one with Reebok), and fundraising events. The anti-censorship sentiment that caused its founding, though, seemed to fall to the wayside as Rock the Vote became more involved in the process and less so in spouting ideals. As the ’90s progressed, censorship received far less attention in the media than it had in the mid-to-late-’80s, too. Ayeroff said his organization triumphed over its founding cause.

“The ultimate revenge was, you’ve hurt us so badly that we built the ultimate constituency to fuck you up,” he said.

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