Vote, You Robots!

Just follow the sound of ca-ching as MTV invades a college campus near you

College campuses are the perfect place for a concert: There's guaranteed to be a young crowd up for a good party. Sometimes you'll even find some good music brought in by a campus radio station. But more often than not, big events at So-and-So State are the result of someone trying to get a piece of Johnny Fratboy or Cindy Coed's discretionary income.

Profit is probably the main reason for "MTV's Campus Invasion Tour," which makes a stop at Florida International University on Tuesday. The network has placed Hoobastank and the Lostprophets on the marquee for the tour, though California electro-punk outfit Ima Robot is being billed as "special guest."

Ima Robot doesn't exactly fit in with the nü-metal vibe of the other two bands; its music is too dance-friendly. And the group's self-titled debut album was released in September but was overshadowed by the hype surrounding the Rapture, a New York-based band with a similar sound. For some reason, MTV has gotten behind Ima Robot rather than its countless peers. If you watched MTV's recent spring break coverage, you may have heard the bridge from the single "Alive" playing in the background while a hilarious wet T-shirt contest took place on-stage.

Ima Robot who's sad he can't vote.
Ima Robot who's sad he can't vote.

The Campus Invasion Tour will also feature volunteers from the network's "Choose or Lose 2004 Campaign," a hip political organization devoted to registering young voters and providing nonpartisan information. MTV's partner in voter registration, "Rock the Vote" (www.rockthevote.com), is probably the best-known and successful of these organizations. Rock the Vote Broward is currently number 36, between Cleveland and Sacramento on the list of most popular cities for these meetups, which take place the first Tuesday of every month. Check out the dates at http://rtv.meetup.com/members/.

But Rock the Vote has critics. Most bring up the fact that the group is required to remain nonpartisan, so it can't take a position on issues like drug decriminalization, gay marriage, or racial profiling that may be relevant to the young folks it is trying to attract to the polls.

That is why there are a number of smaller, more specialized groups getting involved with political education and voter registration. The "Hip Hop Summit Action Network" (www.hsan.org) was founded in 2001 by Russell Simmons, head honcho at Def Jam, the Motown Records of the hip-hop generation. One of the most revered figures in hip-hop, Simmons has pointed the Action Network toward educational inequality, freedom of speech, and other concerns of at-risk youth. The group definitely has the potential to be powerful, a fact drilled home by the legions of hip-hop heads listening to Def Jam artists like Jay-Z, Ludacris, and Kanye West. The main obstacle for the Hip Hop Summit Action Network will be actually getting African-American youth -- individually two of the most underrepresented groups at the polls but together a virtual anomaly on Election Day -- out to vote.

The people who listen to jam-band music are just as fanatical as extreme hip-hoppers, though it may be a tad more difficult to identify them by the clothes they wear. Thousands are willing to drive across the country to catch a Phish show or head to middle-of-nowhere Tennessee for the Bonnaroo Music Festival, an event that attracted upward of 75,000 people each of the past two years. But many are extremely apathetic when it comes to politics, a fact Bob Weir, guitarist for the Grateful Dead, laments: "If every Deadhead in the state of Florida had voted in the last presidential election," he has said on multiple occasions, "it would be a very different world today."

Weir is just one of the members on the board of directors of HeadCount (www.headcount.org), a group started just this year by Andy Bernstein, a sports journalist and famous Phishhead; and bassist Marc Brownstein of trance fusion group the Disco Biscuits. One of the defining features of a jam band is a life of constant touring. This is the approach HeadCount is taking, organizing voter-registration drives at concerts and music festivals around the country, bringing its message to ears wide open for music, hoping that some political responsibility seeps in as well.

Rock stars may have no desire to be role models for their fans. But groups like Rock the Vote, the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, and HeadCount only want their constituents to emulate responsible voting behavior. MTV's latest initiative, "20 Million Loud" (http://www.mtv.com/chooseorlose), is serving as an umbrella organization for many of these smaller groups and is calling on 20 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 to make their voices heard on November 2. A lofty goal, but if everyone who buys a CD, sees a concert, or sits in front of any of MTV's banal programming votes in the upcoming election -- the world could be -- to paraphrase Mr. Weir, a very different place.

 
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