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Sunday, Jul 18, 2010, 7:58 am

Pitchfork Day 2: Headcount’s Uphill Battle to Bring Politics to Live Music

By Jeremy Gantz

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CHICAGO—Dan Conroe has one of the toughest jobs at this year's Pitchfork Music Festival, taking place right now in Chicago. While hip bands are driving adoring fans into a frenzy on three different stages throughout the day, Conroe tries to convince festival-goers to do something they definitely did not pay $90 per day to do: register to vote.

Conroe volunteers for Headcount, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to youth voter registration. More specifically, the national organization works to register people at concert around the country and "make civic participation part of the live music experience." Headcount volunteers work festivals around the country each year—Tennessee's massive Bonnaroo festival, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork, among others—to expand the electorate. Its mission is ambitious:

We believe that musicians and their fans have the potential to be the leaders of worldwide social movements. By harnessing this untapped energy and giving fans the tools to be active and informed citizens, we can galvanize the music community into an influential force -  one capable of making a massive contribution to society.

How's that idealism working out at Pitchfork, which is not exactly known for its politics other than a general skepticism of all things corporate? Conroe is unfazed by the occasional cynicism he's encountered while approaching folks walking through the festival's area dedicated to nonprofits, many of them local. (Other nonprofits include Sierra Club, Americorps and Working Bikes.)

"The whole point is being active," he says explaining Headcount's fundamental mission as Wolf Parade played its early evening set. When people doubt the point of registering to vote, he responds by focusing on particular issues rather than politicians. Thus far, Conroa says, he and seven other volunteers have registered about 80 people per day, putting them on target to reach its goal of 200 registrations (the organization also helps people update their address.)

Sean Hamann, another Headcount volunteer, said he's encountered "political excitement" among 18-year-olds while working at concerts this year, and Pitchfork is no different. "This is a diverse crowd, lots of people eighteen or nineteen," he said.

Of course, even if Headcount does reach its goal of 200 registrations, that's a tiny sliver of the thousands of people showing up each day. (About 40,000 attended last year's festival, with the same expected to be at this year's sold-out shows.) A very tiny sliver. Its tough to know what to make of that fact. People go to Pitchfork to soak themselves in music, not politics. And Headcount volunteers operate in a very limited portion of the festival grounds (between food vendors and the record tent and bathrooms; central in a way, but not very visible).

Headcount's mission is unique—I know of no other national org dedicated to using concerts as a venue for bringing youth into politics—and uniquely important, given how progressive young Americans are today, and how they played a clear role in electing Barack Obama. The potential is immense.

But I can't help worrying that the organization, founded by Marc Brownstein of the band The Disco Biscuits and Andy Bernstein, author of a Phish fan guide, imagine the potential of music culture in ways more relevant to the 1960s (Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead is on Headcount's board of directors). I hate to sound a sour note about such a valuable organization, but civic participation is very clearly not a part of Pitchfork's ethos. The festival is giving fans what they want: inexpensive live music in a great setting abounding with cheap essentials (food, water, and for most, beer). People do not go to Pitchfork to be in solidarity. They are there for one obvious reason—the same reason at the center of every music festival I've ever gone to.

Some uncomfortable questions came to mind after I walked away from Headcount's table, and back into the crowd for the tail end of Wolf Parade's set. Was live music ever a viable vehicle for politics in this country? The easy answer is: yes, look at the 1960s—early '60s folk music, mid- and late-'60s rock music. But I watched Gimme Shelter a few months ago, and the picture was bleak: drug culture's narcissism seemed to engulf any peace, love, etc. The documentary, about The Rolling Stone's troubled 1969 U.S. tour and its fatal ending at the Altamont Speedway outside of San Francisco, offered a blunt rejoinder to any vague music-as-politics stereotypes I had in my mind, probably generated by Woodstock (the film) and various other romantic portrayals of how the hippies protested Vietnam and revolted from the status quo.

The next question was: Might music unattached to any political movement and period actually be more transcendent, timeless than songs written for Vietnam protesters? There's a lot of bad '60s protest music that I'm happy to avoid.

But nothing whatsoever political from all of yesterday's performers, at least the one's I watched: Raekwon, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Wolf Parade, Panda Bear (actually not a whisper at all from Noah Lennox), LCD Soundsystem. No, just great music—especially Jon Spencer's ferociously tight set and LCD's entrancing day-ending performance—unadulterated. Politics will have to wait for another day, another festival altogether. What that festival is, I've no idea. But I'm sure it won't be Lollapalooza.

Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at the magazine. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America's War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he worked as a reporter for The Cambodia Daily in 2007. After graduating from Carleton College in 2004, he lived in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the intersection of ethnic politics and public education. His articles have also appeared in Chicago-area newspapers, Alternet and the Onion’s A.V. Club.

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