It may be surprising to learn that the guitarist for a hardcore band called MOST PRECIOUS BLOOD is considering a run for political office. JUSTIN BRANNAN, a member of the New York outtfit for nearly a decade, recently announced that he might seek entry to race for New York State Senate under the Democratic party. Brannan, who is greatly involved in politics and his community of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, was initially going to run this year, but now will likely run in the 2012 election. Is this really as strange as it sounds? Are musicians qualified to enter political races, and even if they are, should they run?
Brannan says that some of the qualities necessary to be a punk musician are the same as those to be a politician. "Unfortunately, you can't do much in politics without money, and this creates a strong barrier to entry, which is tragic," he says. "Political campaigns are very expensive investments, but as a hardcore kid raised on DIY, I'm very resourceful. I have a great network of friends who are all very talented, passionate and giving--and all of them have offered to help however they could. So when it does happen, it will be a group effort. We're going to show the world where DIY came from."
Brannan isn't the first musician to run for office, and certainly not the first to become deeply involved in politics. Although the history of the U.S. may involve only a few musicians actually putting their names on ballots, there have been a few instances where a well-known musical artist has run for office. Last year, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic ran for county clerk in Wahkiakum County in the state of Washington. The primary issue Novoselic took on was that Washington allows candidates to pick the party with which they will be affiliated without that party's approval or without that party actually existing. Novoselic, who had been actively involved in politics since the early '90s, wrote in his blog on the Seattle Weekly website last June that "I am officially running for office, and under the laws of the State of Washington, the ballot will say: Krist Novoselic Prefers Grange Party. Of course, there is no such thing as a Grange Party." Novoselic ultimately withdrew from the election, explaining that he had run more in protest than in hopes of actually being electing to office.
Other musicians have done similar things in the past: Jello Biafra, formerly of the Dead Kennedys and now a solo artist and activist, has run for office twice. In 1979, the musician ran for mayor of San Francisco against Dianne Feinstein on a platform that involved topics like banning cars within the city limits and creating a "Board of Bribery" to set standard public rates. He came in fourth in that election, and in 2000 ran in the Green Party presidential primary. He was beat out by Ralph Nader, who he ultimately ended up supporting. Biafra said in a 1997 interview, "I'd recommend running for office, or something on some level," an idea he talks more about on his 1991 spoken-word album, I Blow Minds For A Living, which includes a track titled "Running For Mayor." This recommendation is central to any discussion of punk and musicians who not only pen politically tinged songs but also operate their band on a political basis. It asks the question, how much can you say before you are required to do?
In the interview, Biafra addresses this punk aesthetic, founded on being political without actually ever having to be political. "I love torpedoing the illusions of people who think punk should be some cocoon of a scene where you can argue over bullshit and non-issues like Green Day and Rancid as a way of avoiding the real world," he said. "You can argue about whether the Offspring sold out when they signed to Sony until you're blue in the face, but that ain't gonna feed the homeless person outside your front door."
Of course, punk rock has shifted since the Dead Kennedys released "California Über Alles" in 1987 (an attack on California governor Jerry Brown) and Minor Threat were charging through songs about racism in the '80s. But throughout the '90s and '00s there have remained political punk bands who seek to address current political and social issues through their music--and sometimes their actions. Several contemporary punk bands like Anti-Flag, Rise Against and Against Me! have spent time signed to major labels, recalling exactly what Biafra was referring to in 1997, but as much as they preach and talk, you have to ask: Why don't you just run for office?
JUSTIN SANE, frontman of ANTI-FLAG--who has been extremely active politically in recent years by taking actions on many of the issues they discuss in their music--explained that for someone who confronts the government as an artist, it can be difficult to be taken seriously by that very same government and its people later. "In all honesty, I believe that I would make a good member of government," Sane says. "I believe in certain principles, and I would stick my neck out to defend them--something we see very seldom in politics. But I wouldn't have a chance if I ran for office. I am in a band called Anti-Flag. We have turned the American flag upside down as a symbol of distress and protest. Whoever I ran against would use that as a weapon against me and all I'd end up discussing with people on the campaign trail is that issue. Sadly, the state of our political culture has digressed to a place where the actual issues mean nothing and name-calling and smokescreens mean everything."
Justin Sane of Anti-Flag
Musicians running for office hasn't just been something that's occurred in American politics. Peter Garrett of Australian band Midnight Oil was elected to the Australian House of Representatives in 2004 and is currently appointed as Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts; and as Sane points out, reggae legend Bob Marley had a profound impact of Jamaican politics. One of the most famous examples, though, is JOE KEITHLEY, frontman for Canadian punk band D.O.A., who has run for office three times in his hometown of Burnaby, British Columbia, located outside Vancouver. Although Keithley has never been elected, he's come close and feels he's made a difference in the community, particularly in environmental issues. He found that being a well-known musician helped because people were familiar with him, not necessarily because they liked D.O.A.'s music. Ultimately, though, music has won out over politics--at least when it comes to Keithley's career path. "I still run into people and they say, 'Hey, there's our future mayor.' Or, 'Hey, I voted for you in 1996,'" he says. "There was a point when everyone thought I would run for mayor and I think after a try or two I'd have a pretty decent shot at it if I did it right. I talked to a friend of mine who's the former mayor, and he said, 'Every night I go home with a headache and drink a bottle of wine.' So I took his advice and decided not to run again. But never say never."
How are voters affected by the former (or concurrent) careers of their politicians? Actors and celebrities are voted into office perhaps because of their notoriety in other spheres of life (see: Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger) and it often raises questions about whether they are qualified to actually hold that office. JOHN SIDES, a political scientist and Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, says there has not been enough research done to determine whether voters are truly affected by a musician or actor running, but believes it's safe to assume that there is some impact on both voter turnout and voter opinion. "There's just no good data on entertainment personalities, per se," Sides says. "There is work on political 'amateurs' more generally, and it suggests the hurdles that they face. First of all, experienced politicians are choosy about which races they enter. They are likely to run for offices when and where they have a decent chance of winning. Amateurs are then more likely to be 'pushed out,' meaning that they don't run, or, if they do run, likely to lose to the experienced candidate. So, other things equal, it is probably going to be harder for amateurs--including musicians--to be successful. The only thing going for entertainment personalities is that, if they are famous enough, voters will have heard of them, which helps them overcome one barrier that candidates face: becoming familiar to voters."
Coming back to Brannan's intended run in New York, it's unlikely that the guitarist has enough fans to turn the election results in either direction. What he really believes gives him a chance is his passion for his community and an understanding of what sort of leader the people there need to positively change their lives. He certainly acknowledges his band will give him a louder voice, but it's up to an individual regardless of his or her background to find the way to the best public servant possible. "Today, New York State government has been dubbed the most dysfunctional in the nation," says Brannan. "It has become a laughing stock and the go-to example of government dysfunction. We need leadership that is willing to listen to, and work toward making our great, hard-working and diverse community even greater. We need a conduit and an advocate--not a professional politician with an insatiable ego. We need a senator capable of forging creative solutions to practical problems--not a political operator who makes token gestures but is tone deaf to the needs of the community. We need a new leader who is unafraid to compromise--not for personal gain--but to deliver to his constituents."
According to CHRISSY FAESSEN, V.P. Communications & Marketing for Rock The Vote, an organization that uses music to empower and incite voters in a nonpartisan way, Brannan may be onto something. She can't remember a musician running for office who has asked to collaborate with Rock The Vote (Brannan, that's your cue), but she finds that voters respond to any candidate who makes them feel like their issues are important. "In the past, we've seen 'famous' people running for office and we see a lot of artists who may not be running for office, but they're extremely passionate about various causes," she says. "I think there are musicians and bands out there who absolutely would be great potential for running for office. If these politicians, no matter who they are, are actually reaching out and talking to people in a unique way and gaining their trust, I think young people will respond. We saw it in 2008, we saw politicians who reached out to young people who then flooded the polls in record numbers. I think it's irrelevant who the person is; it matters how they're engaging young Americans in their campaign." alt