How Rock the Vote Changed the Way Young People Viewed Politics

Since its creation in 1990, Rock the Vote has spearheaded campaigns featuring Madonna, Christina Aguilera and so many more, creating a real force for change in on the political landscape.

By Cydney Contreras Oct 25, 2020 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Jonathan Van Ness Urges LGBTQ Fans to Vote in 2020

It all began with a single image: a bikini-clad Madonna wrapped in an American flag.

"Truth is where you find it. Get up and vote," the artist broke it down "Vogue"-style as two dancers waved flags behind her. "Dr. King, Malcolm X, freedom of speech is as good as sex."

Then, she delivered her final tantalizing line: "And if you don't vote, you're going to get a spanking.''

And with that, Rock the Vote had released its first PSA.

If Madonna was hoping to elicit a reaction from the American people, she got her wish. The pop star set off a flurry of criticism, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization accusing her, according to The New York Times, of "desecration of the flag."

But, as the singer's publicist, Liz Rosenberg, said at the time, ''That was certainly not Madonna's intention at all. My sense is that wrapping the American flag around her is not insulting. 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.''

Stars Vote in the 2020 Presidential Election

At first glance, it might seem like a bad idea to start a movement on such a sour note, but as they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

But Rock the Vote was started by people who were already known for being controversial. In fact, Virgin Records co-founder Jeff Ayeroff and other music executives were initially responding to the Parent Music Resource Center's goal to have Parental Advisory labels placed on every album on the market that contained so-called explicit content, a desire that a select group of politicians were happy to fulfill.

What the PMRC and its supporters failed to foresee though, was that musicians have thousands of fans, many of voting age—and that those fans would be called upon to vote against the politicians in favor of censoring their music. 

Watch: Ross Takes Rock the Vote Bus for a Spin

That's why Madonna and other artists who were named in the PMRC's "Filthy 15"—a list of songs the group called "objectionable"—were at the forefront of this movement.

Rock the Vote President and Executive Director Carolyn DeWitt further explained to E! News in an interview, "The organization was founded by music executives so it was created as really an outlet, not just for young people, but for young artists, who had something to say, who were being censored. To have a platform that was created by music executives to allow artists to really use their voice and encourage them to raise their voice to reach other young people and their fans was an incredibly powerful start to the organization."

But while Rock the Vote started as a revenge plot, of sorts, against the PMRC, it eventually turned into something more: A way to empower younger generations and create a force for change.

There was just one problem: many young people weren't registered to vote. 

So Rock the Vote orchestrated a plan. They would have the most popular musicians record PSAs encouraging voter registration and turnout in the upcoming 1992 presidential. And where would these controversial videos air?

MTV, of course. 

It only made sense to have the network serve as the main hub for the content. After all, there was no social media, few cell phones and the Internet was still in its genesis.

Plus, Dewitt shared, "At the time a brand could reach 90 percent of young people on MTV. There were very limited channels before the internet and places where young people were going to get their cultural content from."


The artists, DeWitt added, served as "trusted messengers" to young people. Deee-LiteR.E.M.Marky Mark (Mark Wahlberg) and Anthony Kiedis were among the many stars who participated in the 1991 PSAs, reminding MTV viewers to "Choose or Lose" at the polls.

R.E.M. even took the extra step of including postcards with copies of their album Out of Time, that you could mail to senators to implore them to support the Motor Voter Act, a bill that would allow prospective voters to register when renewing or applying for their drivers license at the DMV.

(Fast forward nearly two years, when a newly-elected President Bill Clinton would thank Rock the Vote at the Motor Voter Law signing ceremony held on the White House lawn. He told the audience, "I want to pay special tribute to Disabled and Able to Vote, Project Vote and to Rock the Vote.")

Also back in 1992, En VogueSir Mix-A-Lot and L.L. Cool J recorded their own messages, En Vogue singing their hit song "Free Your Mind" in their PSA.

L. Cohen/WireImage

That year, with election day looming ever closer, MTV took matters into its own hands by doing what political pundits least expected of the music video network. In June 1992, then-presidential candidate Clinton was invited to participate in an MTV town hall that would focus on issues of importance to the younger generation.

The special program was titled "Choose or Lose: Facing the Future with Bill Clinton" and featured questions that ranged from "How did it feel growing up in an alcoholic family and having a brother who's a drug addict?" to "Boxers versus briefs?"

This special would air repeatedly over the next few months, as Clinton and President George H.W. Bush campaigned across the country. (As did Ross Perot, a surprisingly popular third-party candidate.)

And on Election Day, Clinton beat the incumbent by 202 electoral votes.

Stars Vote in the 2018 Midterm Elections

Now, it's tough to definitively determine whether Rock the Vote and MTV's efforts are what pushed Clinton over the finish line. But in 2003, The Washington Post reported that voter turnout among youths aged 18 to 24 had increased in 1992 to 43 percent from 36 percent in the previous election. And thanks to the country's electoral college system, that seven percent just might have made all the difference for the 42nd president.

In the 1996 presidential election, Rock the Vote would again raise the bar for all campaigns to come, introducing a tour bus that would transport organizers across the country to register voters.

They even had a—wait for it—website on the Internet. Yes, this rarity of its time would be a place for voters to "read about such issues as taxes or proposed cuts in Federal education grants," as well as candidate platforms. Then, in 1999, the organization created the first online voter registration platform.

Michael Caulfield/WireImage

But a lackluster voter turnout in 1996 and '98—The Los Angeles Times reported a 28 percent decrease in youth participation from 1992—meant that they had to pull out all the stops for the 2000 election cycle. That's where the musicians once again came in. 

In July 2000, The Los Angeles Times reported that Rock the Vote would once again be touring across the country, this time going to 25 cities and hosting concerts along the way. And thanks to their partnership with Russell Simmons' now-defunct, featuring artists like Mary J. Blige, Common, Erykah Badu and Diddy.

This series of events, including concerts, voter registration drives and parties—at the time an unprecedented effort to reach young people—would set the tone for campaigns to come, making it the norm for celebrities to get out the vote.

Christina Aguilera celebrated Rock the Vote's achievements in a 2008 performance, bringing her then-5-month-old son Max on stage with her in Washington D.C. to sing "America the Beautiful."

She said the performance was an homage to Madonna's 1990 PSA, when the Material Girl wrapped herself in an American flag. "But instead of wrapping myself, I would wrap my son, sort of pass it on to the next generation."

Stephen Lovekin/FilmMagic

And though Rock the Vote's role has evolved in recent years—largely because of the rise of social media and countless other organizations promoting a similar goal—the movement made history when it reminded young people that they could actually make a difference in their country, that casting a ballot is a tool for change.

Rock the Vote's DeWitt shared, "Rock the Vote was the first of its kind. Prior to this organization there was no national that really recognized and supported young people in building political power. There was a hunger there for young people, not having representation on issues that were impacting them and their communities. Rock the Vote provided the information and resources for young people to start to organize and exercise the power that they have in our democracy."

With the Internet and social media's increasing influence, the organization has had to "continuously adapt" over the years, but DeWitt shared that they're excited to imagine new ways to empower young people. For more information on the history of Rock the Vote, and to see how you can get involved, check out their website here!

For the latest news on the 2020 presidential election, click here.