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The Guitar-Smashing 30-Year History of Rock the Vote

This is how the influential voting organization went from a shower thought to Madonna, REM and MTV — and why the founders are laser-focused on Gen Z as the 2020 election heads to the finish line

It was the mid-1980s, and Susan Baker, a mom and the wife of James Baker, who was then the Treasury Secretary in the Reagan administration, was talking to her seven-year-old daughter, who had a question. “[She] started quoting some of Madonna’s lyrics to me, wanting to know what they meant,” Baker recalled in 2015. It was Madge’s 1984 smash “Like a Virgin,” and Baker’s little girl wondered what a virgin was. “I was shocked. I knew that you had to be concerned about movies and TV, but I didn’t have a clue that my seven-year-old would be exposed to inappropriate songs.”

The Parents Music Resource Center, better known as the PMRC, had several such origin stories. While Baker was scandalized by “Like a Virgin,” Tipper Gore, who was married to Tennessee Senator Al Gore, fumed that her daughter was exposed to Prince’s hit album Purple Rain, which contained the song “Darling Nikki.” (Opening lines: “I knew a girl named Nikki / I guess you could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby / Masturbating with a magazine.”) Outraged, these moms and a few others formed the PMRC, a watchdog group that, because of its Washington influence, was able to get record labels to create a “Parental Advisory” sticker for albums with “explicit” content — although what constituted “explicit” was a bit of a moving target

The PMRC stickers made a certain amount of sense — after all, movies had ratings — but nonetheless they angered a lot of artists and music executives. But only one of them was mad enough to do something about it. “I was one of the voices in the room saying, ‘No, we can’t let this [happen]. It’s censorship,’” Jeff Ayeroff tells me. “‘This is coercive, it’s de facto censorship.’”

At that time, Ayeroff was the creative director at Warner Bros., and he was astonished that his cohorts at other labels seemed fine with these advisory stickers. “I’m in the rooms where everybody discussed what to do about this,” he remembers. “And they decided to not [fight it] and put stickers on records.” To this day, he’s pissed off by a comment one executive made — someone who worked in hip-hop, “a guy signing music that was inflaming the likes of Tipper Gore” — who told Ayeroff, “Stop arguing about not putting the stickers on. Every time I put a sticker on, I sell 50,000 more records.”

But to Ayeroff, it was unconscionable, and the fact that Democrats and Republicans had aligned on the issue only made him angrier. “I’m a red-diaper baby,” he says, a reference to American kids who had families affiliated with the Communist Party. “[I had] blacklisted members of the family, the whole thing. I come from a leftist family. My father was a small-town politician in Culver City. My parents made sure that I saw the footage of the protests in the 1960s. The rabbi in the temple I grew up in was a freedom marcher. I have a degree from UCLA in political science, and I have a law degree from USC. But I also got a scholarship to art school. So I had a left-brain/right-brain kind of life.”

When Ayeroff helped start Virgin Records America, the U.S. offshoot of Richard Branson’s Virgin label, in 1986, he vowed the label wouldn’t slap any stickers on albums. But he was spurred to act after the rap group 2 Live Crew were arrested in 1990 in Broward County, Florida, for performing songs from their sexually explicit album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. (This was only a few days after a record-store owner, Charles Freeman, was arrested for selling their album in his Fort Lauderdale store after a judge had ruled it obscene.) “The next morning I’m in the shower,” Ayeroff says. “And the idea for Rock the Vote came out of my head fully formed.”

The backstory to Rock the Vote is important because, although the influential organization is commonly (and correctly) associated with its mission to empower younger voters, its impetus extended beyond the ballot box. “The theory behind Rock the Vote, it’s really revenge,” Ayeroff tells me. “I’ve never said that before. It never occurred to me that that’s what it was.”

The revenge he had in mind was aimed at politicians who, from the days of Elvis wiggling his hips, used rock ‘n’ roll as their popular whipping boy. “It was ‘devil music.’ Most of it was racist-based or sexual-based. And [because] kids didn’t vote, you could scare old people into voting the way you wanted by raising the specter of race and music,” he says. “The PMRC was just another version of that to me.” 

If you’re going to fight, it helps to have the resources of a major record label behind you — and passionate employees who share your vision. One of those was Beverly Lund, who was working as Ayeroff’s executive assistant when Rock the Vote first came up. Lund had loved music all her life, “but I was also very politically active,” she says. “I was active in local Democratic politics. Voting has always been a priority in my life. As a first-generation American, I was always inspired to take part in the political process. My parents were Holocaust survivors and came to this country.”

Because she was involved with the California Democratic Party, and knew Jerry Brown, who was the state chair in 1990, Lund asked if he’d attend a meeting of concerned music executives. “He spoke to us,” she recalls, “not in a partisan way, but about political activism and getting young people to vote in response to the issues.” But for Ayeroff, the idea was also to create a united front across different aspects of the music business. “I’d worked in enough places and made enough friends with the companies that made videos, the video directors, the head of the video departments for every record company, the creative directors for every record company, and then they would call somebody else,” he says. “[In that meeting,] there were five company presidents and 25 creative directors and 25 videomakers and Jerry Brown and Frank Zappa.”

The name Rock the Vote was a clever riff on “rock the boat” that suggested the nascent organization’s paradigm-shifting agenda. But it was also an indication of Ayeroff’s talent for promotion. “He was a master of marketing and an advertising genius,” Lund says. “Jeff is one of the most prominent people in the video arena in the music industry.” He’s often credited for fostering the early career of David Fincher, who went from directing music videos to Oscar-winning films like The Social Network, and overseeing videos for everyone from Talking Heads to ZZ Top to Don Henley. (Ironically, he was creative director at Warner Bros. when Madonna filmed her video for “Like a Virgin,” the song that helped inspire the formation of the PMRC.)

The idea from the start was to get young people to vote. The conventional wisdom had always been that kids were too lazy or too disinterested in politics to get involved. But Ayeroff saw them as a powerful voice in America that hadn’t yet been tapped. He explained to me his thought process: “If kids vote, it will keep people like that D.A. [from Broward County] from coming after people — they’ll be afraid that there’ll be a backlash because kids will come out and vote and they’ll lose elections. It will balance the nature of the voting population. Old people vote, but young people don’t vote, and so there’s no balance in politics. There’s no voice for young people. So let’s give them a voice. We could make something cool about politics.”

In those initial days during the summer of 1990, Rock the Vote was a passion project for only a handful of people. “We were running it out of Virgin,” says Ayeroff. “Richard Branson doesn’t know how much money he spent to start Rock the Vote — not that he didn’t like it.” Specifically, Ayeroff recruited the label’s art department. “One of my best friends, Mick Haggerty, a very famous album designer, designed the logo. He and I had this great collaborative relationship — I’d have an idea and he’d do it better. If I was as good as him, I’d have stayed in art school.”

The brilliance of the Rock the Vote logo was its simplicity — blue all-caps letters for the organization’s name, accented by a red checkmark for the “V” in “Vote.” “[Back then] that’s all voting was: You put a mark in a square,” Ayeroff says. “It was a very easy, symbolic thing.”

Rock the Vote logo

Then there was a matter of a slogan. “Somebody in my art department showed me Josh Gosfield’s work,” Ayeroff recalls. “And I called him up on the phone and said, ‘I’ve got this idea. I want a Black man with a hand over his mouth.’ Because I come from this left background, I came up with the idea of ‘Censorship Is UnAmerican’ based on the Un-American Activities Committee, which my uncle was [called] in front of. So ‘Censorship Is UnAmerican’ became the mantra.”

But while Ayeroff was marshaling the different wings of the music biz for his cause, he knew there was another major partner he’d need on his side. Launching in 1981, MTV had reshaped the cultural landscape, with music videos becoming a new way to sell acts to a wide audience of young people. The superstardom that happened for Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson in the 1980s was helped, in large part, by the groundbreaking clips they released in conjunction with their big singles. “MTV was the shit,” says Steve Barr, a political strategist who joined the Rock the Vote fold. “That’s all I watched, CNN and MTV. Jeff is famous because he’s the first guy who saw MTV as an ally in selling music, not the devil — all the record companies, they didn’t know what to do with it.”

Ayeroff recognized that MTV could be a powerful ally for Rock the Vote. And so he met with Tom Freston, one of the channel’s founders, and the new head of programming, Judy McGrath. Ayeroff’s pitch was straightforward: “The reason I want you to do this is because we can plug a generation back in.” MTV isn’t the epochal cultural force now that it was back then, but in the 1980s, there was criticism that music videos were corroding the minds of the youth, making them passive — you know, the same nonsense that every generation faces when they fall in love with some new entertainment medium. Ayeroff felt confident his message would be warmly received. “They [had] the same kind of problem as [record labels],” he says. “They want to keep their programming hip, and they don’t want to be censored. It’s the same pressure that’s being applied to them.”

It also helped that Rock the Vote’s activist agenda was in McGrath’s blood, too. “My mother was a great believer in the art of perseverance,” McGrath said in a 2004 interview. “She was also a feminist before her time and had strong convictions about women in the lead. She died in the early 1980s, but I still hear her voice. … My pro-social genes come from my parents, who were social workers.” When she started working at MTV in its maiden year as a copywriter, she’d already had experience at publications like Mademoiselle and hoped her new gig would be a springboard for her real dream — working at Rolling Stone. But she quickly saw MTV’s potential to broaden the cultural conversation, championing Yo! MTV Raps, the station’s first rap-focused show. “One of my favorite eras of MTV was the early 1990s,” she said in that same interview. “Public Enemy. Nirvana. Rock the Vote. Very powerful, culture-changing, very relevant.”

With MTV’s blessing, the stage was set for the first big Rock the Vote spot, which would feature someone Ayeroff had supported from her earliest days in the business. 1990 was a very good year for Madonna. Her album from the previous year, Like a Prayer, was her third straight to go to No. 1, launching four Top 10 singles and setting the stage for a triumphant world tour. Meanwhile, that summer her movie Dick Tracy (made by and co-starring her boyfriend Warren Beatty) was a hit, prompting a Madonna soundtrack album, I’m Breathless, that contained the indelible “Vogue,” her eighth song to top the Billboard charts. It’s very possible nobody on the planet was bigger than Madonna was when she decided to wear a red bra and panties, wrap herself in the American flag and rap about the importance of voting.

The PSA was shot by Paula Greif, a former art director for Mademoiselle who masterminded a few of the early Rock the Vote clips. The lingerie was loaned to the singer by Greif, but Madonna thought up incorporating the flag. (“It’s her instinct to stir up controversy,” Grief said at the time.)

“I could pick up the phone at that point in my life and call Madonna and explain to her what I needed, and she’d say yes,” Ayeroff says. “Then I could call Paula, and the two of them could work on the spot together. That spot was different than [other Rock the Vote ads], because I don’t think it was done in conjunction with one of her videos. It was a separate shoot. I’d say 90 percent of the other spots were done [during] the last three hours of an [official] video shoot, hidden in a budget somewhere.” 

When MTV started airing the clip in October 1990, it achieved its desired effect, which was to shock people. “That Madonna ad is the best version of Rock the Vote, because it wasn’t preachy,” Barr says. “It had irony and you wanted to go vote. It had a sense of humor. It had edge. Don’t take yourself seriously. Also, it [featured] two openly gay dancers, which wasn’t common back then.”

Not surprisingly, there was a backlash, although it didn’t have anything to do with the dancers’ sexuality. No, the provocative use of Old Glory became the sticking point for some viewers. “We have a strong stand against the desecration of the flag,” a VFW spokesman complained at the time. “This borders on desecration.”

In other words, mission accomplished when you’re trying to target 18- to-24-year-olds and get them excited about becoming part of the electoral process. But there were a few problems. The first is that, while Rock the Vote was helping to register some young voters, the 1990 midterms were mere weeks away. “1990 was entirely a year of enthusiasm and ‘Let’s just make this thing happen,’” Lund says. “But this didn’t [really] start until the middle of the year, so getting all of these things [going] before a November election from when we started in July — I mean, it was impossible.” (That time crunch was even more intense considering Ayeroff and Lund had a pretty demanding day job. “I’m also running a record company at the same time,” Ayeroff says. “I’m trying to put out a Janet Jackson album and a Lenny Kravitz album and a Steve Winwood album and a Smashing Pumpkins record.”)

In addition, Rock the Vote’s early enthusiasm was confronted by the harsh reality of election laws. “We launched these efforts within the music community, and we got record stores enlisted — ‘Yeah, we’ll put up posters; we’ll put up voter-registration things in our stores,’” Lund recalls. “Tower Records was doing that especially throughout California. But once you go nationwide, [some] states had laws that prevented you from having voter-registration forms even in a record store. We discovered how difficult it is on a nationwide basis to do what we were trying to do. So we said, ‘Let’s back the Motor Voter Bill and put our efforts into it.’”

This is really where Steve Barr comes in. A political activist, onetime mayoral candidate and the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, a L.A. educational nonprofit, he was, like everyone I spoke to about Rock the Vote, engaged in politics because of his upbringing. “I grew up incredibly poor,” he tells me when we met up in early March before the pandemic took hold. “I got involved in presidential campaigns and local Democratic politics during the 1980s.” But he quickly became disillusioned with the Democratic Party. “You had to be subsidized and affluent and entitled — there’s probably a lot of that still. It’s not the best place in the world to make policy with people you don’t even mix with.” 

After working for the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988, he thought maybe he’d write a book about, as he called it, “that gulf between the Democratic Party and who they claim to serve.” After all, Dukakis had never even been his preferred candidate. (“I didn’t vote for him in the primary,” Barr tells me. “I voted for Jesse Jackson — I couldn’t stand the guy.”) But after Dukakis’ defeat at the hands of George H.W. Bush, he had a fortuitous chance encounter: “I ran into Jerry Brown in a restaurant in San Francisco.” Years earlier, he’d interned for Brown — it was Barr’s first job in politics, and he’d come away from it admiring his boss. “I always love people who challenge youth to do big things,” Barr says. “Jerry Brown did [that] in the early 1970s — he was one of those guys. He remembered me, and he was going to run for chair of the [California] Democratic Party. We had a great conversation, and he asked if I’d be able to start helping him. I said, ‘I want to spend a lot of time figuring out how to get an army of nonvoters [to vote].’” 

Barr had been inspired by a 1988 book, Why Americans Don’t Vote, written by two political science professors, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, who made a then-radical claim. “Their pitch was that the biggest reason why young people don’t vote isn’t because they’re not involved or not at all interested — it’s the voter-registration laws,” Barr says. “If you’re not registered to vote, you’re not going to vote. In fact, young people, the closer [we get to] the election, they’re the most likely to vote. But the voter-registration laws are different [for all 50] states.”

It was around this time that he, Lund and Ayeroff connected for Rock the Vote, with the focus turning to what is popularly known as the Motor Voter Bill. To simplify things, it was a proposed law that would streamline the process by which nonvoters could register to vote. The bill got its name because one of the provisions “require[d] states to provide individuals with the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for a driver’s license or seek to renew a driver’s license.” If Rock the Vote was serious about energizing young people to get to the polls, then it needed to get behind Motor Voter — and it needed to educate its core demographic about why the bill mattered.

It also required that Rock the Vote actually become a formal organization. “That didn’t really happen until 1991,” says Lund. “We hired an executive director, and we put some structure together.” Created as a nonpartisan nonprofit, Rock the Vote was still working with training wheels to a certain extent. “There wasn’t even a formal board of directors,” she says. “It was a group of people who [initially] came together, and then there was a core group of executives who said, ‘Yeah, we’re willing to fund this and fund the cost of putting productions together and making public service announcements.’ A lot of it was donated in the very beginning.” 

As with the Rock the Vote PSAs, where superstars helped sell the audience on voting, musicians were once again integral in putting the Motor Voter message across. Specifically, it was R.E.M., Madonna’s labelmate at Warner Bros., who got the ball rolling. In 1991, the Athens quartet were in the midst of transitioning from 1980s college-rock indie darlings to the bestselling group they would soon become. In March of that year, they would release their second major-label album, Out of Time, which would be their first No. 1 record and contained “Losing My Religion,” their biggest hit on the pop charts. But, of course, they were also a very politically outspoken band, with frontman Michael Stipe advocating for environmental issues and AIDS research. Out of Time would shoot them into the mainstream, giving R.E.M. their largest platform to that point. But before listeners got to hear Out of Time, they saw the group’s politics right there on the album’s packaging.

This was the age of the longbox, a clunky paper box that was used to store CDs in the format’s early days. It was a big, ungainly rectangle that, according to Ayeroff, everybody in the music business hated. “We thought it was embarrassing,” he tells me. “You know the reason why the longbox existed, don’t you? It was so people didn’t have to remodel record stores.” By selling small CDs inside a large paper box, shops could roughly replicate the height of bygone vinyl sleeves, and because labels wanted to make record stores happy, they complied. “It was just a waste of fucking paper, a waste of fucking money. They didn’t pay for it — we paid for it.” 

So why not do something meaningful with all that wasted paper? Ayeroff credits Jeff Gold, who was the creative director of Warner Bros. after Ayeroff left, with the brainstorm: “He came up with this idea to put on the back of a longbox a voter-registration postcard.” R.E.M. were only too happy to get on board, including a cutout postcard that you could mail in advising your senator that you wanted the Motor Voter Bill to pass.

The ‘Out of Time’ longbox

“You’d send it to us and we would deliver that [postcard], but we’d also log their names,” remembers Barr, who says his major contribution to the project was insisting that the mailing address not be a 90210 zipcode. “We’re not having Beverly Hills on our fucking thing,” he recalls thinking. “So we had to go get a P.O. box at a Mailbox Center up in Los Angeles, which was 10 blocks away.”

Out of Time came out Tuesday, March 12, 1991, and on that Friday, employees at the P.O. box called Barr. “They said, ‘Hey, are you going to come get these? I got about 25 bags of shit here that’s been sent to you.’ [I said], ‘Twenty-five bags, what do you mean?’ It was big duffle bags [of cutout postcards] — and by the time that I got there, it was 35. You just think, ‘Wow, there is something bigger going on here than we imagine.’ Soon, every artist started putting [that postcard] on their thing. If you were under 30 living in America, you knew what the Motor Voter Bill was. If you were over 30, you had no idea what they were talking about.”

Rock the Vote got the message out through a wide array of artists, but Barr was especially interested in having hip-hop acts speak out about Motor Voter. To this day, he remains extremely proud of encouraging members of an up-and-coming group called KMD to speak in front of Congress about the importance of passing the bill. The session happened in the spring of 1991, with Barr seated next to 19-year-old KMD member Zev Love X, who years later became much more famous as the revered underground rapper MF DOOM

“I thought, ‘We’re going to make it sexy — we’re going to make Motor Voter the act of our generation,’” Barr says of his optimistic mindset during that heady time. Then he adds, still dumbfounded, “I got [DOOM] to testify in the Senate to Mitch McConnell on the Motor Voter bill.”

But a cultural groundswell doesn’t automatically guarantee that legislative reform was imminent. According to Lund, “Everyone — the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, all the traditional voting groups, all these coalitions — were trying to do this, but Republicans didn’t want that to pass.” Indeed, Motor Voter was vetoed in the summer of 1992 by President Bush, who said in a statement that the bill risked exposing “the election process to an unacceptable risk of fraud and corruption without any reason to believe that it would increase electoral participation to any significant degree.” (The Senate ended up being five votes short of overturning his veto.)

But Rock the Vote was undeterred. And so was MTV, which early in 1992 began “Choose or Lose,” a series of on-air programs designed to get its audience informed about that November’s presidential election. Spearheaded by MTV News, “Choose or Lose” started covering the primaries, interviewing Democratic candidates like Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown. “We’ve eased into enough hard news that when we all of a sudden start doing the election, our audience isn’t going to flip out,” Dave Sirulnick, who was 27 and the head of the news operation, told The New York Times that February. “We covered the Gulf War, did demonstrations and stuff.” Traditional news outlets might have thought it was adorable, but McGrath made sure MTV’s coverage was taken seriously.

“I believed social issues, politics and culture were all part of music,” she said in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, later adding, “I had a lot of debates with people over [‘Choose or Lose’]. I thought we could have a voice in politics. Others believed that was a big mistake, that we weren’t equipped, and we’d be laughed out of town. I thought the adults in Washington needed to pay attention to our viewers, and they needed to do so on the viewers’ terms.”

Naturally, some candidates treated MTV like a joke. While the eventual Democratic nominee Bill Clinton savvily courted the Gen-X audience by appearing on the network several times, Bush said of his rival’s outreach to young voters, “I think in a campaign year, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. And I am not going to be out there kind of being a teeny-bopper at 68. I just can’t do it. … I just have a certain respect for the office that I don’t want to turn it into a call-in-show place.”

It was the sort of dismissive remark that galvanized the 18-to-24 audience that Rock the Vote was trying to get to the polls. And the organization did a terrific job of making sure that voting bloc understood that casting a ballot meant bringing about change, even though it never explicitly endorsed Clinton. After all, Rock the Vote was officially nonpartisan. (“That always bothered me,” Barr says. “The left is so weaselly about it. You can’t go, ‘We’re registering Democrats.’ You say, ‘Yeah, we’re focusing on people that are getting left behind.’”) 

Not that it mattered: Clinton deftly aligned his agenda with that of Rock to Vote, telling young audiences that, if elected president, he would sign Motor Voter into law. In a June town hall on MTV, he encouraged a disgruntled 19-year-old who asked him, “Why should younger people trust the system?” to not give up on the political process. “Unless we turn this country around,” Clinton responded, “you’re going to be part of the first generation of Americans to do worse than your parents.” Where Bush and third-party candidate Ross Perot were older and more out-of-touch with the problems of younger people, Clinton had the ability to connect.

“I wanted to sway the nature of how politics was,” Ayeroff said when I asked him if Rock the Vote ever considered during its early days backing a specific candidate. “If you’re active in politics and think about politics, you want to see it reflected in your own personality and thoughts. Would I have liked to see somebody my age running for president? Yes, I probably would have thought that.” Clinton and Ayeroff are about half a year apart, and the notion that the former Arkansas governor was the first Baby Boomer president — the first rock ‘n’ roll president — was no doubt appealing. “Rock the Vote started when I was 41, 42,” Ayeroff says. “It wasn’t the 60-year-old guys in the record business that started this. It was the 40-year-olds — I was the oldest guy. It was the 30-year-olds and the 25-year-olds. Then there Bill Clinton was all of a sudden. It could have been any number of people at that time, but Clinton was slightly hipper and more articulate than any of them.”

On November 3, 1992, Clinton thrashed Bush to win the presidency. Afterward, he pointed to Rock the Vote as one of the integral factors in his victory, and the data backed his argument. According to the U.S. Census, just under 43 percent of voters from 18 to 24 cast a ballot, the highest percentage for that demographic in a presidential election since the nearly 50 percent who voted in 1972, the first presidential election following the passage of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. (By comparison, in 1992, 58 percent of voters from 25 to 44 voted and 70 percent of voters aged 45 to 64 cast a ballot.) And Clinton proved true to his word: On May 20, 1993, the new president signed the Motor Voter bill into law, saying, “Voting is an empty promise unless people vote. Now, there is no longer the excuse of the difficulty of registration.”

“We were all at the White House for [the signing of the] Motor Voter bill,” Ayeroff says. “Judy McGrath, all of us. It was a Rock the Vote event at the White House.”

So… what happens next? 

Rock the Vote hadn’t gotten rid of Parental Advisory stickers, but it had mobilized a whole contingent of Americans that had previously been underestimated. But after Clinton’s election win and the signing of Motor Voter, those I talked to seemed ready to focus on other things. “After the 1992 election,” Lund says, “we got involved with some additional campaigns. We were continuing to work on voter reforms and looking at ways to continue registering young voters and getting them more involved in the political process. I was with the organization until about 1994, so that’s when it went off into different tangents.”

Barr had started to feel alienated from Rock the Vote’s message around the 1992 election. “I was getting embarrassed by the stuff,” he tells me. “The final straw for me was we did a Fox special [that fall], which had every A-List star to do Rock the Vote stuff. It was an hour-long special.” For Barr, the edginess and irreverence he’d loved in Madonna’s 1990 PSA was nowhere to be seen on the show. “I can’t think of anything that will turn off young people to vote more than Tom Cruise looking into the camera and giving a heartfelt, ‘This is why I vote.’ We had lost a lot of our edge and appeal.”

Rock the Vote continued, but youth turnout tumbled in subsequent presidential elections, from 43 percent in 1992 to 32 percent in 1996 and 2000. (Just how bad were those numbers? In the 1988 election, before Rock the Vote existed, 18-to-24 voting had been at 36 percent.) In February 1999, as the Clinton impeachment was winding down, the organization’s then-president, Seth Matlins, sounded disheartened. “How do you sell political participation at a time when the state of politics is just so repulsive?” he said in an L.A. Times interview, later adding, “All of [young voters’] hopes have seemingly been dashed. Clinton embodied what we were speaking about. … Now a lot of young people are disappointed.”

But George W. Bush’s contested 2000 electoral victory, and the aftermath of 9/11, certainly contributed to a larger 18- to-24-year-old turnout in 2004, with nearly 42 percent of that demographic voting. And Rock the Vote still knew how to get under the right people’s skin: In 2004, the group was criticized by Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, for orchestrating a campaign that suggested that the draft might be reinstated to maintain troop levels in our Middle East wars. (That September, Rock the Vote had sent out emails with mock draft cards that said, “You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report to a polling place near you.”) “This is the sort of malicious political deception that is likely to increase voter cynicism and in fact decrease the youth vote,” Gillespie wrote to Rock the Vote president Jehmu Greene, “as well as raising serious legal issues regarding the political motivations of your efforts.”

But although Rock the Vote kept generating headlines, it simply wasn’t like the early 1990s. Music was different, popular culture was different, MTV was no longer the youth antennae it used to be. As an indication that the zeitgeist had moved on — that Rock the Vote wasn’t the scrappy upstart it once was — the organization was part of a 2002 episode of The West Wing, “College Kids,” in which Aimee Mann and Barenaked Ladies perform at one of the group’s events. 

“Our mission to connect with youth and engage them in the political process will surely be helped by such prominent placement in America’s hottest and smartest political drama,” Greene said in a statement at the time promoting the episode. “We are honored to have the opportunity to work with a group of professionals who are as passionate about politics as they are about putting out quality programming that educates while it entertains.”

The partnership was shrewd from a marketing perspective, but it also felt corporate in a way Rock the Vote’s earlier efforts never did. It’s the challenge that the organization has faced for many years now: How do you keep Rock the Vote young and hip and relevant when youth culture is constantly evolving? 

Carolyn DeWitt, however, didn’t need The West Wing to become interested in politics. She had always been someone who was curious about the wider world, having been raised in a family that encouraged her to think about others. “I grew up in a small, conservative town [in Michigan] and had parents who very much believed in service to others and strengthening humanity,” the current president and executive director at Rock the Vote tells me. “I’m not very public about this, but my younger brother has autism. We’re just two years apart, so we went to school together and saw the system wasn’t built for him and that he didn’t really have a voice. My mom had to be his advocate a lot of the time to try and get resources for him. We were really taught to care for other people and to see the connection between all of us. Community was a big part of our family. My dad was a family physician in a small town — he had patients who paid in meat or in vegetables. There was just a dedication to helping and doing what you can.”

As a kid, DeWitt didn’t have cable — she went to friends’ houses to watch TV, and one particular pal had MTV on a lot. “I remember Rock the Vote from being at her place. I also had subscriptions to a few magazines that I remember Rock the Vote being in,” she tells me. And she also watched The West Wing. “It’s a funny trend,” she says, “but you find a lot of relatively young people in D.C. who got into this work being inspired by The West Wing. Whether or not they would have gotten here without it, I don’t know.” 

DeWitt remembers “College Kids.” “That episode didn’t necessarily strike me as, ‘That’s where I want to work,’” she tells me. “I’ve just always had interest in culture. The psychology [of] people’s values and how those are expressed has been a very real area of interest for me — and how culture can be used to express things, particularly in difficult times.” She saw that firsthand when, about six months after 9/11, she traveled to South Africa to “study the end of apartheid. It was my first time out of the country. I saw what it looked like to not have a democratic state and what it takes to build a democratic state. A few months later, I was in Kenya for a year. They were having elections and rewriting their constitution. I got involved in those.”  

Now in her late 30s, she had done different jobs before coming aboard at Rock the Vote in 2015. She was chief of staff for a political communications firm. For Chicago’s 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, she served as the deputy campaign manager and finance director. Returning to the States around the start of the 2004 presidential election, she felt energized to be part of the political process. “We take a lot for granted here about our democracy,” she says. “Democracy really is a process. It’s something that’s living. We need to constantly participate in it. It’s not just by voting. It’s by holding elected officials accountable. It’s by getting out there and talking to our peers and our neighbors and our family.”

But does Rock the Vote have the same cachet it once did? 

It’s a question I suspect DeWitt has to face a decent amount, especially from people like me who came of age during the organization’s early years — the folks who had the Out of Time longbox and remember watching that Madonna PSA. While working on this piece, I had two different friends ask me, “Wait, Rock the Vote is still around?” To which DeWitt would probably respond, That’s the point.

“There are cases where I’ll have a person who is older who says, ‘I don’t know what you guys are up to,’” she says, “and I’m like, ‘Well, you’re not our target. I’m sorry to tell you. If we’re doing a digital program, you’re not in that audience, I’m sorry.’”

I can attest to the fact that Rock the Vote has been busy this election year. Even since speaking with DeWitt in early May, I’ve received numerous press releases from the organization, including notices about Democracy Summer 2020, its June virtual concert that featured Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas. Just this week, the cast of House Party reunited for a virtual script reading to benefit Rock the Vote. And the organization partnered with Black Lives Matter to create a voter registration tool. Rock the Vote is still visible, but like an aging rock band that still has a sizable following, it’s not quite as cool as it once was.

“There are benefits and challenges to being a legacy brand,” says DeWitt. “The benefit is that we’ve been around for 30 years. We’ve done incredible work during that time and have really worked to earn and present ourselves as a trusted messenger to young people when it comes to building their power or providing them accurate and relevant information. Every generation is going to be different messengers, different messages, different visuals and different approaches.”

The new Rock the Vote logo

To that end, Rock the Vote doesn’t have quite the same logo now that it did at the beginning, although Gosfield’s “Censorship is UnAmerican” artwork is still prominently displayed on its website. Likewise, the modern organization doesn’t simply focus on musicians to spread its message. “In the 1990s you didn’t have the Internet — you had MTV,” she says. “You could get 90 percent brand recognition. You could also talk to basically all celebrity talent because MTV was critically important to their careers. Now you have a plethora of platforms and streamers — it’s just a much bigger landscape. Also, you have influencers that aren’t just your A-list celebrities who are walking the red carpet. You also have these huge audiences of social-media influencers. You have activists who, quite frankly, are huge influencers. The idea of who a celebrity is has really changed. Making sure that we’re adapting to that is particularly important.”

In 2006, the L.A. Times reported that the organization was approximately $700,000 in debt and had “cut its staff from more than 20 people in 2004 to just two today.” (Fred Goldring, who was chairman of the Rock the Vote board then, said, “We’re like the popular kid who never gets asked out because everyone thinks he already has a date. Everyone thinks this group is rich because of our enormous visibility.”) By all accounts, Rock the Vote is better now, but there are still obstacles, especially in a pandemic year.

“We’re on solid footing,” DeWitt responds when I asked in May about how they’re doing financially. “This year is our 30th anniversary. We were really hoping to have some sort of big, in-person celebration around the 30th anniversary.” But the problem that Goldring mentioned in 2006 is, in some ways, still an issue in 2020. “We’re a huge brand, and there’s a lot of brand recognition,” she says. (Although she does have to contend with some brand confusion: “People think we are MTV, that we’re actually housed within MTV.”) But because Rock the Vote has been around awhile, outsiders assume “that our budget and our staff is as large as some of the other really well-known brands in the civic-engagement and civil-rights space, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a lean budget. It’s a lean team. We make a huge impact with, I would say, very limited resources.” 

One thing that hasn’t changed for Rock the Vote between 1990 and now, however: The difficulty young people have voting when laws try to disenfranchise them. “In 2018, we saw young people break turnout records,” she says. “As a result, we saw an increase in bills and in policies to try and make it harder for young people to vote — increased proof of residency, ID requirements. We even saw locations trying to remove and ban polling locations from college campuses. There are a number of measures, whether they’re laws or policies, that impact young peoples’ right to vote that we’re constantly monitoring, constantly trying to organize around.”

Rock the Vote still doesn’t advocate for a presidential candidate, even though everybody continues to assume it’s a left-leaning operation. “One of the things that we’ve certainly seen over the last several years is that young people — particularly this generation, Gen-Z, even more than younger millennials — are less likely to identify with a political party, either one,” DeWitt says. “They’re more likely to identify as liberal or progressive. This is a very progressive generation — their liberal and progressive values are very different than older [generations’]. They don’t fit into this binary, black-and-white category. They often will be traditionally progressive on some issues, but then not on other issues. Since they’re not identifying more with either party, we really see our mission as empowering them. That probably means, quite frankly, looking at our political system and reimagining it.”

It’s the same dream, in a different form, that the men and women who first launched Rock the Vote had 30 years ago. “I’m 73 years old, and Rock the Vote still exists and does well and still registers more kids than anybody else,” Ayeroff says. “Kids still don’t vote, but youth voting is a part of a dialogue, and it does make the difference.”

The man who thought up Rock the Vote in the shower isn’t involved much in the organization anymore, although he’s still on the board of directors. “I think I’m the most left person left on the board,” he says, laughing. “I’m like the old man on the lawn, screaming about things. I really couldn’t identify many of the people on the board. I haven’t met most of them. It’s a whole new world.” 

Ayeroff prefers it that way. Better that a new generation take up the mantle of what Rock the Vote represents. “I’m not Norman Lear,” he says. “I’m not going to keep standing up. I mean, Norman is great, but he ran People for the American Way. That was an adult organization. Rock the Vote is a youth organization.”

Maybe Ayeroff didn’t get the full measure of revenge he was seeking from those who wanted to censor the arts. But the anger he felt back in 1990 still fuels Rock the Vote’s mission. “I want kids to vote,” he tells me. “Because kids voting would change the nature of politics writ large in the country. It’s not a sophisticated idea. It’s an unsophisticated idea with sophisticated results.”