Pierced and tattooed rockers are in for a mosh-pit civics lesson this year. Nearly 200 bands are lining up to lambast President Bush and try to register a half-million voters through the Punk Voter coalition.
These bands say they can harness votes from the average liberal-leaning but disenfranchised punk-rock fan with a combination of politically charged lyrics and constant reminders about civic duty in a time of war.
"If you don't find yourself in the voting booth you may find yourself in combat boots in the desert," said Justin Sane, guitarist and singer for Anti-Flag, one of Punk Voter's most vocal members.
The bands are drumming their message home by inviting liberal groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America to their concerts. A Web site offers election news and commentaries from former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, Jay Bentley from Bad Religion and Jim Lindberg from Pennywise.
Punk Voter's roots stretch to the 2000 elections, when NOFX bass player Fat Mike suffered from insomnia after the Florida recount, where Mr. Bush defeated Al Gore by just 537 votes to win the presidency. He began calling colleagues in the music industry and soon launched a group with the dual purpose of motivating punk fans and unseating Bush in 2004.
"I've probably sold 50,000 records in Florida. If 500 of the fans had voted in 2000, it could have been a different election," Fat Mike said.
Since then, NOFX has released a number of songs criticizing the administration. Its 2003 "The War on Errorism" album came with a computer video for "The Idiot Son of An ...," a song consisting of one-line jabs at the president. Fat Mike also started getting involved with local politics, hosting a benefit concert last fall for San Francisco Green Party mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez.
"I just want to make sure that if you are a fan of my band, then you are going to know my politics," Fat Mike said. This spring, he plans to release a Punk Voter compilation album of songs from 27 bands and will support it with a tour of colleges.
But Fat Mike's approach rankles some fans. Nick Rizzuto, a 22-year-old publicist for a New York radio station, has been a punk fan for a decade and a conservative since the 2000 elections. His Web site offers an alternative on the right, featuring commentaries from punk stars, like former Misfits singer Michale Graves, and its own take on the upcoming elections.
"I always thought that conservatives were underrepresented," Rizzuto said, "not only in punk circles, but in music in general."
Rizzuto said he has received dozens of supportive e-mails from other punk fans who have felt out of place at concerts and in conversations with friends.
"For the most part, they remain silent because they know they're so outnumbered," he said. "It doesn't really pay to voice any dissent in a crowd of a thousand people or more."
But conservative or liberal, celebrity-driven voter registration campaigns may not sway an election.
"By and large people don't vote because a celebrity tells you to vote," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
In spite of MTV's Rock the Vote campaign and other initiatives, only 29 percent of the 8.4 million people aged 18 to 24 cast a ballot for president in 2000. Turnout has been in decline since 43 percent of young people voted in 1972.
Gans said the upcoming election likely will see high turnouts because of strong responses to Bush's presidency driving groups on both sides. Those forces also could propel Punk Voter because of its anti-Bush stance, he said.
Sane, who has written activism-oriented songs for more than a decade, said Punk Voter's lasting benefits could appear years from now.
"When I was younger I wanted things to change right now, overnight, and if they didn't I felt very disaffected and didn't feel that my voice was being heard at all," he said. "We do need to take one step at a time. Those steps very quickly can lead to something much bigger and better."