(Originally Published in the Library of Congress Blog Now See Hear!)
Researched and written by Kristi Moore
Eighteen years before, MTV’s “Rock the Vote” targeted potential young Americans in their campaign to increase political involvement, the record industry took the initiative to help register young voters, using the famous names and faces that appealed to the youth population.
On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment became part of the United States Constitution, granting voting rights to people eighteen and older. This allowed a new demographic to participate in both the primaries and the presidential election of 1972, one directly affected by the ongoing war in Vietnam. Youth were protesting the Vietnam War and the draft, and with the impending election, tensions were high. The anti-war movement was widespread among youth, and was reflected through art, music, and frequent protest marches and demonstrations. The presidential candidates were South Dakota Senator George McGovern (D) and incumbent President Richard Nixon (R). Many younger voters were attracted to McGovern’s anti-war stance.
In March 1972, Billboard Magazine ran a special article concerning young voters, providing information to record labels, disc jockeys and politically-interested musicians with ideas and information on how to connect with this audience of young voters with strong political ideas. In an effort to register the significant numbers of newly-eligible Americans, record companies and musicians encouraged the population to exercise their new rights. Some voiced support for a particular candidate, while others remained more neutral, choosing to simply encourage voters to register. The record labels who were the most demonstrative about their encouragement in printed ads were Ampex, Apple, A&M, United Artists Records, and Polydor, with clients such as Joan Baez, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ELO and James Brown.
The Beach Boys were one of the most politically active music groups, registering approximately 80,000 young voters by March 1972. They were so passionate about the vote that their contract demanded the right to set up registrations at their concerts. The music group Chicago also held voter registration events at their concerts, and printed state-by-state voting guidelines inside the jacket of their best-selling Carnegie Hall Live album. The music industry supported voter registration events in a variety of ways, including contests and prizes, competitions, radio public service announcements, free records, print advertising, and concert refunds.
Actor Warren Beatty organized fundraising concerts and voter registration events, tailoring McGovern’s appeal to the younger population. Performers such as Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Ike & Tina Turner and The Grateful Dead agreed to play for the concerts. Defunct groups reunited for concerts, including Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, and comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Altogether, the benefit concerts raised nearly $1.5m for McGovern.
The Boston Globe wrote “Among other things, the 1972 presidential campaign may go down in history as the country’s most star-studded of all time.” Despite the efforts of the music and film industry, only approximately 36% of people aged 18-21 registered and voted that year, and Nixon won the election by a landslide.
Billboard Magazine (1972). “Youth Voter Registration Report.” 11 March 1972.
Cobb, Nathan (1972). “Mary Travers: she’s vocal for McGovern.” The Boston Globe. May 28 1972.
Hay, R. Couri (2015). “New again: Warren Beatty.” Interview Magazine. June, 1972.
Italie, Hillel (2012). “McGovern’s anti-war candidacy was a cultural landmark.” Associated Press. 22 October 2012.
Ortega, Tony (1972). “Warren Beatty sexes up George McGovern.” Village Voice. 27 April 1972.
Roberts, Steven (1972). “Film and music stars raise $300,000 at a McGovern concert.” The New York Times. 17 April 1972.