there is a lot of history between 1990 and 2020. a lot. when the rock the vote campaign kicked off in the fall of 1990, mtv was still a channel that played music videos. not only did mtv actually play music videos but they played them all day and night.
george h.w. bush was half-way into his second year of his presidency, the AIDS epidemic was raging and the war on drugs continued its assault on black and brown poor people. music censorship was a looming threat AND donald trump was on the cover of playboy magazine. yeah, we were living in complete hell in 1990.
in an effort to address abysmal voter turn out, the voter mobilization organization “rock the vote” was founded in 1990 and partnered with mtv to produce a series of cool – and quirky – PSAs designed to inspire gen x young people ages 18-24 to vote
the “rock the vote” campaign featured an eclectic roster of musicians including lenny kravitz, red hot chilli peppers, ozzy ozborne and the queer as fuck dance/pop group deee-lite.
the most memorable and controversial of the “rock the vote” PSAs featured madonna, who at the time was arguably the world’s biggest pop star, dancing with two gay latino men, josé and luis xtravaganza, as they sang “get up & vote” to the tune of her mega-hit “vogue.” what pissed conservatives off the most was that madonna did all of this while wearing bathing suit and draped in the american flag.
this madonna rock the vote PSA featuring dancers and ballroom icons josé and luis xtravaganza was the first of many that were in heavy rotation at mtv. of course, the PSA was considered controversial as the queen of pop was featured dancing with two latinx fed gay men while wearing a bathing suit while draped in the american flag. as a young boy, i loved it. i wasn’t yet able to vote in 1990 but it did i was left with the impression that my vote did count.
also, can we talk about the groovy and dope ass rock the vote PSA featuring new york-based dance group deee-lite? after scoring a world wide hit with their 1990 funk-psychedelic track, “groove is the art,” deee-lite leveraged their break-out success to amplify environmental justice and voting rights. their 1992 rock the vote PSA was their second and features lead singer lady miss kier giving us 60’s futuristic glam as she dances to “vote, baby, vote,” a song that was featured on the group’s sophomore album.
as a young boy, i loved the quirkiness of both the madonna and deee-lite PSAs. they presented the act of voting as “cool” and connected political issues to what mattered to me as a teenager. i wasn’t yet able to vote in 1990 but the campaign inspired me to pay closer attention to both local and national elections.
30 years later, “rock the vote” continues its effort to draw young people to the polls through community-based efforts. my prayer is that the quirky, wild and outrageous m “rock the vote” PSAs return.
in the meantime, rock the vote still exists and continues to mobilize people. for information about voter registration and other resources head over to rockthevote.com.