July 28, 2014

How R.E.M. Registered Millions of Voters


R.E.M.'s seminal 1991 album Out of Time led to an explosion in young people registering to vote, as Slate writers Whitney Jones and Roman Mars explained Friday.

"[N]o album has had as large an effect on politics in the United States as R.E.M.'s Out of Time," they wrote.

For all you youngs out there, once upon a time, people listened to music on little shiny discs called CDs that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, came in rectangular cardboard packaging called longboxes.

Before that, people listened to music on bigger black discs called records or LPs that came in square covers.

Record companies used longboxes because they were as long as an LP case but half as wide, so two of them could fit into an LP rack side-by-side. It was great for marketing, but environmentally conscious artists like Michael Stipe hated the waste and wanted their CDs sold in their plastic jewel cases.

At the same time, censorship efforts led record company executives and musicians to launch Rock the Vote, a campaign to get young people to register to vote that featured Stipe. And Congress was considering the Motor Voter bill, which would let people register at the DMV when they got driver's licenses.

A Warner Bros. executive convinced R.E.M. to package Out of Time in a longbox. In exchange, the package included a petition supporting Motor Voter that fans could mail to their senator. (This was, like, way before or even the Internet.)

The bill passed, but President George H.W. Bush vetoed it. Bill Clinton made it a campaign issue and signed the bill after beating Bush in 1992. Since then, more than 150 million people have registered to vote at DMVs, boosting the percentage of registered voters from 70 percent to 80 percent.

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