Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.
This week's edition—about the most politically significant album in U.S. history—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.
R.E.M.’s Out of Time is the most politically significant album in the history of the United States—because of its packaging.
In 1985, the pop charts were full of Prince and Sheena Easton, and the youth of America were being corrupted. Tipper Gore and other elite women of Washington formed the Parents Music Resource Center to put pressure on the creators and distributors of “objectionable” music.
There were Senate hearings, and eventually those little black-and-white Parental Advisory stickers started appearing on albums.
This set off a wave of censorship across the country.
In 1990, a federal district judge in South Florida ruled that the rap group 2 Live Crew’s album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was so obscene that it couldn’t be sold or performed within his jurisdiction. Three days after the ruling, 2 Live Crew played a show in a county within his jurisdiction, and afterward two members of the group were arrested.
When Jeff Ayeroff, an executive at Virgin Records, watched this all play out on TV, he felt offended. Not by the raunchy lyrics or the twerking onstage, but by the arrests and the blatant censorship of the artists’ work. Shortly thereafter, he got the idea for Rock the Vote.
The idea behind Rock the Vote was simple: Get young people to vote for politicians who wouldn’t censor music. Ayeroff got about 60 people together in a Los Angeles hotel to talk about launching Rock the Vote. Frank Zappa and past and current California Gov. Jerry Brown were there, as well as a bunch of record executives, including Ayeroff’s friend, a record executive at Warner Bros. named Jeff Gold. Gold’s major project at the time was trying to figure out how to package CDs.
CD packaging was the hot topic in the record world of the late '80s and early '90s. Although CDs had been around for a few years, record stores still didn’t have a good way to display them, because their shelves were formatted to display 12-inch vinyl LPs. The solution was to package CD jewel cases inside of cardboard boxes that were just as tall as a vinyl album but half as wide. This allowed the shelves to fit two “longbox” CDs side-by-side on an LP rack.
Artists, however, objected to the wastefulness of the longbox. In 1991, R.E.M. had a record coming out, and the band did not want millions of trees cut down just to create this extra packaging. The Warner Bros. sales department knew that this album absolutely had to come out in a longbox if it was going to do well in retail, and that’s when Gold realized that he could merge the two projects he was working on: He could persuade R.E.M. to use a longbox if they could use the CD longbox to advance the Rock the Vote campaign.
Gold needed a concrete political cause to connect it to, and Ayeroff brought him just the thing: the Motor Voter bill, which been bouncing around Congress since the '70s. If passed, Motor Voter would allow people to register to vote at the DMV when they got a driver’s license. It also allowed citizens to register by mail or when they applied for social services like welfare or unemployment. Basically, the Motor Voter bill would make it easier for lots of people, including young people, to register to vote. By 1991 a few states had already adopted it, but Congress had never been able to get it passed nationally.
R.E.M.’s longbox, printed with a petition in support of the Motor Voter bill, became a piece of political machinery. When Out of Time hit record stores on March 12, 1991, the petitions started rolling in. After three weeks, they had received 10,000 petitions, 100 per senator, and they just kept coming in in droves.
About a month after R.E.M. released the album, Rock the Vote’s political director, along with members of the hip-hop group KMD, wheeled a shopping cart full of the first 10,000 petitions into a Senate hearing.
In May 1992, after thousands of petitions and the Senate testimony, the Motor Voter bill passed Congress. Then President George H.W. Bush, in the middle of his re-election campaign, vetoed it. Bush’s opponent, Bill Clinton, took up Motor Voter as a talking point, and after he won, he signed it into law as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
The National Voter Registration Act went into effect in 1995. From that year to 2012, the percentage of the population that is registered to vote increased from 69.5 percent to 79.9 percent, and more than 150 million voter registrations have been filled out at DMVs.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is why no album in the history of recorded music has had as large an effect on politics in the United States as R.E.M’s Out of Time.
99% Invisible is distributed by PRX.