How Rock the Vote Survived the '90s and Grew Up

These days, the 24-year-old youth-engagement organization is capitalizing on a changed media landscape"“and Lil Jon"“to send its message.

Twenty-four years ago, Madonna swathed her lingerie-clad body in an American flag and rapped to viewers, "If you don't vote, you're gonna get a spanking."

Despite the admonition in the 60-second PSA, or perhaps fueled by it, just 26 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds voted in 1990. Things haven't changed much since: In the last midterm elections, in 2010, that rate was only 24 percent, compared with 41 percent of all eligible voters.

Rock the Vote, the youth-engagement organization behind the controversial Madonna ad, has been working to alert young people about elections and get them excited about voting ever since. Striking just the right note of sincerity and cultural relevance without pandering to young voters is tricky"“see the College Republicans' wedding dress-themed videos for GOP gubernatorial candidates, "Say Yes to the Candidate," for the most recent tone-deaf example, though there are many more.

In its latest election-awareness gambit, Rock the Vote kept with the rap theme that's worked for more than two decades. Released Tuesday on YouTube, its music video features rapper Lil Jon at a polling place crowded with hipster celebrities all dancing to "Turn Out for What""“a play on the rapper's recent anthem "Turn Down for What." The get-out-the-vote remix has all the trappings of a pop-culture smash: Fred Armisen doing awkward dance moves, a nod to weed legalization, even a pants-less Lena Dunham.

Rock the Vote's team tends to skew millennial, which helps the group avoid schmaltz or downright pandering in its ad campaigns. That includes 30-year-old President Ashley Spillane, who told National Journal that her coworkers' diversity within their generation makes it easier to tap into pop-culture trends.

Their celebrity connections can't hurt, either. Audrey Gelman, Rock the Vote's national spokeswoman, happens to be friends with Girls creator and star Lena Dunham, and occasionally guest stars on the HBO hit. Though it doesn't take a lot of cajoling for the media-friendly Dunham to take off her pants on camera, a staff with famous friends makes a difference.

Pop-culture spin-offs are more authentic when they're a creative collaboration with the artist rather than a brazen appropriation, Spillane said. In the group's latest video, Lil Jon himself sings the rewritten chorus and stands fully behind the get-out-the-vote message (and in a revelation that's shocking to exactly no one, tells the camera he's turning out for marijuana legalization).

"It was a bunch of really great, respected people coming together simply for the fact that they wanted to help promote voting," Spillane told National Journal. "And to say, 'We all have different issues that we care about. And you don't have to care about the same things I care about, but if you want to have your voice heard on the issues you do care about, you have to vote.' "

Lack of awareness among young people about the midterm elections is a big hurdle for the organization. So much priority gets placed on presidential elections, Spillane said, that attention wanes in the interim years. To combat that, Rock the Vote goes to where the young people are. In the 1990s and 2000s, that meant bringing the get-out-the-vote message to their living rooms through Madonna, Iggy Pop, and Ozzy Osbourne on MTV. While television and celebrities are still part of the equation, they now rely more heavily on social media, and content that can easily be shared on those platforms, such as the Lil Jon video.

Over the 24 years since the Madonna PSA, Rock the Vote's national debut, the organization's has had hits and misses. It spearheaded passage of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, a law that allows people to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver's license. And in the past 10 years, it has pushed for online voter registration, offering a simple form for people to fill out on its website.

But then there was 2004's Vote or Die campaign, which spotlighted Paris Hilton putting "That's Hot" on hiatus in favor of the get-out-the-vote message. Despite her involvement in the campaign, it turned out the wayward heiress wasn't even registered.

That election was also a letdown in young voter turnout: 18-to 29-year-olds made up the same percentage of the overall vote as they had four years earlier. Young voters targeted specifically by Rock the Vote ads, though, had a 2.7 percent higher turnout.

Along with voter registration, Spillane said, turnout is a crucial measurement of Rock the Vote's efforts, a straightforward analysis of whether its work is succeeding. Beyond that, though, it's difficult to calculate whether young people "care like crazy""“the organization's midterm ad campaign"“enough that the message sticks with them past November. Yes, this election matters, but so does the next one, and the one after that.

"If you want to have your voice heard on anything in this country, you have to show up to vote," Spillane told National Journal. "It's not enough to share an article on Facebook. It's not enough to complain about the way things are. If you're not happy with the way things are, or, if you want to keep things the way they are, you have to show up. And if you don't show up and participate, someone else will speak for you."