Justin Sullivan / Getty Images – Rob Quist
GLADHANDING: Rob Quist of the Mission Mountain Wood Band connects with his base at a campaign rally with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in Missoula, Mont., May 20, 2017. Quist ran for Congress in a special election for the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke who now heads the Dept. of the Interior, but lost to Republican Greg Gianforte by 20,000 votes.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the political climate in the U.S. is, shall we say, mercurial. Many would argue that American politics have long been something of a circus, but since the divisive campaign leading to the election of Donald Trump as president, many feel the discourse has become more acutely polarized.
Consequently, figures from different walks of life are throwing their hats into the arena of public service, including several from the music industry who say their experience working in the business helped inform their candidacies.
“It’s been similar to launching an album campaign,” said Kyle Frenette of Middle West Management whose clients include Bon Iver. He recently announced he is running for Congress to represent Wisconsin’s 7th District. “There’s been a lot of overlap. I keep saying that I have about 75-80 percent of the skill set needed to run a political campaign, though I’m sure [elected office] will be a new set of skills in and of itself.”
Frenette is hardly the first music industry figure to enter politics. John Hall of the band Orleans served in the U.S. House of Representatives (D-NY) from 2007-11 and Sonny Bono was the mayor of Palm Springs before serving in the House for four years (R-Calif., 1995-1998) until his accidental death.
While not novel, there has been a recent string of runs (and potential/faux runs) in rapid succession that may indicate a trend of individuals from the music industry entering politics. In the last 10 years we have seen Krist Novoselic, formerly of Nirvana; Wyclef Jean (in Haiti); Jon Fishman of Phish; and “American Idol” singer Clay Aiken all run for political office.
Ironically, Frenette says the hardest part is the “performance” aspect of politics, being the man on the stage and in front of the camera, though he started in the industry as a guitar player in a young band.
He certainly has helped transform Eau Claire, Wis., as Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon’s festival takes place in and shares a name with the town. The event has had a big effect over the past three years, at the heart of what VisitEauClaire.com calls a “city renaissance” which has meant new hotels, restaurants and living spaces. The festival had an economic impact of $6.8 million in 2015 and 2017, according to the site.
Rosie Lais – Kyle Frenette
KYLE FRENETTE SPEAKS to a crowd at a Democratic Candidate Forum in Park Falls, Wis., March 10.
The festival showed Vernon and Frenette’s concern for Wisconsinites, and his platform reflects a similar sentiment, focusing on healthcare (“[So] you can go outside in Wisconsin and not have to worry about slipping on the ice and falling into financial ruin,”) raising the minimum wage to a living wage (“The more money we spend in an economy is more money to earn,”) bridging the rural-urban divide (“In Northwestern Wisconsin, the brain drain is quite real,”) education (“Investing in our public school systems so that we stop privatizing learning”) and the environment (“None of this would be possible without our environment”).
Frenette is running as a Democrat, as did Rob Quist, who ran in a special election in Montana last June to fill a seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, who was appointed as Trump’s Secretary of the Interior. Quist, a musician whose songs have been recorded by artists including Michael Martin Murphey and Loretta Lynn, came within about 20,000 votes of winning the Treasure State election.
Quist said his experience in the music business trained him well for his foray in politics and believes the nation’s political bodies could use more people with backgrounds in the arts.
“People were making these denigrating statements that I was a musician, a guitar player, a banjo player. But to me, what a tough training ground for anybody in life. The music business is one of the toughest businesses in the world to make it in.
“It takes a lot of commitment, you basically have to run your own show and manage yourself,” Quist said. “You have the ability to stand up in front of thousands of people and be comfortable, baring your soul and talking about things that are important to you. And you have to learn how to wear several hats. You have to learn about promotion.”
Quist says he was gaining in the election and, with more time and less “voter suppression,” could have won.
“Why I got into this in the first place, after the last election, many of my friends wanted to disconnect and curl up into a ball. But I thought now is the time we need to stand up for what we believe in,” Quist said. “It all came down to a quote from Ernest Hemingway: ‘Our lives are measured by the magnitude of the challenges we accept.’”
Certainly, Quist’s career has been one of a road warrior, having once spent an entire year on tour with the Mission Mountain Wood Band.
While not all musicians identify as liberal or democrats, Quist said he feels the industry certainly tilted him in that direction, as did his education at the University of Montana in Missoula, though he came from a Republican household and his siblings remain of that affiliation.
“Most people said: ‘If you ran as a Republican, you would have won,’” he said. “I think we (Republicans and Democrats) agree on 80 percent of the issues. It was really the polarizing language of both parties that was getting us all to focus on the hot button issues, to polarize, to divide and conquer.”
His signature issue was public lands, his concern being that private entities were making moves to gain ownership over public land in Montana, and he is preparing to launch a foundation to continue to advocate for that and other issues.
“Many times I spoke with Republican groups, and I talked about that very thing, how we agree on so many of the issues. … Their point was, ‘We felt like we weren’t given good candidates to vote for in this last presidential election.’”
That not all political figures from the music industry are Democrats was demonstrated by the faux run of Kid Rock for a Senate seat in Michigan.
Rock teased a possible run against Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow in July of last year, and though it all seemed to be a merch-selling PR stunt, Stabenow told supporters in an email that if he ran, Rock “might actually win the Republican primary,” according to The Hill.
Rock explained his run was one big troll on the Howard Stern show, stating “F— no, I’m not running for Senate. … Are you f—ing kidding me?”
He described how once he heard the rumors, he saw that he got a huge reaction from the public. Eventually, he said, he was called a “Klan wizard” “homophobic” and “Islamophobic.”
He referred to the decision as, “The worst advice I ever gave myself. But it’s been the most creative thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve gotten to see everyone’s true colors.”
After all that, he has left the door to a possible, real run open if the “Left wing keeps f—ing” with him.
And, of course, what some would consider the most ridiculous political proposition is perhaps, in this day and age, ever more plausible. At the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, after admitting he had “rolled up a little something” to “knock the edge off” before his speech, Kanye West announced he would run for president in 2020.
If West’s candidacy doesn’t materialize he wouldn’t be the only rapper to have ruled against a run for office.
Waka Flocka Flame and 2 Chainz mentioned they would like to serve as president of the U.S., and mayor of College Park, Ga., respectively, but eventually backed out.
Kanye said he doesn’t intend to compete with Donald Trump and will postpone his run to 2024, but few can predict the artist’s next move.
Quist said more music industry folk would be good for politics.
“I would love to see people who have a poetic soul in Congress to balance out these lawyers and other types,” he said. “I think it would be healthy to have a good balance.”