Every four years millions of Americans find themselves glued to their TVs for nights on end as part of a quadrennial summer ritual – not the Summer Olympics, but the country’s political conventions.
Although the coronavirus pandemic altered the mechanics of the 2020 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, necessitating remote tapings and audience-free speeches, core aspects of patriotic agitprop and soaring political rhetoric remained. And, for one of the conventions, music again played a starring role.
While the RNC focused on politics, entertainers guided the DNC, with celebrity hosts Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington and Julia Louis-Dreyfus introducing a notably diverse roster of performers. Billie Eilish and Maggie Rogers made appeals to young voters. Prince Royce courted the Latino vote with a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” and Jennifer Hudson performed another classic, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” John Legend and Common honored late Civil Rights leader John Lewis with “Glory,” their Oscar-winning contribution to the 2014 film Selma, and Leon Bridges addressed the Black Lives Matter movement with his new song “Sweeter.” Meanwhile, Stephen Stills and Billy Porter revived the ‘60s countercultural spirit with a rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” and The Chicks, long country music’s conscience, delivered a stirring, spine-tingling a cappella version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“We wanted to make sure that our convention reflected what America looks like, and that includes a lot of different artists from different ethnicities who are diverse, who bring different stories, different experiences to the table,” says Adrienne Elrod, director of surrogate strategy and operations for the Biden campaign. “We worked really hard at it, to make sure we did have an array of artists that truly reflected America.”
Mick Management’s Jonathan Eshak, who represents Bridges and Rogers, says Elrod reached out to him and CAA’s Rob Light, whose agency works with Bridges, Rogers, Stills, Porter, Hudson and The Chicks, ahead of the convention to coordinate performances at the DNC.
“We wanted to get a sense of how they were planning to program the nights, what they were going to do in terms of setting the tone over the course of the four days of the convention,” Eshak says.
Conversations about the performances began when a hybrid convention – part virtual, part in-person – seemed possible, but evolved when it became evident the event would go fully remote.
“When that happened, we started working with the DNC and their team on how we could create a performance that would work for their needs and work for television,” Eshak says.
“We weren’t just asking people to play any song,” Elrod says. “We worked with them to make sure that the material was right for the moment.”
According to Elrod, convention organizers approached “artists that have been socially active, whether it’s fighting for social justice, whether it’s fighting for racial equality, whether it’s speaking out against some of the injustices that have happened during the Trump Administration,” and by those standards, Eshak’s clients gave two of the event’s most emblematic performances.
Shortly after George Floyd’s death and the nationwide protests it ignited, Bridges released “Sweeter,” and Eshak says that once the musician learned the DNC platform would address Black Lives Matter, the decision to play the tune naturally followed.
“He felt like it was an appropriate way for him to address the cause,” says Eshak, detailing Bridges’ performance of the song from atop a downtown Los Angeles rooftop, flanked by collaborators including Terrace Martin and Joshua Crumbly.
DNCC / Getty Images – Caught Up In A (Blue) Wave?
After an introduction by Maine Senate candidate Sara Gideon, Maggie Rogers performs remotely on the state’s coast for the Democratic National Convention.
Rogers’ spot was even more picturesque – waves crashed behind her as she sang on the Maine coast – and more political, introduced by Sara Gideon, the Pine Tree State politician challenging Senator Susan Collins for her seat this November.
Both tapings were executed with an attention to safety, Eshak says, using skeleton crews that each included a COVID specialist to verify public health guidelines were followed.
On the East Coast’s opposite end in Miami, Latin pop artist Prince Royce’s bachata version of “Stand By Me” was filmed in similar fashion, with a limited crew consisting of only three people, according to manager Gaby Herrera.
“The challenge was to get everyone in one place and figure out how to shoot,” she says. “The initial plan was to have our full band for the performance, but they had just been in town for a virtual show we had done with a brand, flew back to New York and had to be quarantined due to the pandemic, so we ended up shooting with just the artist.”
Partisan messages aside, many applauded the DNC’s performances.
“These are world-class artists,” says Emily White, co-founder of nonpartisan voter turnout organization #iVoted. “They know what they’re doing, but they really stepped it up, and it was clearly important for them. They didn’t mind putting their beliefs out there.”
The wide-ranging spread of artists also indicated party unity following a contentious primary that split liberal musicians just as it split liberal voters.
“It was really hard for a lot of artists to wrap their heads around the fact that this wasn’t going to be a more liberal-leaning candidate,” says Christopher Moon, co-founder of partisan liberal organization 46 for 46, which has rebranded as Pledge 46 during the pandemic. “The fact that there was a fairly strong showing of somewhat diverse and relevant artists was encouraging to me.”
The participation of so many artists at this juncture was also noteworthy.
“It was good that they got these names to do it as far in advance as the convention,” says Nick Stern, who manages artists such as Phosphorescent and Saint Motel as head of Stern Management and has worked in a volunteer capacity on the entertainment committees for the Democratic presidential nominees in 2016 and 2020. “It was diverse, it was young. It was in the audience they needed to hit. Artists like Billie Eilish are the ones that we need to get – the ones who really do speak to younger voters and who are of superstar level.”
Most DNC performers simply played their songs, but Eilish – arguably the convention’s most relevant performer, and undeniably its most influential with young voters – was allotted a spoken introduction, where she emphatically condemned President Donald Trump and endorsed Joe Biden. Outside of buzzy speeches by political leaders, Eilish’s spellbinding rendition of new single “My Future” from the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, outside of Los Angeles, was the convention’s biggest draw.
“It’s the younger artists who are going to reach the younger fans and the first-time voters,” says Andy Bernstein, executive director of nonpartisan voter engagement organization HeadCount. “From a cultural standpoint and creating cultural movements, it’s young people who always drive it.”
But “the turnout numbers amongst young people are just awful,” White bluntly notes, which is why so many organizations prioritize collaborating with younger artists.
Eilish was among the many artists who had partnerships planned with HeadCount for 2020 tours before the pandemic interfered, and Bernstein says that when working with younger performers, “we can see instantly that the number of voters we register is significantly higher than if we’re working with an older artist.” Logically, partisan groups have also honed in on the political power of young voters and the corresponding ability of young artists to inspire political action.
This DNC’s musical programming entrenched progress for an event that has a checkered musical history. In 1968, Peter, Paul and Mary performed in protest across the street from Chicago’s Conrad Hilton hotel, where Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey was lodging. Decades later, Rage Against The Machine sparked conflict with an incendiary concert outside of Los Angeles’ Staples Center in 2000, as then-President Bill Clinton addressed the convention inside. Considering the divisions that plagued Democrats this cycle, protest concerts in a similar spirit may have materialized outside Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum, had the convention been held there as originally planned. But undoubtedly, Democrats have consolidated and bolstered their ties to musicians of all stripes.
“At least speaking for us, we just can’t imagine a convention without the music,” Elrod says. “I guess that’s what you’re seeing this week with the Republicans.”
Even in a convention packed with GOP officials, the RNC’s lack of musical performances – and entertainers generally – was the elephant in the room. Musicians traditionally aligned with the party didn’t appear, including President Trump’s highest-profile musical supporter, Kanye West, perhaps missing due to his headline-grabbing third-party bid for the White House. As recently as 2012, artists such as 3 Doors Down, The Oak Ridge Boys, Lane Turner, Taylor Hicks, The Katinas and Danny Gokey infused the RNC with song.
“There’s been a handful of names that have always been associated with that party,” Stern says. “Even they are somewhat conspicuously absent at this. I don’t know if that’s because they didn’t ask Ted Nugent or if Ted Nugent didn’t want to do it.”
Recalling performances by Toby Keith and 3 Doors Down when President Trump assumed office in 2017, White adds that “it’s interesting and surprising that no one’s performing at the RNC, because they did three years ago at the inauguration.”
Still, with months remaining before the election, there’s ample time for both campaigns to bolster their musical offerings.
“The Biden campaign and the Trump campaign are maybe just getting started when it comes to music,” Bernstein says.
In fact, robust as it was, Biden’s musical support at the DNC surprised some, because fewer stars supported his bid during the primary than rivals like Bernie Sanders; multiple insiders laud the Vermont senator’s diverse and expansive roster of entertainment allies.
“From everything we hear, a lot of the music industry has felt that the Biden campaign has not created great open doors for musicians,” says Bernstein, adding that “nonpartisan organizations like HeadCount and others have been working with musicians for many years, and that door is always open,” should either campaign spurn musicians going forward.
Of course, even nonpartisan causes are sometimes met with reluctance from artists.
“There’s an opportunity here to really rally people if you are so inclined and have a certain belief, and yet it still feels like it’s hard to galvanize that at times,” Moon says.
“Some of them don’t want to risk fanbases,” Stern says. “Some of them don’t want to be perceived as a political band.”
But, he continues, “talking to and including musicians is important. Their audiences are influenceable and can help swing states.”
In an election that’s been described by both sides as the most important in a generation, musicians will surely keep playing a role, whether with partisan campaigns or with nonpartisan entities driving voter registration and awareness.
“This is a different cycle because now we’re all at home, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use music to lift people up and really be a part of telling the story about your campaign,” Elrod says.
“There’s so many things about music that make it the most potent connective tissue when it comes to any sort of social movements,” Bernstein says. “Musicians themselves are natural leaders; they are cultural antennae who are taking in and giving out signals that drive culture forward. When you have musicians who have these fan connections, when you have fan communities that exist and you bring in conversations about the importance of being a good citizen and an active citizen, it really does have a massive impact.”