😷 Music's crucial role in the 2020 US elections - despite the pandemic
Video games, virtual concerts and campaigning, music venues repurposed for polling, and the nightlife shutdown as a campaign topic.
Today is Election Day in the United States. Music, due to its cultural power, has always had a role to play in politics and elections. This year, even with a pandemic, is no different.
What follows is an overview of music’s role in the 2020 elections, with topics such as:
The nightlife shutdown as a campaign topic
Covid-19 themed campaign ads with artists
Getting out the vote through livestreams
Music paving the way for in-game campaigning
Venues being utilized as polling stations
Punk and the extremes of the left/right-wing divide
With challenges, such as not being able to perform on the campaign trail, come creative solutions such as the Team Joe Sings campaign which saw artist like Kesha, Anthony Hamilton, and Los Lobos, record performances of one or two songs and put them on their YouTubes.
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Campaign ads, the case of The Blind Pig
This year, we’ve seen something we’ve never seen in a US presidential election before: a campaign ad about the music industry. Music is always a contentious issue during presidential campaigns. This year is no different with an ongoing - albeit onesided - tug of war between the Trump campaign and Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty about the use of music. One of many. But to use the current plight of the live music industry to hammer home a campaign message in an ad elevates music to a new status: from emotional trigger to policy statement.
How did it begin?
The Biden/Harris campaign opted to tackle the lack of decisive action from the Trump administration in handling the Covid-19 pandemic with an ad focusing on a live music venue: The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The story is sadly typical with shutdowns forcing the venue to close indefinitely. The owner of The Blind Pig laments the lack of government support.
The problem is twofold. On the one hand, the venue owner, after the ad aired, was harassed and doxxed. This forced the Biden/Harris campaign to pull the ad from YouTube. This is the type of response that is sadly typical of the current political landscape in the US.
The other side of the coin is that of all the independent venues that are struggling in the US right now, the Biden/Harris campaign picked one run by an angel investor. In other words, a man rich enough to not be severely affected by the closure of one of his businesses. Now, there’s nothing wrong with all that, but it made him an easy target for all the vitriol that was pushed his way. Something that could have easily been prevented by picking another venue in the same situation but just with another ownership structure.
The side story
The ad gained notoriety at first because it was the first time the Beastie Boys licensed their music for a political campaign. The makers’ use of Sabotage is, in my opinion, excellent in setting the tone for the video.
Trump’s failed Covid-19 public service announcement campaign
The Department of Health and Human Services prepared a $265 million ad campaign about the government’s coronavirus response prior to election day. The campaign vetted hundreds of celebrities, among which many rappers and other musicians, and approached a lot of them. Tenacious D’s Jack Black was considered “a classic Hollywood Liberal”, according to recently released documents. Lil Wayne and JAY-Z’s entries state “maybe; follow-up” besides noting their previous support for Barack Obama.
It may not have been clear to some of the approached people that the PSAs were seemingly being produced to drum up support for Trump. Other musicians vetted, according to the spreadsheet document (direct link to PDF) were Adam Levine, Lady Gaga, Travis Scott, Britney Spears, and Eminem. The latter just endorsed Biden and let the campaign use his hit Lose Yourself for a campaign ad.
Getting out the vote
Music also permeates another side of the election cycle, one that is louder this year than at any time before: the get-out-the-vote call. In her now famous virtual concert, Billie Eilish’s last words were: “Vote, for God’s sake.” Prior to the concert, Eilish’s pre-show featured Lizzo, Alicia Keys, Jameela Jamil, and Steve Carell who encouraged viewers, who were also supplied with informative resources about the elections, to vote. Taylor Swift uses Instagram. Universal, Warner, and Sony all have their own get-out-the-vote programmes. Audiomack and LA-based TheBasement hosted a livestream on Twitch which intertwined music with content aimed to educate young, first-time voters.
But there’s more to this then just answering the call of your favourite artist to go and vote. In the form of #iVoted, people can gain access to livestreamed shows RSVP-ing innovatively:
“w/ a selfie at home and their mail-in ballot. Or with a photo from outside of their polling place for in-person voting.
Artists involved were selected by the #iVoted organisation together with Chartmetric to target regionally popular artists in swing states. This way, you get a reward for acting on your right to vote. Hopefully, many music fans will (have) see(n) this as a little push to get them into that voting booth.
Music paved the way for… In-game political campaigning
More than a year before the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak to be a pandemic, Fortnite saw its first in-game music concert when Marshmello performed in its Pleasure Park. What could be said to be one of 2020’s most important moments for music was another Fortnite performance, this time by Travis Scott.
The Biden campaign worked with Fortnite to create a special map where players can complete six challenges ranging from rolling out broadband internet, to making a factory environmentally-friendly, to expanding a historically black college.
It’s not the first in-game campaigning done by Biden and Harris. Previously they launched a set of yard signs for Animal Crossing followed by a virtual field office with poll booths, ice cream, and opportunities to take virtual selfies with Biden.
Whether the strategy pays off remains to be seen, although young voters are voting in record numbers. Whether you’re an artist or a politician, it makes sense to go where Gen Z hangs out. In 2020, and 2019 too for that matter, that’s in video games, not malls.
Music paved the way for… Repurposing venues as polling stations
One of the unfortunate consequences of this year is that music venues have seen themselves repurposed as restaurants, bike parking, and hospitals. For the elections, some venues are now functioning as polling stations.
Back in September, Live Nation announced it was exploring the feasibility of venue conversion to polling sites for over 100 venues across the US in partnership with Civic Alliance and More Than a Vote.
“With space available, and venue executives, staff, security personnel, cleaning companies and other vendors already having spent months devising protocols to reopen facilities as safely as possible, these buildings are ideal locations for electoral functions,” said Brad Mayne, president and CEO of the International Association of Venue Managers.
How punk defines the extremes of the left-right divide
Flashback to a few decades ago:
Neo-nazis listen to punk music, they’re skinheads and they’re racists.
Anarchists listen to punk music, they’re skinheads and they’re violent.
This was the fight within the punk scene from the 1980s. And, in a way, it still defines the extremes on this spectrum of left-wing to right-wing politics. There are two radically different ideologies who both define themselves against their uncompromising dogmas and who love to fight each other, not in the moshpit but preferably in the streets and with an audience.
In the run up to this election, the band Trapt kicked up a fuss when their recent concert in Dallas was cancelled. They blamed so-called ‘social justice warriors’ and there are, of course, much stronger terms at play too. Some of them were heard in Charlottesville a couple of years ago, a place where neo-nazis and anti-fascists clashed. In both instances media were used to blow up the stories and bring it to wider attention. In both instances the messages behind the original protest are lost in the quagmire of violence.
Interestingly, both of these factions don’t like ‘the media’ anymore. On the right, they don’t trust anyone after four years of ‘fake news’ messages from the president. On the left, they don’t trust the police to not use any images from the media to arrest people. With such a breakdown of trust, where does this leave the centre?
As the results of the election will be held up by the counting of mail-in-votes, different procedures in various states, and various other potential bottlenecks there will be much to challenge by both parties and their bases. For the extremists on both sides, let’s hope they listen to Jello Biafra, formerly of the Dead Kennedys:
“More than ever, we have to keep our heads right now. And I am all about freedom of speech, but I think protesting these people non-violently is the way to go, because it lets the targets of the fascist speakers know they’re not alone and lets the fascists who show up know that there’s an awful lot of people who are not down with them, and a chorus of raised middle fingers is better than showing up with some kind of a weapon. Escalating the violence is not the way to go.”
One really wonders what this year would have looked like without the pandemic and what the elections would have looked like. There’s a fascinating piece by Zach Schonfeld on Pitchfork about 2020’s alternate timeline that you should read.
To all our readers in the US, we probably don’t have to tell you, but if you haven’t done so yet: please vote.
And take care.
Bas & Maarten
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