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High notes at the DNC and why music is the electricity of retail politics.

Am I the only one who wishes Billie Eilish would smile, at least when she singing a song about the future?

That is what went through my mind as I watched her perform at the Democratic National Convention, singing “My Future” after exhorting her generation to vote.  I appreciate her years of registering voters and helping the movement against climate change, and her magnificent songwriting chops and silky voice, but a smile would have been nice when the party’s nominee was coming on later to talk about the great future that is still possible.

That got me thinking about the use of music in the Democratic National Convention and in politics in general.  I am not going to include the GOP convention because (a) it hasn’t happened yet, (b) the music lineup is pretty thin, and (c) 14 major artists plus the estates of Prince, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Luciano Pavarotti have demanded that the Trump campaign cease and desist from using their music without authorization and I don’t give free PR to people who steal music.

Other musicians at the DNC included John Legend and Common, The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), Billy Porter and Stephen Stills together, Jennifer Hudson, Prince Royce, Maggie Rogers, and Leon Bridges. What was their role? Why were a Prince Royce or a Maggie Rogers or Common given time that could have gone to Speaker Pelosi, or Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Kamala Harris, or even Vice President Biden?  What is about music that makes it a requirement for political conventions, rallies, inaugurations?

The answer is simple.  Music reaches the heart like no speech can.  Politics in a democracy is about inspiring people, energizing them, giving them hope and purpose beyond themselves. Music does that.  Music is the electricity of retail democracy.

John Legend singing One day when the war is won as Common raps freedom is like religion to us/ we know we can win the war, makes us feel that the glory is coming and we can make it happen.  When Prince Royce walks graffitied streets and sings stand, stand by me in English and Spanish, he is calling out emotionally to a young generation that is bilingual, something difficult for any speaker to do.  When Billie Eilish debuts a new song at a political convention, with or without a smile, she is drawing and talking to the generation that will live with the consequences of this election, live with the full force of global warming, live with Covid,  and rise to the challenge to love their future like she says in the song. A political speech can’t do that.

And then there is music’s value to a media production.  The DNC last week and, the RNC this week,  are  virtual productions – essentially  2- hour Zoom/TV telethons, with precise timing, entertainment segments, fundraising breaks, a pecking order of speakers, political bases that have to be touched, egos that have to massaged, and technical adjustments that will be made on the fly across the country.  Any TV or telethon producer will tell you that a complex media production that goes for 2 hours and has to meet those requirements must have music.  Music is a break from speeches.  It is a on-screen cover for off-screen setups and fixes,  it is a way to reach the audiences that are doing something else while the TV is on (the two and three-screen viewers), and it is something for many viewers to look forward to as they tune out the talking heads.

I think the Democrats handled the music well at their convention – deftly in some cases, like John Legend and Common. The mix of talent played to the full range of their desired audiences–  essentially 18 to 100  and all races and geographies.  There were a few strange choices – the dour face of Eilish, Jenifer Hudson turning her back on the audience and walking off stage while singing to signify the end of the evening, and limiting the wonderful Chicks to the national anthem when they can so much more. 

But there were great choices too: Stills’ legendary guitar riffs in “For What It’s Worth,” the Buffalo Springfield song he made famous in the 60’s, sung by the very 21st century Billy Porter not only appealed across generations, but made the point – there is something happening here and it’s called Black Lives Matter. (I worked with Stephen at the 1984 DNC in San Francisco and loved to see him as good and fired up as he was 40 years ago). The Legend/Common combo was brilliant and they used it brilliantly.   And yes, Billie Eilish debuting a new song entitled “My Future.  And she did smile a bit at the end, probably knowing that hundreds of thousands of millennials would heed her call to register and vote. After all, in the end, that is what it was all about.

Patrick O’Heffernan



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About Patrick O'Heffernan, Music Sin Fronteras (470 Articles)
Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist based in Mexico, with a global following. He focuses on music in English and Spanish that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America, especially Mexico like cumbia, banda, son jarocho, and mariachi. He is also edits a local news website and is a subeditor of a local Spanish language newspaper. Check out his weekly column Music Sin Frontera on Sunday nights.

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