If the 2020 presidential election were a contest decided by celebrity endorsements, then Joe Biden would already be packing his bags for the White House.  

While the Biden campaign can count on the support of everyone from Taylor Swift to Bruce Springsteen, the Trump campaign has struggled to even find songs to play at rallies without getting hit with a cease-and-desist order from the artists behind the tracks. The Biden campaign has cashed in on this advantage by organizing meetings between Biden and artists like Luis Fonsi, having Maggie Rogers, Billie Eilish and Leon Bridges play at the Democratic National Convention and hosting virtual fundraising events with the likes of John Legend and Barbara Streisand. But how much of an impact can musicians really have on the outcome of an election?

 

Katy Perry - 2020 Election
PHILADELPHIA, PA – NOVEMBER 05: Katy Perry and Hillary Clinton attend a GOTV rally at Mann Center For Performing Arts on November 5, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

Someone who doubts the impact artists can have on a campaign might point out that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign held rallies fronted by mega-stars like Katy Perry, Beyonce and Jay-Z in crucial swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, yet came up short in these states. In fact, in a political era where Trumpian conservatives decry liberal politicians as “coastal elites” who are out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans, support from famous artists like Katy Perry, or Beyonce could risk alienating potential voters. Given these potential risks, it’s fair to wonder why campaigns continue to embrace artists as such prominent surrogates for candidates.

The role of music on the political campaign isn’t just a recent phenomenon. Music historian John Street argues in his journal article Celebrity Politicians: Popular Culture and Political Representation that the advent of mass media, in particular television, shifted how politicians communicate with the public, thereby placing greater emphasis on the personal qualities they displayed on the screen. Street also believes that in the era of mass media, politics has effectively become a form of marketing, saying “politicians become stars, politics becomes a series of spectacles and the citizens become spectators.” It seems logical in such an environment that musicians, who are adept at building a personal brand and cultivating a fanbase would become effective surrogates for candidates on political campaigns. 

Jordan Kurland, a music manager and member of the Entertainment Advisory Committee for 2012 Obama and 2016 Clinton campaigns, sees the current political environment similarly to Street: 

“We know that our current quote unquote President is a master marketing person, and that’s what got him in the job,” Kurland said. “A big part of getting anyone elected, there’s a marketing component to it. It’s an image, it’s marketing, it’s press.” 

There are a lot of parallels between the role artists occupy in the music industry and the political sphere, Kurland adds, stating that “promoting voting, using your voice, or a specific candidate, isn’t that much different than how we promote albums or tours.”  

Caleb Wilson, director of talent partnerships for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, agrees with this sentiment: “I would say that I think the line between politics and entertainment is almost indiscernible at this point. It has really become one and the same.” 

While the line between politics and entertainment has become incredibly blurred in the present day, this intersectionality is not necessarily novel.

 

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President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon greet country music singer Merle Haggard at the White House. March 19, 1973. (Associated Press / AP Images)

For the past half-century, politicians have recognized the role that artists could play in building up support for their campaigns, many of them intentionally working music into their political strategies. For instance, George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, had a country music act perform at every one of his rallies to court southern voters during his 1968 third party presidential run. This strategy ultimately proved successful, as Wallace carried five southern states including Louisiana and Georgia, making him the last third party candidate to win a state in a Presidential election. Richard Nixon also capitalized off the cultural grievances expressed in country music, seeing this genre as a way to connect with the white working-class, a group who typically sided more with Democrats on economic issues. By the time Nixon had won re-election in 1972, historian Jefferson Cowie noted in his book Stayin’ Alive that the entire country music establishment in Nashville had become associated with Nixon’s so-called “silent majority.” 

Because of Nixon and Wallace’s relationship to country music, Music Row has remained relatively conservative over the past half-century. Country artists who have bucked this trend and espoused liberal views have been met by derision and scorn from the music industry.  After The Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines denounced George Bush and the prospect of the Iraq War in 2003, the band was blacklisted from hundreds of radio stations, and fellow country star Toby Keith began appearing on stage with a fabricated photo of Maines next to Iraqi President Haddam Hussein. In September 2003, only a few months after the initial uproar, Maines’ bandmate Martie Maguire told German magazine Der Spiegel that the group no longer felt as though they were part of the country music community. 

However, while many country stars, including Lee Greenwood, whose track “God Bless the USA” is Trump’s walk up song at rallies, are staunch conservatives, Music Row is no longer dominated by conservative voices.  Kacey Musgraves recently labelled a vote for Trump “an act of violence” against LGBTQ people, and Jason Isbell has also been outspoken in his support of Democrats in his home state of Alabama.  

Artists in genres other than country music have generally been more amenable to supporting liberal and progressive candidates on the campaign trail. Bruce Springsteen, with his extensive discography dissecting the realities of working-class life in America, became an invaluable resource for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns by creating a bridge between the campaign and working class voters, not unlike how country artists once did for Nixon. At a 2008 rally for Obama in Philadelphia, Springsteen made a direct connection between his work as an artist, and his support for the then-Senator, stating: “I’ve spent most of my creative life measuring the distance between that American promise and American reality. The distance between that promise and that reality has never been greater or more painful. I believe Senator Obama has taken the measure of that distance in his own life and in his work.” The cultural authenticity of artists like Springsteen or country artists who supported Nixon allowed them to bridge the gap between communities who otherwise might not have been as supportive of a particular candidate. 

But the role of artists on the campaign trail has skyrocketed to new heights in 2020. Bernie Sanders’ Democratic primary campaign used endorsements and performances from major artists as a crucial part of its strategy to build a political movement. Sanders banked the endorsements of everyone from Ariana Grande and Cardi B to Willie Nelson and Neil Young, while also hosting rallies which included performances from the likes of The Strokes, Jack White, Portugal. the Man, Young The Giant, Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Such was Sanders’ popularity among artists that Vice even ran an article with the observative title “Bernie Sanders is Getting a Ton of Endorsements for Musicians,” while Variety declared that “In Combining Rallies and Rock Shoes, Sanders Has No Competition.”

 

According to Caleb Wilson, director of talent partnerships for Sanders’ campaign, instead of waiting for artists to reach out about potential endorsements, their team proactively reached out to musicians throughout their race. At the beginning of Sanders’ campaign, Wilson organized a series of roundtable discussions with various talent agencies so that the campaign could establish a working relationship with the music industry. This strategy proved to be incredibly effective for the campaign in generating support among prominent musicians. 

But it’s not just Bernie Sanders who reaped the benefits of these endorsements. Wilson said that these artists, in turn, receive social capital for publicly supporting Sanders and bringing politically unengaged Americans into the political process. 

“When you can marry pop culture to political rhetoric, you are likely to reach a subset of voters that might have never engaged in the political process before, but have suddenly found a bridge because of that relationship between culture and public opinion,” said Wilson. 

Indeed, the artistic support for Sanders generated coverage not just from traditional news media organizations, but also from cultural outlets including Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Billboard and Consequence of Sound, thereby allowing the campaign to reach previously untapped audiences. The performances at rallies also played a role in building a sense of community amongst the supporters of the campaign. According to Wilson, supporters and artists came to be united by an understanding that they were participating in the same political struggle. 

“You know you don’t know each other, but that familial “we’re in this together sentiment” really kind of came out, and I think that’s what can really imprint these audiences, when artists take the stage,” said Wilson. He also saw the rallies as the campaign’s way of doing whatever they could to “galvanize thousands and thousands of people in one area” to energize them into voting.

Sanders’ potential path to victory in the Democratic Primary relied heavily on generating this collective support – especially among young people, who were arguably influenced most by Sanders’ music partnerships.

 

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Hillary Clinton with Beyonce and Jay Z during the ‘Get Out The Vote’ concert at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016.

But for future candidates looking to win over young people, earning their votes will not be as easy as bringing a few famous musicians on board. Endorsements need to be coupled with grassroots appeal of a candidate like Sanders – otherwise the inclusion of a celebrity may just feel gimmicky. For instance, while plenty of stars such as Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper backed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, it did not necessarily increase her appeal to voters – probably because it did not feel authentic. 

“I think that Gen-Z is driven by authenticity, more so than millennials, in that you can create a brand, but if that brand doesn’t have organic authenticity associated with it, they’re just not interested,” explained Wilson, explaining that this expectation for sincerity extends not just to  the candidates they support but also to  the way that musicians engage with political issues.

 

While a huge number of artists provided staunch support for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Primary, these artists also played a crucial role in bringing Sanders’ supporters into the fold for Biden ahead of the general election. Cardi B, who was one of Sanders’ most prominent backers during the primary, has played an important role in bridging the gap between Sanders’ masses of young supporters and the Biden campaign. She has also done so without abandoning the values that caused her to support Sanders in the first place.

She recently sat down with Joe Biden for a chat and to show support for his campaign, while emphasizing the urgency of voting out Donald Trump at the November election. However, instead of ignoring the ideological differences between Sanders and Biden, she emphasized the necessity of free college and Medicare for All when Biden asked her what issues mattered to her supporters. This sort of authentic and honest dialogue from Cardi B is certainly more likely to appeal to younger voters, rather than merely pretending that there are no issues with the Biden campaign.

Jordan Kurland, music manager and founder of Zeitgeist Artist Management noted that many musicians were disappointed that Sanders and fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren fell short in the primary, and were slow to support Biden ahead of the general election.  However, as the election has drawn closer he said that he believes the urgency of the moment has pushed more artists to publicly support Biden.

 

While Kurland is not formally involved in Biden’s campaign, as he was with the Clinton and Obama campaigns, he regularly communicates with the Biden campaign and helped organize the Team Joe Sings initiative, a weekly online concert featuring performances from artists in support of Biden. Performers so far have included Gracie Abrams, Kurt Vile, The National’s Matt Berninger, Kesha and Sylvan Esso. Kurland thinks that by offering a fresh perspective to voters these artists may shift voters’ viewpoints ahead of the election – especially if it’s an artist they admire. “I’m going to hear something differently if it’s an author I love, if it’s Richard Ford saying something, rather than Wolf Blitzer saying it on CNN.”  

But with virtual campaigning, giving voters a “fresh perspective” is no longer constrained to mega-stars like Katy Perry, Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce. In Kurland’s perspective, the pandemic has forced campaigns to be open to new ideas, opening the stage to a more diverse line-up of musicians than ever before. 

“In 2012 and 2016 it was very much about, ‘we need an artist to play this event in North Carolina, are there any ideas?’ Now it’s much more of ‘well yes there are online events, what are some creative ideas to be done to reach people,” said Kurland.

 

The Team Joe Sings initiative has been focused on involving artists with a significant following, but who are not the sort of A-level artists that are typically the focus of campaign rallies, he said, giving these artists a relatively low-effort opportunity to have an impact on the election, and in return giving the Biden campaign exposure to these artists’ loyal social media followings.  

In many ways Kurland sees these artists as just as valuable to a campaign as mega-stars because their followers are attuned to their every post and will be impacted by their views on politics – and in some ways feels even more authentic, which is always a bonus in politics. Kurland thinks the 2016 Clinton campaign was at times too focused on appealing to voters through superstars like Katy Perry, whereas the Biden campaign has found strength in the diversity of artists who speak on its behalf. He says “You’re trying to win an election, especially in a country that is so divided, you need support from all areas of it. And it needs to be from all music communities and all size artists.”  

Even outside of the partisan bounds of a political campaign, artists have played a role in shaping the 2020 race, as well as shaping public policy more generally. For instance, Kurland helped organize the two compilation albums Good Music to Avert the Collapse of American Democracy which were released as a part of the Bandcamp Friday series and raised over $500,000 for Voting Rights Lab, a non-profit voting rights organization. 

For artists who might be hesitant to choose a side in the election and risk alienating some fans, participating in a non-partisan effort like this is one way that they can make an impact on the race and encourage civic participation. Kurland believes that his work raising money through this project has been as significant as anything else he has done around elections in his career. 

For others artists, focusing on specific policy issues has been another way to avoid the pitfalls of partisanship. Wilson gives the example of Billie Eilish who has been vocal about policy, despite deciding to avoid endorsing a candidate during the Democratic Primary race. He says: “When it came to Billie Eilish, who during our primary was the quintessential Gen-Z artist that we wanted to get, she was like look it’s too early for me to get involved in the partisan nature of it all, but the second you’re bringing her policy and advocacy she’s there.” 

However, once Joe Biden was officially nominated as the Democratic presidential nominee, Billie Eilish was quick to use her voice – making a powerful endorsement and debuting her song “my future” during on Aug. 19 during the third night of the Democratic National Convention. In return, the Trump administration accused Billie Eilish of “destroying our country and everything we care about” in a new series of leaked documents, according to the Washington Post.

 

The present political climate has created a situation where many, including Wilson, even feel that artists have an obligation to use their platform to advocate for the common good.  “Silence is compliance,” as Wilson says. In a pop-culture obsessed world, artists have unprecedented importance in shaping the cultural perceptions and appeal of candidates, and in turn influencing voters at the ballot box. Whether it was through mobilizing young people in support of Bernie Sanders, or rallying a once divided Democratic base around Joe Biden musicians have already left an indelible mark on the 2020 race. Those hoping that after the race is over artists will “stick to music” will be disappointed that artists won’t be stepping back from politics any time soon.