Plenty of stories have been written about the many artists who keep demanding that Donald Trump stop playing their music at campaign events, which only encouraged him to do it more. And now, as the sitting president stumbles ever closer to the abyss, threatening to take us all with him, even Trump’s most ardent supporters in the music community have become conspicuously quiet.
And so it is that, as we enter the home stretch, Joe Biden’s campaign continues to gather momentum. During last week’s debate, which was arguably the longest 90 minutes in television history, they raked in a one-hour record of $3.8 million in donations. Afterward, during a veteran Republican pollster’s focus group of 15 on-the-fence voters, one woman likened debating Trump to “trying to win an argument with a crackhead.”
While Biden did land a few rhetorical blows, his greatest strength may be his talent for not being Donald Trump. And that also goes a long way toward explaining why so many high-profile musicians are doing their best to get the former vice president back in the White House.
Exhibit A is “Team Joe Sings,” a weekly series of virtual performances that will continue up until the Nov. 3 election. Each Thursday at 6 p.m. MST, a half dozen artists are uploading two appropriately themed songs to their personal websites, after which you can view them at your leisure. The series debuted on Sept. 17 with performances by Kesha, Anthony Hamilton, Los Lobos, Harlem Gospel Travelers, MisterWives, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service.
So far, Kesha’s “Here Comes the Change” may be the most impressive. In it, the soulful pop singer delivers what might be mistaken for an a cappella performance, were it not for the acoustic guitarist seated in the background who can barely be heard. The video itself is equally minimal. While she sings, Kesha holds up a series of cue cards — à la Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — that begins with: “I was going to make a big fancy video… but I didn’t have time, so… I’m doing this instead… none of us have time… to wait around for change.”
“Our current president has proven over and over that he lacks basic empathy and honesty,” Kesha said in a press release from the Biden campaign. “I love this country and I think we deserve better.”
A similar caliber of musicians are participating in an online sweepstakes called “Pledge 46.” In exchange for pledging to vote, music fans are entered in a contest to win a wide range of one-of-a-kind prizes. You can win a virtual guitar lesson with Jason Isbell, a signed test pressing of My Morning Jacket’s latest album, even an all-expenses-paid trip to see Bon Iver live in Australia, assuming that country eventually allows Americans inside its borders.
Other participating artists include Lissie, Silversun Pickups, Nathaniel Rateliff, Angel Olsen, The Head and the Heart, Dashboard Confessional, Trampled by Turtles, Zola Jesus, and the list goes on.
By comparison, Trump is having to make do with Kanye, Kid Rock and Kiss.
A similar pattern emerges when you consider the music that could be heard at Biden’s political events, back when campaign rallies weren’t the sole province of anti-masking sociopaths.
Biden’s go-to music aims for cultural diversity, placing songs by white artists like Lady Gaga, Bleachers, Bowie and Springsteen alongside an equal number of songs by nonwhite artists like Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder.
Trump takes a similar tactic, placing songs by white artists like Elton John, Neil Young and Queen alongside songs by even whiter artists like Survivor, Kansas, Lee Greenwood and Lynyrd Skynyrd. In fact, of the 25 most-played Trump rally songs, the only musicians of color are members of the Village People, whose “Y.M.C.A.” consistently causes Donald and his fans to dance in ways that can never be unseen.
The contrast is even more obvious when it comes to the vice presidential contenders.
Kamala Harris, back in her presidential campaign days, was fond of Funkadelic, Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys, Bruno Mars and Cardi B.
Mike Pence, a man who is no longer allowed to form his own opinions, had a considerable affection for Steven Curtis Chapman, Rascal Flatts and fellow Indiana native John Cougar Mellencamp.
“I’m a big fan of John Mellencamp,” Pence said in a 2016 New York Times profile. “My politics are considerably different, but man, that guy can rock.”
So would the music we’re hearing on the campaign trail these days be more interesting if the also-rans were still in the running? In many cases, yes.
After all, Beto O’Rourke used to regale his Gen X followers with tracks by The Replacements, Cannonball Adderley, Mission of Burma and the Sir Douglas Quintet, while Kirsten Gillibrand was fond of slipping some Janelle Monáe and Le Tigre into her mixes. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, fought the power with Toots & The Maytals’ “Revolution,” Flogging Molly’s “Revolution,” Steve Earle’s “The Revolution Starts Now” and The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno.”
Personally, I’d be just as happy to see 2016 candidate John Kasich back in the race, playing choice cuts from Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, an album he famously cited as one of his favorites.
But, as the old Trump rally song goes, you can’t always get what you want.
To enter the Pledge 46 sweepstakes, go to propeller.la/pledge46experiences. For performances, go to YouTube and search “Team Joe Sings.”