A month ago, when punk singer Lydia Night of the Regrettes announced she was “very fucking bummed” that Sen. Bernie Sanders had all but lost the Democratic nomination for president, and that she would shift her support to Vice President Joe Biden, meme-spewing Twitter fans were furious. “Pathetic,” wrote one. “This isn’t very punk of u,” said another. But Night felt she had no choice. “It’s complicated for sure,” she says. “Biden is not the person I want to go and necessarily campaign for, but is that then not getting as many people on board to vote against Trump?”
In two progressive, populist campaigns for president, Sanders has amassed more pop-star supporters than any political candidate since President Barack Obama in 2012, including Ariana Grande, Jack White, the Strokes, Halsey, Dua Lipa, Public Enemy and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels. Billboard reached out to nearly 20 high-profile Sanders backers in the music world asking to talk about whether they’d shift support to Biden and received quick declines or no response, even though the Vermont senator had suspended his campaign and endorsed Biden a month earlier. Complicating Sanders-loving artists’ enthusiasm for Biden is Tara Reade‘s recent sexual-harassment allegations and the vice president’s denial.
“I am sure a lot of Bernie lovers are bummed and keeping it close,” a rep for one of the Sanders supporters said in an email.
Generally speaking, artists lean progressive, and many say they can’t stomach the thought of a centrist, especially one with #MeToo issues, in the Oval Office. Strange Ranger, a Philadelphia indie-rock band, released a 20-track, multi-artist compilation to raise money for Sanders’ campaign in January and plan a follow-up, but will change the beneficiary to the social-justice group Groundswell Fund rather than the presumptive Democratic nominee. Drummer Nathan Tucker and singer Isaac Eiger don’t plan to campaign or fundraise for Biden and will support progressive down-ballot candidates instead. “I’m going to hold my nose and vote for Biden, but I’m not inspired by Joe Biden,” Eiger says. “I don’t know who is.”
“People are always saying to pick the lesser of two evils, or whatever, but it’s pretty disappointing to have to choose evil at all,” adds Linnea Siggelkow, the Canadian pop singer and Sanders supporter who goes by Ellis. “So I have my hands up at this point.”
In 2016, when Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders for the presidential nomination, artists handled these conflicts in different ways. Sanders backer Miley Cyrus became an enthusiastic Clinton supporter, while Killer Mike said supporting Trump or Clinton came down to “voting for the same thing.” Cardi B took the Cyrus road after Sanders dropped out this year: “I’m just gonna go with Joe Biden because I cannot see the next step of America being ran by number 45,” she said.
“It’s just a no-brainer,” adds Melissa Etheridge, who backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren but appeared at a virtual fundraiser for Biden in April. “We can bring on change. It’ll just be a little slower with Biden, but at least it will be leadership, for heaven’s sakes.” Actor-singer Billy Porter is more blunt: “Biden is my candidate because there is no other candidate, period,” he says. “We must play the game we’re in, and the game we’re in is there’s a monster in the White House who needs to get out and every one of his cronies needs to get out. Period. Y’all took your toys and went home when Bernie wasn’t the candidate last time and that’s why we lost. Line up and fix it!”
Complicating artists’ 2020 political plans, whether they support Biden or down-ballot candidates or causes, is an inability to hold large public rallies due to COVID-19 lockdowns. It’s unlikely, for example, that Bruce Springsteen will draw 11th-hour supporters in Pennsylvania or Beyoncé and Jay-Z will fill stadiums in Ohio in November. How will they adapt? By moving online, of course.
Technology and world events have changed the tenor of U.S. elections for decades, says Eric Kasper, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire political-science professor who wrote Don’t Stop Thinking About the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns. Republicans won Congress during World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918, blocking President Woodrow Wilson‘s progressive agenda, including membership in the League of Nations. Campaigns have evolved with the printing press, radio, TV, the Internet and social media. “It’s a very different environment we’re going to be facing this year compared to any presidential election that we can think of,” Kasper says. “The use of music is going to change.”
#IVoted, founded by Wilco‘s Pat Sansone and jam-band manager Mike Luba, has pivoted from signing up registrants at festivals and shows to linking artists with crucial political regions using streaming data, recently partnering with entertainment-measurement company Chartmetric. Co-founder Emily White recently identified rapper Tee Grizzley as the No. 3 Spotify artist in Milwaukee last month and reached out to his camp to hold a virtual swing-state event. (He hasn’t confirmed so far.) “This is how we’re approaching booking talent for #iVoted on Election Night, as opposed to just booking [acts] that we think folks will like,” she says.
“Online efforts are extremely scalable,” says Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote, which is known for its festival voter-registration efforts but has pivoted to lower-overhead virtual organizing over the years. “Setting up a table at a concert, you are bound to get a handful of individuals to register to vote. Online, you can use influencers to reach millions.”
That’s not to say voter registration is pandemic-proof. When concerts shut down March 12, PLUS1, which supports nonprofits and social-justice groups and focuses in part on voter registration, lost nearly $2 million in 1.7 million of canceled ticket sales; the group quickly launched a COVID-19 relief fund that has raised $250,000 for artists, venues and other music entities. “Financially, right now, we haven’t reserved any of that for our partner organizations that do voter registration,” says Marika Shaw, the group’s founder and CEO. “And it sucks.”
But even without Sanders in the race and large rallies questionable for the rest of this year, artist-focused political groups remain confident they can boost voter education through online efforts. “There’s a part of me that’s skeptical, but the other half is, ‘Instead of being at this show and having to text this number with a beer in your hand, you’ll go to this website and fill in this form,'” adds Kyle Frenette, former manager of Sanders supporter Bon Iver, who founded a get-out-the-vote group called 46 for 46. “The results could be surprising. People are at home and looking for things to watch. It’s not limited to that time and place.”