Unlike a lot of her peers in the music industry, Diane Warren was a Joe Biden supporter from day one of the 2020 primaries.
“He was always my guy,” said the songwriting legend, who first connected with the former vice president after he introduced the song she wrote with Lady Gaga, “Til It Happens to You,” at the 2016 Academy Awards, where was nominated for original song in the campus-rape documentary “The Hunting Ground.”
“There was something about Joe that was so empathetic, and the total opposite of the other thing that’s in the White House right now,” she said. “He looked in my eyes when I met him and said ‘You don’t know what that song means to me,’ and he had tears in his eyes. I did too.”
It’s no surprise that Warren, like the majority of the music business (save for erratic spoiler-candidate Kanye West and MAGA stalwarts Ted Nugent and Kid Rock) was going to support Biden in 2020. But compared with this time in 2016, when superstars like Beyoncé, Jay Z, Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen threw mega-concerts for Hillary Clinton, activism in the music world was lower-key. COVID-19 wiped out any hopes of playing inspiring live events; the daily assault of the Trump news cycle made it harder to break through with a different message.
But in the home stretch of the campaign, A-list artists like Cardi B, Billie Eilish, Madonna, Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift have come around to full-throated endorsements of Biden.
In an editorial for V magazine, Swift wrote: “I will proudly vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in this year’s presidential election. Under their leadership, I believe America has a chance to start the healing process it so desperately needs.”
“The change we need most is to elect a president who recognizes that people of color deserve to feel safe and represented, that women deserve the right to choose what happens to their bodies, and that the LGBTQIA+ community deserves to be acknowledged and included,” she continued.
An industry that quickly figured out pandemic-era livestreaming is now rushing to reach potential voters in their fan bases using many of those same tactics. While artists may differ with the older, less-radical candidate on policy particulars, they’re touting their reasons not just to get Trump out, but to get Biden in.
Warren teamed with R&B singer JoJo for Biden’s official campaign theme song, “The Change,” and the 29-year-old JoJo was grateful that “After four years with this administration, it’s refreshing to see someone who leads with decency and respect,” she said. “And choosing Kamala Harris (as vice president), what an exciting time to see a woman of color in that position of power.”
Like many artists coming out in the final weeks of the campaign, the two sees artists’ jobs right now as helping voters fight off defeatism.
“It’s very seductive to be cynical about the whole process,” JoJo said. “I grew up thinking my vote doesn’t count in the way the system is set up. But I went to the protests this year and it made me think a lot about voting and taking that personal responsibility. People with platforms are doing what they can to help counteract the cynicism that lot of us have felt.”
With just weeks left before the election, as the White House is consumed with a COVID-19 cluster and an incendiary Supreme Court nomination fight, Biden’s chances look good. But all the typical ways that artists would be encouraging fans right now — get-out-the-vote rallies and performing at whistle-stop campaign events — are on hold due to the coronavirus.
Instead, they’re finding measured and direct ways to reach fans online, often focusing on particular issues of police reform, climate change and the pandemic to connect their fans with Biden’s agenda.
“I feel like Black people, we’re not asking for sympathy, we’re not asking for charity — we are just asking for equality,” Cardi B said in her popular video interview with Biden for Elle Magazine. “I want Black people to stop getting killed and no justice for it. I’m tired of it. I’m sick of it. I just want laws that are fair to Black citizens and that are fair for cops too.”
“One of the things that I admire about you is that you keep talking about what I call equity — decency, fairness and treating people with respect,” Biden replied.
Billie Elish, in a video aired at the all-virtual Democratic National Convention, said “You don’t need me to tell you things are a mess. Donald Trump is destroying our country and everything we care about. We need leaders who will solve problems like climate change and COVID, not deny them; leaders who will fight against systemic racism and inequality. And that starts by voting for someone who understands how much is at stake, someone who is building a team that shares our values. It starts with voting against Donald Trump and for Joe Biden.”
Latin artists like Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny and Mexican singer-songwriter Alejandro Fernandez gave their music to Biden for ads targeting Spanish-speaking voters in swing states like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Florida (a demographic some had fretted the campaign wasn’t reaching effectively). Pearl Jam is courting its Gen X swing- and red-state audience with a sophisticated get-out-the-vote drive, PJ Votes. Madonna posted selfies after voting, encouraging her fans to do the same: “Get out there and take responsibility people!! #bidenharris2020.”
It’s uncertain if the flood of celebrity artist endorsements of Clinton in 2016 helped her campaign, or perhaps added to some voters’ perception that she was Hollywood’s favorite candidate. But the way artists are endorsing Biden, by using social media to focus on particular issues younger voters and voters of color care about, is a smart framing for the moment, said Mark J. Gonzalez, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.
“Younger artists play a role in helping younger voters understand the process,” said Gonzalez, who has also helped lead Biden and Harris’ campaign efforts in California. He recently spoke on a panel and live-streamed DJ event for Rave the Vote, an EDM-themed get-out-the-vote effort.
“Four years ago, we all felt punched in the gut,” he said. “Now it’s not about Bernie and Hillary, it’s moving forward; music has played a pivotal role in steering the national conversation about issues like police reform.”
It wasn’t always clear how artists would turn out for Biden. Younger acts were slower to embrace him than his old boss, Barack Obama. Many artists like Halsey and Ariana Grande had passionately supported the Bernie Sanders campaign, and others like John Legend and Patterson Hood were fans of Elizabeth Warren. Perhaps some feared that an older white male centrist wouldn’t inspire young voters.
“Democrats played too many games last time,” said Chuck D, the Public Enemy founder, Bernie Sanders fan and longtime activist. “People detected an arrogance, a nonchalance that they’re automatically gonna have the votes, and that’s crazy. Negligence allowed for this dude (Trump) to even get in there, they fell asleep.”
No one is dismissing Trump’s chances this cycle. Even artists who might not be particularly enthusiastic about Biden know the stakes at hand. Tyler, the Creator said in a video that although “I’m the last person y’all should ever take advice from, please, if you are young and your back don’t hurt, go to them polls and cast a vote… This is actually gonna be my first time voting, I’ve seen the light.”
Artists and industry pros have been sidelined from live shows since March, so they also have a lot of unexpected time on their hands. Many are using the skills they honed reaching fans during the pandemic to talk directly with potential voters.
Artist managers Nick Stern and Jordan Kurland, whose firms represent acts like Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie, teamed up with the Biden campaign to produce a series of low-key weekly live-streams and conversations, Team Joe Sings, where artists like Kesha, the Postal Service and Los Lobos perform a few songs and talk about the issues that led them to support Biden.
“We told artists: Pick one thing you care about, like gun control or climate change. You might not be fully supportive of the candidate, but lean into that,” Stern said. “Artists have a unique bond with their fans, and they’ll listen to what artists say more than news sources or politicians. It was important to pick something to get people to go out and vote: ‘Go vote if climate change is real, if we need gun control,’ and that will lead to younger people voting for Joe.”
“Democrats get caught up if they aren’t completely aligned with a candidate, and Republicans have mastered giving voters that one way in,” Kurland agreed. “It’s definitely more effective to be more pro-Biden than anti-Trump, so how do we get them to actively support Biden? It wasn’t about how to make Biden cool, it was how to create urgency around the campaign.”
The series may not be as flashy as a 50,000-person rally, but the tense national moment required a different approach, they said.
“The tone needs to be measured,” Stern said. “The idea of staging a blue version of a Trump rally doesn’t make sense. In other times, it would be amazing to have huge stars rallying people in the weeks up to the election, but that would be unsafe and tone-deaf here. People don’t need celebs screaming in their faces right now.”
For many in the music industry, the Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19 has left them angry at the loss of their live careers. Many artists and activists care about a huge range of issues, from the fate of the planet to healthcare to LGBTQ rights and ending racist policing. Some, like Legend and the rapper YG, are using their platform in safe blue states to push for local elections as well. But after the pandemic, as venues shutter and tours cancel and crews are laid off, the fight is personal for artists in a whole new way.
“Artists are pissed that their livelihoods have been affected by this administration,” Gonzalez said. “This administration is why we’re in this situation, because they failed.”
Warren and JoJo’s theme song for Biden was written before the campaign asked for one, but it was well-timed for the moment — a somber and resolute piano ballad that, coincidentally, used a lot of the same darkness-and-light imagery that Biden used to close out his DNC speech. “I’m not gonna make no excuses / I’m not gonna waste no more time being blind… I’m gonna be the light, be that light, my own light / That lights my way through the dark.”
If music can help cut through the doom-scrolling and keep fans personally motivated to vote, JoJo said, that’s far more important than playing a huge rally.
“This is the most important election I’ve been alive for,” JoJo said. “Look at what’s at stake here, particularly for women and minorities. It can be a scary time, especially when you hear all this chaos and hypothetical worst-case scenarios. But you have to remain optimistic, and work towards making the best-case scenario a reality.”
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