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No Party Songs for DNC: How the Chicks, Billie Eilish, Jennifer Hudson and ‘The Rising’ Set the Right Somber Tone for Convention (Column)

Leon Bridges, Maggie Rogers and — from beyond the grave — John Prine were among the smart choices the Democrats made in setting a subdued table for a convention full of hope and anxiety.

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Democratic National Convention

In the music choices made throughout Democratic National Convention this week, one thing became clear: the party would not be getting down with any party songs. “Sobriety” is the word that best speaks to the Democrats’ no-bops playlist. Performance after performance spoke to the overall tone of the convention: struggle, commitment, good vibes that are hard-fought when they come, and a general sense that we’re all f—ed if we don’t get this thing right. When the closest thing to a banger over the course of four nights is a song that invokes Jim Crow, you know this is not your father’s Fleetwood Mac-fueled convention.

This was as it should be, at least for anyone who believes the seriousness of the moment demanded some kind of emotional congruity each night. You can imagine the pushback if the producers had gone tone-deaf and allowed even a few interstitial bars of, like, “Watermelon Sugar” as a relief from the heat. But in their avoidance of any songs that might smack the slightest bit of levity, they did make you wonder, maybe, what the Republicans will offer in the way of answer songs next week. The GOP doesn’t have even a smidgeon of the same socially conscious rappers or concerned singer/songwriters to draw upon. It’s safe to imagine the presiding theme of their convention will be “fear of a woke planet.” But how will they illustrate that in song? Is there such a subgenre as doom-country? Or will they attempt to seize the spunky upper hand by skipping the artist bookings and just plugging Jared’s iPhone into a Pandora oldies channel?

Actually, it’s not completely accurate to say that there was no celebratory music at the DNC. No politician is going to pick a gloomy tune as his or her post-speech walk-off music. (Unless, of course, that stable MC genius is Donald Trump favoring “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”… a true example of American exceptionalism.) And so when Joe Biden appeared on screen to formally accept the nomination Tuesday night, we got a minute or so of him and his family awkwardly standing around while the ultimate birthday-party and bar-mitzvah song, Kool & the Gang’s “Celebrate,” played out. At that moment, you might have feared that his actual speech Thursday night would be followed by “We Are Family.” But it wasn’t anything so obvious as that. Biden took his leave on the convention’s final night to the strains of the Staples Singers’ “We the People,” which was a very, very good sign that Biden may be borrowing Kamala Harris’ Spotify account, or her staff’s. Because Harris has had some great picks in the last couple of weeks: Her VP acceptance speech Wednesday was followed by Mary J. Blige’s “Work That,” and when she first appeared with Biden after their big announcement was made, her theme music was Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” If Harris’ sole initial impact on Biden is to influence his music taste, the nation may soon already be richer for it.

But these were the walk-off choices, ones that demand, if only for a few precious bars, a giddy, balloon-dropping spirit. The tone of nearly all the rest of the music of the convention was closer to balloon-popping. And again, that was fitting, for a virtual gathering at which every party member tuned in to Barack Obama expecting that “yes, we can” spirit and walked away thinking: Holy s—, Dad is worried.

The music picks were at their most aptly morose on night 1, which, if it’s not too glib to actually put a name on it, was coronavirus night. It was practically at the top of the convention that home viewers got a full-length airing of Bruce Springsteen’s 9/11-sparked “The Rising,” a song that can make some of us cry under any circumstance — hell, some of us would probably tear up if the GOP played it over a wall-building montage — much less when it’s brought back to soundtrack the devastating tragedy that is COVID-19. Springsteen’s half-literal, half-spiritual song of great mortal peril and ascent was the bittersweetly ideal accompaniment for all these clips of heroes making human contact as best they could through plastic and glass. (If only the producers hadn’t seen fit to reprise the last few bars of “The Rising” so many more times over the succeeding nights that it started to feel like the convention’s unofficial advertising jingle.)

From there, it went to what for some of us was the most jolting musical moment of the convention: hearing the opening acoustic guitar strains over an In Memoriam segment and realizing that, yes, it was “I Remember Everything,” the final song ever recorded by John Prine, who was soon to become one of the first real public faces of the cost of letting COVID-19 go uncontained in the United States. “I Remember Everything” is the sweetest song imaginable, even in Prine’s already pretty sweet catalog… but with it, now, comes an unspoken corollary: Never forget. These songs felt even a little sadder than anything else, even at a convention that wasn’t afraid of embracing sorrow. As spectral presences — especially spectral, in Prine’s case — he and Springsteen were the night’s designated mourners.

The two actual performances Monday night were both of slightly off-topic songs that, in context, were made to seem on-. Standing above the coast of Maine and introduced by a local politico, Maggie Rogers sang “Back in My Body,” a song that was inspired by a sensation that might seem mundane after so much fatal disease prelude — the feeling that she had of getting back in touch with herself after feeling disconnected and like a commodity on tour. But as a metaphor, it was a sharp one, in all sorts of ways. Who hasn’t felt disconnected from his or her physicality from five months of forced indwelling? More importantly, who hasn’t felt disconnected from the body of these United States? Well, lots of people, but probably not the concerned core demo for the DNC. Picking Rogers and her song was the most off-the-beaten-track music choice of the convention, in some ways, but an early sign that some kind of intelligence was at work.

A lot more of it was at work in getting Leon Bridges up on a roof at dusk to sing “Sweeter,” a not-at-all sweet song about the deaths of young Black men, written before the events of 2020 but easily adjoined to the other twin tragic theme of Monday night, the violent deaths that led to the Black Lives Matter protests. Bridges was once seen as a soul/R&B revivalist, but now he’s reviving some of the greater aspects of that tradition: a restless social consciousness that only finds partial salve in the gospel undertones of the music. Also: “Sweeter” provided the week’s first but not last superb example of a socially distanced sax soloist.

It was a further sign of that intelligence that the convention waited till the end of the first night to push past the shell-shocked theme of the evening with some fight-back spirit, in the form of Stephen Stills’ and Billy Porter’s “For What It’s Worth.” You could still debate whether theirs was too odd a coupling, or whether their disembodied presences amid the graphics made the song feel like too much of an early MTV video. But points for innate diversity were most of the points the song needed to get over. And there is no escaping the eternal irony of how moving an anthem Stills’ composition turned out to be first for Vietnam protesters, and now Black Lives Matter… when it was written for teenagers angry about curfew on the Sunset Strip. What home viewers might not have guessed Monday night was that Stills would be the first, last and only boomer among the week’s musical performers (and a mute one, aside from his guitar licks), a likely indication of the DNC wanting to counter-balance the venerability of Joe with as little AARP-playing as possible.

If anyone was going to be given two slots, it’s not surprising it would be John Legend. He ticks off two categories that not many performers do, simultaneously: Legend is as outspoken and unbashful an activist as anyone in pop music today, more than earning his slot at a political convention… but however many millions of hate comments he might inspire with those extracurricular remarks, no one is ever going to find offense enough in the music itself to turn it off. He’s a wholesome agitator — a fairly short category, as major celebrities go. His music can fall almost too neatly into an inspirational category, as it maybe did with Tuesday night’s “Never Break,” a song written as a love ballad that’s all too readily transformed into an all-purpose rally anthem. But his “We know how this story ends” refrain served as a moment of comfort right after an impassioned but worried speech by Michelle Obama that left the climax of the Donald Trump story feeling a little more open-ended.

The lineup through the week included people of color, people of country, and, in Billie Eilish, people of youth. Tellingly, Eilish was the only musical performer invited to give a brief speech before her number — a get-out-the-vote, get-out-the-Drumpf pep talk included to motivate fellow teens but also maybe to assure older viewers who’d written her off that she can pull her political weight in this company. The new song she played on Tuesday night, “My Future,” is apolitical by nature, a progressively groovier ballad about putting off bad romance in order to grow in other ways as a young person. Essentially, she’s saying she’s taking a gap year (or two) from romance to stabilize and mature. You could say that it’s a startlingly conservative song, if you could remove all the negative and political connotations of that word to get at the strange thought that there can be such a thing as pro-responsibility pop. Eat your morally upstanding hearts out, GOP?

Prince Royce was a necessary choice on paper, but saddling him with an English/Spanish cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” felt like one of those playing-it-safe music-supervisor moves where they get the hot young guy to appear on the soundtrack, then make sure no grandpa is left behind by having him cover a song no generation still alive won’t recognize. It’s the bilingual thought that counts, right?

Wednesday night, anyway, it was all about the countdown to Jennifer Hudson, who, no matter how much anyone might resist the rote predictability of the “J.Hud slayed it” narrative, did some killing from the gorgeous late-18th-century surroundings of Chicago’s Tiffany-domed Cultural Center. Just when you are thinking that no conceivable change can be brought to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” the civil rights anthem felt inherently refreshed with the presence of not one but two of Aretha Franklin’s grand pianists, plus a sax player who was well trained to get out of the way when Hudson was ready to make her descent down the center’s staircase, symbolically ready to be taking it to the streets. The change being evoked was Kamala Harris’ preceding acceptance speech as the first female VP candidate of color, but with Hudson’s performance acting almost as a corrective to Harris’ infectious giddiness. If there was a moment to go out on a “celebrate good times” anthem, it would have been following Harris’ big moment, the least Trump-centric or warning-laden major speech of the week. But even here, the producers wanted the end of the night to feel weighted. With the singer and her team pulling it off so beautifully, it’s hard to say the mood choice was wrong.

Legend was back on Thursday for his second tour of duty, back in that emptied out downtown movie palace with a team of choristers and Common, his partner on “Glory,” the Oscar-winning theme from “Selma.” As many times as we’ve heard the song before, it felt like a necessary choice — a preamble to Joe’s big speech to reestablish that Black lives didn’t stop mattering as much when the Obamas or Harris were the stars of the preceding nights.

But the musical moment of the week that went by fastest, yet might have called for more backstory and unpacking than any of them, was the Chicks taking on “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the second time in their career where the world was watching. Previously, they’d had maybe their most singly triumphant moment ever when they aced it before the 2003 Super Bowl, going out with near-universal congrats mere months before they became the scourge of the heartland. Starkly revived here, the national anthem seemed like something darker and more dangerous, a scalpel to be stolen and reclaimed by factions with very different visions of America. The cameras were obviously not going to follow the three (ex-Dixie) Chicks at the end of their remotely assembled mastery of three-part harmony, but if they did, it was clear there wouldn’t have been back-slapping and big smiles. Their performance made the anthem feel — maybe for one of the few times since it was codified into the American canon — like something was deeply at stake, besides whether or not the singer would blow it on the final notes. It felt like a declaration of war on who gets to claim the mantle of patriotism. It felt, in other words, like the latent sorrow, anger and tempered hope underlying the entire Democratic convention.