Even in an election year without a pandemic, combining politics and music is a tricky proposition — but the Democratic National Convention, which begins tonight and runs through Thursday night, has assembled a lineup of (virtual) musical performances that is not only remarkably diverse, it also advances the party’s and presumptive candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ messaging in ways that are both subtle and overt.
More than half of the announced performers are people of color, including Common, Jennifer Hudson and recent Variety cover star John Legend. The music of all three performers is relatively family-friendly, but all have been outspoken in their support of Democratic-leaning causes. Also on board are the Chicks — who recently changed their name from the Dixie Chicks to avoid the Civil War-era connotations of the word “Dixie” — who were one of the top country acts in the world until singer Natalie Maines’ 2003 criticism of then-president George W. Bush essentially saw them banished from the country end of the business. There’s also 18-year-old Billie Eilish — a first-time voter who has been outspoken about Black Lives Matter, environmental causes and voters’ rights — and, performing on Monday night with Billy Porter, 75-year-old Stephen Stills, who wrote and originally sang the song they will perform together, Buffalo Springfield’s timeless 1967 anthem “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?).”
Also lined up for Monday night are relative newcomers Leon Bridges and Maggie Rogers — and the National Anthem will be sung by a 57-member chorus featuring people from all U.S. states and territories — and Bronx-born Latin music star Prince Royce will perform later in the week.
“These incredible artists will help us tell the story of where we are as a country today under Donald Trump’s failed leadership, and the promise of what we can and should be with Joe Biden as president,” said Stephanie Cutter, 2020 Democratic National Convention Program Executive. “These artists are committed to engaging with, registering and mobilizing voters to get us over the finish line in November.”
In a statement, Billie Eilish said, “This election is the most important election of our lifetimes so far. It’s never been more important to vote.”
Considering that they’ll be a prominent element of the Democratic convention, the performers presumably underwent a thorough vetting process before they were invited, and even more of one when planning their virtual performances, most if not all of which were pre-recorded.
Reps for the DNC declined to provide details about that process, but pointed to Cutter and veteran TV producer Ricky Kirshner, who has produced the DNC telecast for decades (as well as the Tony Awards and Super Bowl halftime shows) as leading the effort. When asked whether the performers were selected or volunteered their services, Adrienne Elrod, the Biden campaign’s director of surrogate strategy, told Variety, “It’s a little bit of both. This year is a different kind of convention, obviously, so a lot of this was outreach.
“We went out to artists who represent different demographics and who have used their voices in a way that amplifies our values and beliefs, and what we’re trying to get across as part of the convention,” she continued. “John Legend has been a special leader on so many issues for a long time — on racial equality and raising awareness around the coronavirus, support for our health care workers and more. Jennifer Hudson, same thing, and she’s such a powerful performer — as you’ll see on the program, all of these people are socially conscious and engaged artists in their own right. We couldn’t be more proud of the roster we’ve been able to put together.”
“I think they’re going to appeal to viewers from all over the country,” added DNC senior communications director Katie Peters. “I have younger cousins who look up to Billie Eilish, and she’s a first-time voter. It’s a difficult time for our country and I think music brings people together and reminds people that it’s okay to celebrate, and I think that’s what the convention is truly about.”
Asked about the role the DNC played in planning the performances, Elrod said, “The process has been collaborative, and the beauty of working with artists is they have their own identity and their own voices to bring to the convention, so we wanted to be as collaborative as possible but also make sure that we’re sticking to the theme of each night. All of these artists have been incredible to work with and they have given a lot of creative input that has been key to this process, and you’ll see that reflected in the convention.”
All of the performers except for one declined Variety’s request to speak about performing at the convention: Stephen Stills, who will perform “For What It’s Worth” with Billy Porter (who covered the 1967 song earlier this year) on Monday night.
“Billy did such a great cover of the song and I was [originally] going to sing on this one for the DNC, but then I decided ‘Nah, it’s Billy’s record, so let him fly with it,” Stills said, before adding with a laugh, “And also, my wifi is unreliable! I play guitar and sing along.”
Asked to compare the present-day to the 1960s social unrest that inspired “For What It’s Worth,” Stills said, “The swamp is just as deep and the mendacity and hipocrisy is, too. There’s a lot more on the line now. At least we’ve gotten a few strides as far as civil rights goes, but it just makes me crazy: Billy and I were first talking about this on the day that George Floyd died, and he was throwing the furniture around in his apartment he was so angry.
“This election has certainly brought everybody to the party,” he concluded, “and I’m glad to see it.”