Bernie Sanders and The Strokes play New Hampshire during the 2020 election. Image via where it's still being sold for $10.00

Election Post-Mortem: 2020 Needed a Better Soundtrack

Among the few pieces of worthwhile campaign glam to come out of this year’s tortuous election is a poster from a Bernie Sanders rally in New Hampshire. It features a silhouette of Sanders against a starry background with his name spelled out in the iconic font used by The Strokes; a band and font so recognizable that it has been lifted, bastardized and uncreatively reincarnated on countless instances.

The use of the font wasn’t some unlicensed knock-off. The Strokes played at Bernie’s rally in New Hampshire on the day before the state’s Democratic primary, which the Vermont senator carried with just over 25 percent of the vote. Bernie Sanders was preceded on the New Hampshire stage by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who has become the young face of the leftward-bend of the Democratic Party. 

“The most punk shit in the world is showing up and voting”

Portugal. The Man

The Sanders/Strokes rally felt like a moment in which music puts a soundtrack behind the collective emotion of the nation. The sort of moment that is immediately covered in pop culture columns and later viewed as indicative of something more. Moments like the then-Dixie Chicks’ rebellion against George W. Bush’s foreign conflicts or Rage Against the Machine playing outside the 2000 Democratic national convention

Moments that later flood you with that right-place-at-the-right-time coincidental feeling, only until you press on the edges of them and notice they speak to something deeper and some attitude to which you should have always been attuned. There are a small generation of not-so-youthful-youths who were first initiated to nihilistic political ideals when they picked up Rock Against Bush, an album with ska-punk bands like Operation Ivy and Anti-Flag.

This election cycle had other rallies co-headlined with the familiar festival headliners: from Vampire Weekend to NWA. But The Strokes’ show felt different, maybe because they debuted a song called Bad Decision, which eventually hit #1 on Billboard(‘s Adult Alternative chart). Maybe because The Strokes had never played in New Hampshire before (or at least that’s what Bernie told the crowd). Maybe The Strokes just put on one hell of a concert.

But less than two months later, coronavirus pillaged the country. That’s when the music stopped. 

The other campaign trail – the trail of musicians on stage next to politicians ended, at least for the 2020 cycle. The chords and bass were replaced with Cardi B talking with Joe Biden over Zoom (no one had to pay to get into that one) or Taylor Swift posting a photo of a tray of cookies with Biden/Harris frosted across the tops. Many still wonder what those cookies sound like. 

T Swift the political baker. Photo via the artist’s Instagram

Confronted with yet another realized disappointment of the virus, I called John Gourley, the frontman for Portugal, The Man — the Grammy-winning group who have long been Bernie Sanders super fans; even playing a Washington rally for the Vermont senator in February, just before COVID killed live everything. 

Gourley was doing what rock stars do these days: phone banking, but at his own speed – hyperdrive. Between calls, he told me “I mean I’m against the status quo all day, but apathy is what the system wants. They want you to be apathetic. They want you just to think your vote doesn’t matter. They want you to think you don’t count. The most punk shit in the world is showing up and voting. That is the most punk thing you can do.”

Too much ink has been spilled contemplating Bernie Sanders as another kind of manifestation of the same moment that birthed the presidency of Donald Trump. That moment is often defined as a country disenfranchised by the status quo. But music and angst are made for each other. 

“We shifted an entire schedule so Bernie could meet up with Ariana Grande”

Ari Rabin-Havt

Good – naw, great, iconic, and lasting riffs and lyrics have always been present in moments where the feeling of disenfranchisement runs at a noticeable pace. And so if there was music for those suddenly-voting masses that evolved from the mood of the Occupy Wall Street protests and the collapse of the banks, it was usually being played at Bernie rallies. It certainly wasn’t found in the red-hat masses spelling out the YMCA at Trump rallies.

Gourley told me about opening stadiums ahead of policy speeches from the junior senator from Vermont, “putting a strategy around it, it doesn’t make sense … I’m here because when I went out to Bernie rallies, I saw union workers, I saw old folks, I saw young folks, I saw America.” 

He added, “I don’t identify with these politicians, that’s not who I am. There’s no part of me that puts an about and says ‘yup, I align with 100 percent of what this person believes.’” 

And that’s the exact kind of notion you might hope to hear from a musician playing the soundtrack to a political moment. The idea isn’t to align with a politician on every note, just knowing the politician is playing the same song is enough.

And so I called a deputy campaign manager for Bernie, Ari Rabin-Havt who detailed the candidate’s personal connection with the music played alongside him at rallies. Rabin-Havt said, “Bernie is very insistent that every rally has music … and that was something Bernie wanted at every event. It’s a question that he would always ask, was ‘who’s the band, what are they?”

Asked about how the events came together, Rabin-Havt told me about how Bernie met Brandi Carlile by chance at an airport and gave him a number. She later played at a rally in Vermont.

“When [Sanders] met Cardi B for the first time,” Rabin-Havt says. “The meeting ended and he just was like ‘wow, she is really smart. She understands how to communicate better than any politician. She understands raw communication better than any politician’ was kind of his reaction to meeting her for the first time.”

“We literally changed a flight, we shifted an entire schedule so Bernie could meet up with Ariana Grande,” Rabin-Havt says.

Once the pandemic struck and rallies were forgoed, campaigns got creative. Usually, they pushed livestreams. One of the groups that was most successful at this was Headcount, a nonpartisan group working to register voters. I’ve written about them before, during their voter registration drives at the Firefly Music Festival in Delaware, and so I called them again. They told me that they quickly began holding contests designed that if people checked their voter registration status, through their website — over 700,000 people did — they would be entered for a chance for a video chat with their favorite artists. The first big artists to step in were Camilla Cabello and Dave Matthews Band.

When the music stopped

There were some very-2020 twists in the final weeks of the election season, Donald Trump bashing Lady Gaga and hoping to tie her to a supposed anti-fracking Joe Biden agenda. Lil Wayne announcing a meeting with Donald Trump which was interpreted in the press as an endorsement of the president. 

The biggest story of the cycle, though, is Taylor Swift. Not only because she has been previously apolitical, but because an entire generation of the blue-collar children of Americans grew up with T. Swift. In middle-of-nowhere places like central Pennsylvania and Swift passed constantly through a lot of our lives. Some remember Swift’s first album playing on the country stations in the backs of pickup trucks surrounding bonfires. Others recall teenage diary ballads like Teardrops on My Guitar on repeat in every grocery store and middle school dance for a decade. There are still many perfectly sized, if small to us city slickers, towns in that part of the state where you can toss a can of Rolling Rock and hit somebody who grew up with the pop star. 

At the end of the cycle, Swift cut a song for an ad put out first (at least on Twitter) by Congressman Eric Swalwell of California. I texted Swalwell about a question I had, admittedly a slanted one, about how Taylor Swift was the random and yet representative superstar for a generation of Americans and he texted back “Yes!” 

Maybe that hypothesis tracks and maybe there is a soundtrack to the moment, a tinkling piano in the next apartment. A bottle of Rolling Rock falling out of a pickup. Maybe not. 

Alex Thomas is a writer in Washington, D.C. He's been a Washington Political Columnist for Playboy and has frequently discussed his writing on MSNBC. He previously wrote for Death + Taxes before the website was absorbed into SPIN. His full bio, including information on his poetry, is here.

Alex Thomas is a writer in Washington, D.C. He's been a Washington Political Columnist for Playboy and has frequently discussed his writing on MSNBC. He previously wrote for Death + Taxes before the website was absorbed into SPIN. His full bio, including information on his poetry, is here.

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