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Bernie Sanders’ rally in Durham, New Hampshire was nothing if not star-studded. Besides Sanders himself — a figure currently leading Democratic polls in the lead up to the primaries — the rally saw the likes of civil rights activist Cornel West, representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, actress Cynthia Nixon and a performance from the band Sunflower Bean. All of these figures and more took the stage, but a casual observer could be forgiven for not knowing about them. The most advertised presence at the rally, and the presence that took the most focus in the public eye, was the well-loved band The Strokes. This was the crucial aspect of the Durham rally that set it apart from many others of its kind.
This is not the first time an artist has been called on to support a political cause, nor even the first time Sanders has made the call. In the past, rapper Killer Mike of Run the Jewels fame, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon have all rallied for the candidate. The stratagem of using music as a means to appeal to a wider audience is familiar territory for Sanders, and it illustrates how he has pulled the attention he has in the most recent primaries.
In the past few decades, music and politics have collided more and more, but these instances are often met cynically by the public. In the 2016 election, punk band Le Tigre reunited just briefly enough to drop the single “I’m With Her”, a pro-Hillary track met with a tepid, if not hostile, response. Many argued the track represented less a genuine support of Hillary and more an awkward attempt at garnering attention from a left-wing audience.
“I’m With Her is a sorry, deflated version of the Le Tigre that informed my feminist awakening,” wrote Christina Cauterucci for Slate.com. Elsewhere, popular music critic Anthony Fantano cited the song as one of the worst of 2016, explaining that its connection to the 2016 election made it “all the more bitter on the ears.” On the other side of the fence, Donald Trump faced similar backlash when using both “We Are the Champions,” by Queen, and “It’s the End of the World,” by R.E.M. Both Brian May of the former and Michael Stipe of the latter expressed their resentment at being used for political ends.
“Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you,” Stipe wrote after the event in an email. “Sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men.”
With all this in mind, similar criticism could be directed towards Bernie Sanders, but it seems to be a minority. Most major publications offer only praise, both to the performance itself (which covered songs from The Strokes’ 2001 debut “Is This It?” All the way to the upcoming “New Abnormal,” released April 10) and Sanders’ inclusion of it in his rally line up. The support is almost certainly a welcome surprise to the Sanders campaign team, but the question remains: why did it work?
The answer lies in the perceived intention of The Strokes, as well as Sanders himself. Le Tigre and Donald Trump faced flak for artificially forcing the art with the politics, while The Strokes’ support of Sanders appeared entirely genuine.
In a statement before the show, Julian Casablancas, the group’s frontman, explains: “Bernie Sanders represents our only chance to overthrow corporate power and help return America to democracy. This is why we support him.”
Such a statement is innocuous in a vacuum, but after all of the criticism that followed the 2016 elections, its inoffensiveness, just as much as its authenticity, is something of an exception to the rule.
The meeting of art and politics is nothing new, but the effort of Sanders and his campaign team to meld the two appropriately is rare. Killer Mike, Ezra Koenig, Justin Vernon and The Strokes all seem genuinely behind the politician they are rallying, and for a public actively involved in these artists, this is a serious advantage for Sanders. Art can be the voice of a whole group of people, and in the future, any politicians who wish to merge pop culture and policy might take a page from the Sanders playbook.