Music and politics have a mutually beneficial — albeit occasionally uneasy — relationship. For every artist that has pushed back against a Presidential candidate, just as many have rallied to their side: In 2008, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen played a benefit concert for then-senator Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee. Country stars Lee Greenwood, John Rich, and Alabama frontman Randy Owens have all traveled with Republicans on the campaign trail. In 2004, Tom Petty performed “I Won’t Back Down” in a private concert at Al Gore’s home the night the former Vice President gave his concession speech. These days, Katy Perry openly stumps for Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s main Democratic rival, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, hasn’t hurt for high-profile supporters either, with Run the Jewels‘ Killer Mike talking him up on Colbert and at campaign rallies. That already sets him apart from your typical Washington politician, whose musician friends tend to be untouchably famous and/or obviously wealthy. Considering how fundraiser benefits in general can be stuffy and roped off to the average voter, I frankly had no clue what kind of energy to expect at Sanders’ two-night Brooklyn Is Berning! fundraiser, which was held at the 280-person, traditionally apolitical venue, Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn. I entered somewhat relieved: The crowd wasn’t doing what I assume a lot of ralliers do at these things, like handing out pamphlets and wildly waving hand-drawn signs. (I haven’t technically been to an official political rally, so bear with me.) It turns out my first legitimate campaign experience would be every bit as intimate and down to earth as the Presidential hopeful’s political posturing.
@PantsVelour part 2 at #brooklynisberning #wfp4bernie #FeelTheBern pic.twitter.com/bM9vXggUNi
— Rafael Shimunov (@rafaelshimunov) January 7, 2016
Maybe that’s because the benefit, which welcomed a variety of musicians (Cass McCombs, Mas Ysa, Wet, Frankie Cosmos, Dead Heavens, Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls, Kevin Devine) and speakers (various Sanders campaigners and Susan f**king Sarandon, who easily drew the largest audience) to the stage, didn’t feel outrageously political. Sure, talking heads intermittently popped up between sets to spread the Sanders Gospel — mainly asking attendees to donate what cash they can spare and volunteer for future events — while organizers sat nearby hocking buttons and Sanders T-shirts. A life-size Sanders cut-out greeted guests at the door, a Sanders-themed photo booth was set up in the back of the venue, and DJ Tommy Sunshine spun songs with “burn” in the title (Blue Öyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You,” Disclosure’s “When a Fire Starts to Burn,” and so on). The crowd, a mixture of regular showgoers, grassroots nonprofit types, and more non-performing musicians (I spied Julianna Barwick and Shamir in the crowd) grew from night to night — Tuesday was more sparsely attended than I would have expected, but good news apparently travels fast, and Wednesday came packed with a fresh wave of young, mingling Brooklynites.
“I don’t vote with my vagina.” – @susansarandon ?? #feelthebern
A video posted by Baby’s All Right (@babysallright) on
Likely picking up on the easygoing energy, some artists treated their set like any other at Baby’s (“I’m gonna sing some songs about boys and stuff,” chirped lo-fi sweetheart Frankie Cosmos, while Dee Dee said little beyond stripping Dum Dum Girls’ songs down to their acoustic core). Others spoke openly about Sanders’ revolutionary message, which includes social-minded talking points like regulating Wall Street, breaking up big banks, growing the middle class, reducing income inequality, and fighting for women’s health. Come the second night, composer Thomas Arsenault (a.k.a. Mas Ysa) earned giggles when he broke out what he figured might be his most political-sounding track, a song titled “Running” from his 2015 ambient-dance release, Seraph. More laughter followed when Arsenault pointed out his Canadian birth and joked how Sanders’ left-leaning policies made him seem like the most Canadian of all of the Presidential candidates.
Devine, meanwhile, praised Sanders’ rational-sounding solutions for leveling the country’s economic playing field and built his set around the more social justice-themed tracks in his catalog. “I just think that a guy like Bernie Sanders is talking about baseline sane, prescriptive ideas for a better society,” he told me. “[In the past] I’ve either voted for people through gnashed teeth or voted for people who I knew had no chance of winning. And this is somebody who is an inter-party candidate that I actually believe in.”
I’m so Berning I need to get @wet (I’m it funny) and I can’t legally vote
— Mas Ysa (@Mas_Ysa) January 6, 2016
McCombs, though, stressed his apolitical nature prior to going onstage with folk-rock duo the Chapin Sisters. “I’ve never really ever supported a candidate,” he said to me. “I’ve always told people never to vote. And people shouldn’t vote if they don’t want to. [But] I relate to [Sanders’] politics. I relate to what he’s saying. I think he would be a good president, it’s that simple.”
But not every person slated to speak or perform was so aloof with their opinion. Sarandon, who made a last-minute appearance on Wednesday night, urged the audience to do like her and not “vote with your vagina” (which is to say, don’t vote for Clinton just because you’d like to see a woman in the White House), a line that made the now-packed crowd laugh and “woooo!” their approval.
“[Clinton has] taken a money from a lot of people,” Sarandon told me after her speech. “She’s very connected to things that I find threatening at the very core of our existence. She’s a smart woman, and I’m happy that she’s gotten a job, but if I’m going to have a woman for president, I want a really great woman. Elizabeth Warren, I would get behind. “[Sanders] has a solid record, and morally he’s not afraid,” she continued. “I think there’s so few people in politics that are brave. What you want in times of crisis is someone who’s brave, not someone who’s thinking about their future in politics.”
Setlist, #brooklynisberning fundraiser for @BernieSanders at @BabysAllRight. Didn’t play Bones. Proud to be there. pic.twitter.com/80ob8PlpBX
— Kevin Devine (@KevinDevineTwit) January 6, 2016
But no matter what their reason for attending, be it to catch a particular set or to passionately rally behind their chosen candidate, Brooklyn Is Berning!’s approachable, fireside-chat atmosphere made it a cozy, comfortable place for voters like you and me to talk and maybe make a new friend along the way (something, no matter how much you argue to the contrary, is not typically done at Brooklyn shows). I may have wandered into the event with a giant question mark over my head, having no real idea how politics and indie music mix, but the fact that it hasn’t (to my knowledge) been chocolate-and-peanut butter mashed up like this before is significant.
Adjusting assumptions of what an urban political event looks like, the event (with some goading from Sarandon) ended alive with conversation around resisting the current political system — even if we fail along the way. “You have to be brave enough to say, ‘OK, I’m going to stand by something I believe in,” said Sarandon. “It’s the trying that counts.”