Save the Senate Festival began with Resistance Revival Chorus, a collective of women and non-binary singers who take the Toi Derricotte quote “joy is an act of resistance” to heart. They open with ‘Ella’s Song’, a beautifully simple chant laid over photographs and videos of Black Lives Matter protests and actions. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” they sing. “Until the killing of Black men, Black mother’s sons, is as important as killing a White man, White mother’s sons / We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Organised as a fundraiser for the Democratic candidates in the Georgia Senate Runoffs, Save the Senate Festival took place on noonchorus.com on Friday 18 December, with the event available to stream for a further 48 hours. This is becoming a more normal structure for online events and a welcome move, allowing a more global audience to engage regardless of time zone or work schedule.
The event’s importance as a fundraiser is more immediately obvious to those in the USA. Essentially, if the Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff win the Georgia Senate Runoffs on 5 January 2021 the Senate will have a 50/50 party split for the first time in five years, meaning that Republicans will be unable to block the progressive policies of President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris. The runoffs are taking place because the candidates in Georgia failed to gain the majority of votes needed for a decisive, legal victory in last month’s US presidential elections. The House of Representatives, the other arm of the US government, has had a clear Democratic majority for the past year which means that only the Senate needs to be won for full Democratic control of the US government. The last time the Democrats had control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate was in 2011, during President Barack Obama’s first term. It was during that time that Obama was able to enact many of his flagship policies including the Affordable Care Act, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal, and the Dodd–Frank Act. If the Democrats were to gain control of the Senate again it would be much easier for them to re-join the Paris Climate Accord, expand the Affordable Care Act, and raise taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
Of course, we’re tuning in more for the music. After Resistance Revival Chorus’s slick intro, Save The Senate settles into more familiar online-event territory. Performers sit in their living rooms, filming themselves on their phones or laptops as they try to seem upbeat despite the lack of a live, physical audience (although comedian Alice Wetterlund addresses that issue head on by adding a laugh track to her clip). Organisers Ben Lee and Johanna Samuels share a split screen as they provide a bit of context, with Lee explaining, “While it’s great that we got Trump out of office and we got Biden in, unless the Democrats can get control of the Senate it really limits how effective the Democratic administration is going to be over the next four years. We really want to be sure that all the things we’re passionate about – healthcare, immigration, racial justice – that we are actually able to get these ideas passed through government and implemented.”
After this brief explanation the festival proper begins. Rufus Wainwright stands barefoot in a large room as masked musicians play behind him, somehow appearing regal despite wearing what looks like a dressing gown. He chose to share his song ‘Sword of Damocles’, released two years ago during the US mid-term elections. As can be expected from Wainwright, the song is heartfelt and metaphor-laden – urging President Trump (and the listener) to “avoid the books of hatred behind the shelves” in one of its more literal moments. Wainwright sings with eyes closed, swaying, as his voice rings out in a rich tenor. Watching you get the sense that this song, and this moment, mean a lot to Wainwright. Throughout the festival it’s clear that the political situation in the USA has reached a critical point and that these musicians, actors and comedians – as privileged as some of them may be – are scared. Save the Senate is, at its core, at attempt by these entertainers to use the skills and platform they have in the only way they know how, putting on a show to try and encourage us to act, and – if the listener is resident in the state of Georgia – to vote.
There seems to be a loose rule of ‘one song per artist’ that almost all the participants stick to. Some songs are hopeful, like Jolie Holland’s ‘December, 1999’ which opens with the words, “I’ll see you in the springtime / After the battle is won”, or Amanda Palmer’s perennial self-acceptance song ‘In My Mind’.
Others are more sombre. Erin Rae shares a simple acoustic piece, painting a picture of Southern America in turmoil. “All them Georgia voters stood in all day lines,” she sings. “On the television murder by policeman / Pledges of allegiance come from babies’ mouths”. Olivia Kaplan and Tyler Lyle of The Midnight use their time to share their musical thoughts on the American Dream. Lyle performs ‘America 2’ on acoustic guitar against a plain black background, letting the sparse set up frame the bleakness as he sings, “All I ever wanted was a spot in the mountains / With an A-frame cabin and nobody counting our days / Or cursing or praising our name / But the best we could do is to enter the void… I’ve come to look for America too.”
Alongside the more familiar names there’s a few stand-out newcomers; Monica Martin starts her set by saying – almost to herself – “Okay, let’s take back the Senate”. Her slow, bluesy song contains some good life advice both for herself and for the other performers; “After all no-one’s in control / Go easy kid, it’s only rock and roll”. Madeline Kenny sits cross-legged on the floor to sing ‘White Window Light’, which fittingly begins, “Well what’s the point? Nothing ever really changes. So, what’s right? Well, the work is getting harder and the pay is the same.” She sneaks in a second song ‘Cut The Reel’ and ends her set saying, “I hope things get better.” Jensen McRae’s ‘My Ego Dies At The End’ might be simple, but it stays with you, as does Bedouine’s mellow and almost apologetic ‘Nice and Quiet’.
There’s a few covers too. Surrounded by candles, A.O. Gerber gives a beautiful rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ on piano. Mavi Lou plays ‘You’re My Thrill’, a popular song from the 1930s covered by the likes of Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald, and Courtney Marie Andrews covers Bob Dylan.
One of the highlights comes about halfway through, when actor Whitmer Thomas performs a techno song about creative insecurity that looks like something from the early days of YouTube – all boxes of video inside boxes of video and disconcerting green screens. “This song is about how I try too hard all the time, it’s my mission statement”, he says by way of introduction. While the visuals and the out of tune vocals suggest the song shouldn’t be taken seriously, the lyrics suggest otherwise and suggest his new album ‘Songs From The Golden One’ is worth checking out.
The smattering of comedians is a nice touch, though some of them clearly phoned it in a bit (looking at you Patton Oswalt). Jason Schwartzman provides a humourous video of his attempts to write a song specifically for Save the Senate Festival, while Paul Scheer’s faux rant pokes fun at the structure of the event itself and the immense gap between what’s possible online and what a small group of people can reasonably achieve in a short amount of time on a limited budget.
The informal set-up allows many of the acts to relax a little into their talent. Both Ohmme and Mountain Man choose tracks that allow them to just enjoy harmonising with their bandmates, with Mountain Man filming in a forest to allow the chirping of birds to perfectly compliment their soft, lullaby voices. Sadie Dupuis of Sad 13 shares ‘Good Grief’ – a lovely song about moving on from heartbreak – and Buzzy Lee’s ‘Coolhand’ is just a joy to listen to.
Kimya Dawson shares an older song of her’s ‘Fire’, which she sings with her teenage daughter Panda. The lyrics are fitting; “I know deep down that it’s down to the wire / My heart will stop if I put out the fire / As long as I’m burning / I’ll keep on yearning / To save the world / Not sure how but I’m learning.” Ani DiFranco also gets right to the point with her new single ‘Do or Die’, written for the presidential elections last month. Every word is worthy of quotation, from the opening lines; “Do you ever just wanna give up / Well, me too / Are you shocked by what people get / Get used to / Do you wake up in a cold sweat? Well, that’s sane / Least you got a little brain left” to the chorus; “But we can do this if we try / Yeah, if we do this like it’s do or die,” to the bridge; “And if you think your vote doesn’t matter/ Then you’re not paying attention / Yeah, everything they do they do to / Keep you from their invention.” Though no one song could sum up the entire festival, ‘Do or Die’ comes close, emphasising the urgent need for progressive Democratic control of the US government and gesturing towards the simple act of voting that can make it a reality.
We’ll end with some words from Margaret Cho, who spoke seriously at the festival. She said: “We are a sick nation, but we’re getting better. This runoff in Georgia is really important… as a former Georgian I’m proud of you. We’re going to be great, we’re going to do great, it’s going to be amazing. Thanks for just paying attention to politics, we have to pay attention more now than ever. I have faith. I have faith that we’re going to be okay and I have faith in Georgia. And I have faith in all of our lives getting a lot better starting from now on. So, hats off to you Georgia. I’m excited. I’m excited to see what happens and I’m excited for the future. We are going to be okay.”
While the festival might be over, you can still donate to the campaign here.
Words: Ana Hine