Conservatives Are Very Mad That Barack Obama and Billie Eilish Made DNC TV Great Again
The Democratic National Convention had seemed like a cheesy telethon, but an emotional night of speeches—plus Kamala making history—prove this virtual format makes for great TV.
Moderating it all, an inspired choice of A-list actress in an inspired pin-stripe pantsuit, was Kerry Washington, in full Olivia Pope mode, staring into the camera and pleading with earnestness typically reserved for when there is a toll-free 1-800 number on the bottom of the screen: “If we are going to repair the damage that has been done...we the people have to get involved.”
On the first night of this, as Washington called it, “unconventional convention,” which has swapped the cavernous, cacophonous convention hall for intimate speeches and testimonials, my colleague Scott Bixby humorously observed, “The PBS telethon vibes are so strong that the DNC is about to throw in a free tote if you call in the next five minutes.”
In many ways, even Wednesday’s comparatively heavy-hearted program echoed that unmistakable, undeniably cringe-y telethon tone.
But you could make the argument—and I very much would do just that—that the tone fits perfectly. What is the Democratic Party trying to accomplish right now, if not frantically solicit help to rescue its ranks and, certainly, the country, from devastating trauma and disaster?
As television, this format is far more impactful than attempts at filtering the typical arena chaos through the screen. Speeches, musical performances, segments edited specifically to make you feel very, very sad. Telethons are entertaining! You know what aren’t? Conventions.
This is something that is participatory; a virtual format that, for once, seems to redirect the convention’s intentions directly to you watching at home. Those massive halls seemed like rooms you would never want to be in. But in this instance, it’s the politicians who seem legitimately concerned with making their way to you.
Yet there’s also an awkwardness at play when big swings are made to manufacture inspirational TV in such jaded and devastated times as these: the more we need the sincere glow of that inspiration, the more allergic we become to it. It’s too placid and pristine, when, in actuality, shit’s gotten real. So let’s get real with it.
More than the nights before it, Wednesday’s program seemed to transcend the banality and, some argue, pointlessness of convention agendas. It was more urgent and less frivolous.
Kamala Harris became the first Black and South Asian woman officially nominated on a major party presidential ticket. (And made an iconic impression while doing it; suffice it to say, that silence after “I know a predator when I see one” might be the most pregnant pause of the election season.)
Not only did Harris’ assured, personal, and powerful speech meet the moment—so did the entire night.
It’s easy to ridicule the telethon nature of the virtual event. It’s tempting to dismiss the necessity of an antiquated production like this that, no matter who you ask about it, seems to be extending a hand to the wrong people and leaving you and your concerns behind. But the fact of the matter is that it was historic television, a clarification that may even have operated outside any of those criticisms.
The greatest challenge facing this year’s DNC, virtual or otherwise, was going to be how to overcome a palpable cynicism—what use is all this anyway?—and bitterness: Here’s a brilliantly edited package on female leaders who fought to break the glass ceiling and how those achievements could change the country for the better, and then here are many of those women talking in support of the white man we are going to have to settle for anyway.
I don’t think Obama’s incredible speech absolved that. But it certainly spoke to it, and loudly.
Speaking to it a bit more quietly, though in ways that will definitely resonate, was Billie Eilish, who performed her song “My Future.”
“You don’t need me to tell you things are a mess,” she said, before the smoke in the enchanted forest that surrounded her started to billow. “Donald Trump is destroying our country and everything we care about. We all have to vote like our lives and the world depend on it because they do."
Appearing every bit the annoyed older cousin who you both admire and are afraid of, who can’t belieeeeve she even has to tell you this—gosh, guys!—the appearance was counterintuitively affecting. It’s an inspirational juxtaposition to the whole Billie Eilish “thing.” Even the eternally bored must be politically active!
And so she sang from what appeared to be the reconstructed set of Hocus Pocus, a decision that just has to be applauded: being asked to perform a song about the current political moment and serving up a camp-horror film aesthetic.
As the song got bouncier, the lights came up around her. If you listened closely, what you thought were the beats of bass drums were actually Fox News pundits’ brain cells exploding in real time. People on conservative Twitter are already acting as if this moody, appropriately defiant performance was the equivalent of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion grinding to “WAP” on top of the American flag.
Whatever you think of the decision to enlist musicians and celebrities into these political moments, at the very least Eilish earned this year’s DNC much cooler cred than Katy Perry’s Class Monitor energy from 2016—which speaks to the programming Wednesday night as a whole.
What stood out was that the speakers were all emotional in pointed and striking ways. And they all made sense to be there, in contrast to past days when the daily announcements of Republicans joining the schedule made us cower for the inevitable update that Dick Cheney would be joining to perform a tap dance over Zoom with Sean Spicer.
The virtual format also allows for “real Americans” and their stories to be brought into the conversation in ways that, finally, don’t reek of exploitation and gross appropriation. In fact, they proved to be profound and necessary.
I’ve been startled and surprised by the random moments over the last few days when I just burst into short fits of tears while watching this. Not long, drawn-out bouts of sadness, but pinpricks of intense emotion that pierced with a sharp, quick pain: Matthew Shepard’s parents doing the Roll Call for Wyoming. The story of Deandra Dycus and her son. The Bidens recounting in detail their family tragedy. Gabby Giffords’ gorgeous, chills-inducing triumph. Elizabeth Warren talking about her Aunt Bee.
We need to feel sadness. It’s something we tend to forget in the anger and the fear and the ineptitude of it all. Bad things are happening to people like any of us, and it’s just so sad.
The packages spotlighting certain issues, which always play as corny and superficial in normal circumstances, also registered with more sting the way they played here.
Each new, upsetting segment ended by opening the trap door for the next one to go through, as the night’s issue-driven packages plummeted down a never-ending tunnel of depression: Gun violence! Climate change! Deportation crisis! Domestic violence! It’s a slog that, for once, felt like a slog. That is an important point! That impact is so often lost when you watch footage from the convention halls.
The theme of Wednesday night was “A More Perfect Union,” a seemingly innocuous prompt that has actually proven divisive in how audiences are digesting this convention.
You watch something like this in which unity and reaching across the aisle is the ethos battering through the whole enterprise like a deafening jackhammer, and then you listen to how pundits on TV talk about it, political commentators write about it, progressives on Twitter tweet about it—all of which focuses on what was done wrong, what wasn’t done enough, and what’s just plain irritating. You’re left with a dizzying, almost numbing dissonance ringing in your ears.
It’s the version of: How do you cover the city council meeting when someone’s over there doing a topless dance next to a monkey eating its own poo while surrounded by circus performers setting themselves on fire?
It’s telling that the big headlines from Day 2 were false, trolling reports about AOC not endorsing Biden. Or, in the hours before Day 3 of the convention started, Trump was back in the big tent, refusing to disavow QAnon supporters and their insane conspiracy theories
There’s the obvious question: What value is there in paying attention to, let alone covering, any of that? But you try walking past the side show without trying to take a peek in, let alone throwing your hands up and buying a ticket.
To that end, it’s noteworthy that Barack Obama didn’t just deliver a resonating, sure-to-be-headline-making speech. He delivered good TV. He not only counter-programmed the circus, but served as carnival barker for what is finally making the case to be a better show.
About that cynicism? They’re counting on it, he said. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win.”
When you’re feeling resigned and powerless, it’s hard to remember that sometimes you aren’t owed that. You’re not entitled to helplessness, jadedness, or pessimism. Seek out more of his speech to read more of the nuances of his point, but the argument is noteworthy in contrast to what the DNC had been messaging so far.
So much of this convention has been about laying out how the Democratic Party, Biden, Harris and “we the people” can put out the fires raging in our democracy. Obama’s speech stuck out almost as a contradiction. No, we need to be setting fires. Feel the sparks of rage and brokenness, and let it burn.
And while things are being torched, enter Jennifer Hudson, blowing the roof off what appears to be a very fancy building, performing the perfect song choice, belted like a flamethrower.
“A Change Is Gonna Come,” and you could almost sense the temptation of DNC programmers to ask you to call 1-800-VOTE4US if you think, oh, yes it will.