The Republican National Convention has provided a few oversized reminders of how popular entertainment belongs not to its makers but to the public, which is mostly free to do whatever bizarre thing it wants with it. There was Donald Trump using Queen's “We Are the Champions” to address an arena that had ratified anti-gay policies. An RNC official invoked My Little Pony to defend Melania Trump's plagiarism. Melania herself contributed to the ongoing memeification of Rick Astley’s career. All this, paired with the long history of left-leaning music from Bruce Springsteen to Rage Against the Machine being re-appropriated by conservatives, was enough to make you wonder whether creators’ intentions really ever matter at all.
But last night in Cleveland saw a strange reassertion of the artist as unfiltered political messenger, through an act that few casual listeners associate with the words politics or, really, art: the ‘90s pop-rockers Third Eye Blind.
Headlining an RNC-affiliated charity event at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they committed the worst possible sin a nostalgia band can commit: playing everything but their hits. That is, until they brought out the 1997 single “Jumper,” about a gay friend of the band who killed himself. The frontman Stephan Jenkins told the crowd he wished they would welcome people “like my cousins who are gay into the American fabric.”
“To love this song is to take into your heart the message and to actually have a feeling to arrive and move forward and not live your life in fear and imposing that fear on other people,” he added. To love this song is to take into your heart the message—it’s a clear attempt to correct against pop listeners’ penchant for ignoring a song’s words while bopping to its beat. Is it a futile attempt? Clips on social media show his speech was received with both boos and cheers. But maybe some people learned for the first time what “Jumper” is about.
The rest of the set reportedly featured other moments where Jenkins tried to provoke the crowd, asking them to “raise your hand if you believe in science,” saying he “repudiates” the Republican agenda, and announcing, “You can boo all you want, but I’m the motherfuckin’ artist up here.” The highminded trolling may seem surprising to anyone who knows the band just for FM hits like “Semi-Charmed Life,” but Jenkins has expressed very grave political and artistic concerns for a long time (a 2015 Deadspin headline: “Take Third Eye Blind as Seriously As They Take Themselves”).
So whoever booked the show should have known what they were getting. After being asked to play a private party at the 2012 RNC, Jenkins wrote a blistering note of decline for The Huffington Post. “This whole hustle is peppered with music bits meant to wed policies like forced births of rapist’s babies and minority voter suppression to song,” he said. “… if I came to their convention, I would Occupy their convention.” Now they understand.