At the top of a creaky flight of stairs in a grungy music room in Brooklyn, four self-proclaimed "anti-conspiracy theorists" stepped up to a small pink-lit stage. Among a motley lineup of rock and free jazz groups that raged until the early hours, Crisis Actors stood out. They are, so they say, the "first PAC-rock band, ever." That claim is hard to verify — but they certainly are the first band to form a PAC that supports presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
Over a short set of reverb-heavy and occasionally wispy tunes, the group — each dressed as a character from a popular conspiracy theory, including a bass-playing alien and an Illuminati singer — quietly ruminated on Ted Cruz's hair in the song "Holiday in Bohemian Grove" and declared "The system is fucked" in a verse of "I Don't Vote."
Motivated by the "insanity of the political system," the band is "a reaction to lunatic conspiracy theories" given oxygen by "garbage journalism," the group's front man, Steve Panovich, who was clad as a member of the Illuminati, told VICE News.
While the PAC-band is unique in the way it has chosen to endorse Sanders, its members are among a growing group of musicians, artists, and other creative types inspired to action by the 74-year-old Vermont senator's democratic socialist agenda. In New York and Los Angeles, an army of grassroots volunteers are lending their own artistic expressions of support for Sanders at concert fundraisers, comedy nights, and art shows.
Earlier this week, New Yorkers staged a two-night indie music benefit dubbed "Brooklyn is Berning," which, like similar events in the area, attracted a mostly hip and artsy crowd in their 20s and 30s on the senator's former home turf.
"If you're a musician in the scene here, it's no surprise that you'd be drawn to Bernie Sanders," said keyboardist Colin Caulfield of Brooklyn-based indie rock band Diiv, who attended the benefit. "It's an unspoken thing that most people on the scene would be rooting for him."
The Crisis Actors. (Photo by Sarah Rogers)
Across the country, at least 128 prominent actors, writers, musicians, and other cultural figures including author Margaret Cho, actress Susan Sarandon, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and comedian Will Ferrell, have also thrown their support behind Sanders. Many of them had never before formally backed a candidate. In recent months, the senator has also picked up several endorsements from hip-hop artists and rappers including Bun B, Scarface, Lil B, and Killer Mike, who has even stumped with Sanders on the campaign trail.
Sarandon, who made an unannounced appearance at the Brooklyn is Berning benefit, was cheered by the young crowd when she pronounced, "I don't vote with my vagina." The actress added that the assumption she would automatically support former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was "insulting to women." Clinton is currently leading Sanders by roughly 21 percentage points in party nomination polls. She is also ahead of Sanders in terms of congressional support, with 185 endorsements compared with his two.
"Why does Bernie have so few congressional and superdelegate endorsements and an astounding amount of artist endorsements?" Panovich mused. "Maybe it's because artists can envision different ways of reality. Maybe we're just naive en masse… I like the idea that Will Ferrell is out there somewhere, though, pondering how market regulation reform would enrich the lives of millions of struggling Americans."
The members of Crisis Actors say the band grew out of both necessity and creative ambition. It's the brainchild of Panovich and longtime music collaborator and producer Todd Tobias, who wrote the music. Before the costumes and rehearsals and handmade flyers, Panovich, 36, who is an artist's assistant by day, began screen-printing his own T-shirts and other materials shortly after Sanders launched his presidential bid last May. But after donating more than $1,000 in sales to the senator's campaign, Panovich was forced to file as a political action committee with the Federal Election Commission, despite the campaign actively discouraging its volunteers from forming PACs.
Crisis Actors released its first basement-recorded EP in December, around the time Panovich began writing the first of four editions of the band's own zine, titled The Crisis Actors' Guide to How Corporations, Media and Political Parties are Fucking With You. The band later grew to absorb members from existing post-punk band Big Bliss, which is comprised of drummer Cory Race, his brother and guitarist Tim Race, and bassist Wallace May.
Shortly before their first live performance on Thursday, the group explained that its name directly lampoons the belief held by so-called "truthers" or "hoaxers" that government-paid actors are deployed to staged school shootings or cooked-up terrorist attacks to pose as grieving relatives.
"The band's message is political theater dada mixed with a legitimate serious message concerning political parties and the mainstream media," said Panovich. "Basically, both of those entities aren't really being honest with the general public."
'There's something relatable that we all see in Bernie Sanders — he's got that honest no-bullshit demeanor about him.'
These views seemingly mirror the sentiments of Sanders, who has long vacillated between wariness and outright disdain for corporate media. In 1979, two years before he was elected to become the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders wrote an article titled "Social Control and the Tube" in a local left-leaning paper. In it, the then 38-year-old criticized commercial TV networks for being a channel through which corporations and the "owners of society" can numb minds and "propagate their political points."
The inordinate national media attention focused on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump's campaign during 2016 election cycle has perhaps proved Sanders' point. According to the Tyndall Report, which tracks the flagship nightly news shows on major networks, Sanders, whose campaign broke through with a record 2.5 million small donations in 2015, only received a combined 20 minutes of airtime last year on NBC, CBS, and ABC. That's compared with Trump's 327 minutes and Clinton's 121 minutes.
Before joining Crisis Actors, May, 29, whose on-stage persona is an alien, told VICE News she had always been "pretty quiet" with her political views.
"I've always chosen to lean back, but because of the craziness of this year's campaign and how much I like Bernie Sanders, I said 'fuck it' — it's time for me to try something different," she said. "There's something relatable that we all see in Bernie Sanders — he's got that honest no-bullshit demeanor about him."
Sanders' leftist position on social justice issues is especially appealing to artists, many of whom have historically carried their own liberal bent. Music, in particular, has over time been a favored vehicle to espouse anti-establishment or revolutionary views across all genres — from Nina Simone to Rage Against the Machine, the Beatles, and Black Sabbath. Crisis Actors draws its own inspiration from politically charged bands like the hardcore punk group Dead Kennedys and the post-hardcore band Fugazi.
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Members of the band say they see Sanders' proposals on job creation, the minimum wage, climate change, Wall Street reform, and eschewing corporate money as directly aligned with their own interests.
"Sanders is a guy who wants to enact FDR-like programs, or at least boost them if they already exist," said Crisis Actors guitarist Tim Race, 28, who was dressed as a reptilian. "Arts and culture is among the least funded and subsidized."
Compared with at least 50 countries around the world, the US does not have a ministry of culture (or equivalent) to advance the role of the arts at home and abroad. While the National Endowment for the Arts oversees this area broadly, in 2015, the agency's budget of $146 million represented just 0.012 percent of federal discretionary spending. For years, artists and musicians have argued in favor of a specific cabinet position — potentially a secretary of culture within the executive branch — to support creative ingenuity.
In 2009, at least 76,000 people, including Quincy Jones, signed an online petition calling for a culture-focused cabinet-level position. So far, no candidate vying for the White House in 2016 has specifically proposed a central figure to oversee culture, or boost funding in this area, but Panovich believes Sanders's social reforms would directly affect struggling artists.
"I think Sanders' plan would do the same thing for less-than-massively-successful artists as it would for anyone in the working class," he said. "Namely raise the vast majority of Americans' standard of living to keep up with our productivity.
"Look at past generations, specifically post WWI and WWII, and see where innovation blossomed in the arts," he added. "There were a lot of different factors to this at the time, but there was a direct connection to that innovation and economic stability and prosperity."
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields