New Yorker Danny Goldberg has had a long and varied career. He has run prestigious record companies, managed folks like Kurt Cobain and Bonnie Raitt, written several books, and was head of the ACLU in Southern California for a period. He probably knows as much about the intersection of the entertainment industry and politics as anyone. And now, his just-released latest, “Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment and Resistance To Trump,” takes us through the final year of the presidential campaign and, specifically, how celebrities mattered.
First, he points out the challenges they faced. “The collective efforts of political experts, Democratic campaign operatives armed with the biggest budgets in campaign history, Obama administration allies, Never-Trump Republicans, and most of the mainstream media had failed to stop Trump in 2016. Something had to change.”
So begins this well researched and star-studded book. Which he started thinking about when the campaign was also starting up. And then, “I noticed that Trump was triggering an unusually large interest in the entertainment world,” he told me, “and suddenly I was covering it in real time. No more did I want to write this in the past, but as things were happening.”
Goldberg points out that even though the majority of celebrities lean left, the other side has possibly better understood the value of star power. “Although some Democrats continued to be ambivalent about the political relevance of entertainment, Republicans needed no convincing,” he writes. “The two Republican presidents with show business backgrounds, Trump and Ronald Reagan, were not anomalies, but products of a political mindset that saw entertainment as one of the levers that generated populist political power.”
Smartly, Goldberg does take us briefly back for a history lesson, reminding us of a few frightening times, all revolving around the Red Scare: when the African American singer and actor Paul Robeson was banned from several speaking engagements; Charlie Chaplin, forced to leave the United States in 1952; and of course, The Hollywood Ten, screenwriters convicted of contempt of Congress and given sentences ranging from six months to one year in prison.
But a lot has changed since then, particularly in the wee hours of the morning, and especially during Trump’s tenure. Jimmy Fallon’s initially non-partisan “Tonight Show” fell in the ratings during the presidential campaign, while his Trump-bashing competitors’ numbers went up. Though Goldberg points out, “When Jon Stewart began hosting The Daily Show in 1999, it was the only daily late-night program in which the comedy revolved around politics. After Trump become president, it was every show, every night.“ Eventually, yes, when Fallon got on board too.
Many known names are interviewed in the book, including Bruce Springsteen, with whom Goldberg has a long history. “I first met the Boss forty years ago, while co-directing the political music documentary No Nukes,” he reminded me. “We did several anti-nuclear events together at Madison Square Garden, and Springsteen’s participation in those shows was his first public political statement.” The first of many.
Goldberg’s lifelong commitment comes partly from being raised by parents who were proud to call themselves liberal. Both he and his late father, for example, worked at times for The Nation magazine. “Danny has been a wonderfully loyal Nation supporter, reader and contributing writer for more than three decades,” says the magazine’s publisher and former editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel. “Over the years, Danny has shaped creative ideas for Nation coverage and inspired me with his own experience — whether with ACLU or as a wildly successful music producer.”
I confess that this subject has always interested me. I coined the term “Hollytics” in the ‘70s while covering the glittery political scene in California. I, like Goldberg, grew up in an actively political environment. (I like to say my dad “saved The Nation” but that’s another story.) At first, I thought Goldberg’s book may suffer following Ron Brownstein’s rollicking, “Rock Me On the Water,” which was also recently published and focuses on how California became the epicenter of all mediums in another singular year. (In that case it was 1974). But now, the books can be seen as bookends of sorts and the well-respected Brownstein even did a blurb for Goldberg.
As for the future, the author-entrepreneur-activist understands that a unique candidate — of any Party — with undeniable charisma, is rare. Though he writes, “Within her first weeks in office, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, became the first Democrat since Obama to obtain Hollywood-level star power due to her unpretentious glamour and her mastery of social media.”
Is he confident that she and other progressives — including performers — will stay center stage? “I think most who got energized during 2020 will stay energized,” he told me. “Once you get an appetite and you realize it doesn’t ruin your career, you hopefully stay committed.” He recently wrote an op-ed titled, “It’s Time to Get The Band Together Again.” Very few have put together as many bands as has Danny Goldberg, so let’s hope it works.