I had no idea of what to expect out of the Iowa Caucus Concert featuring Bon Iver, but when Senator Bernie Sanders announces he’s holding a concert to rally supporters and by circumstance you’re already going to be in the correct state, you find a way to get to that concert.
I woke up in Ann Arbor at 5 a.m. that morning and drove all the way to Iowa with another Michigan Daily journalist and a photographer to report on the pre-caucus activities in the state. By the time we arrived at the concert venue — Horizons Event Center in Clive, Iowa — at 4 p.m. on Friday, we’d already interviewed several Iowans about their feelings on the caucus, trailed around a group of University of Michigan students canvassing for Senator Elizabeth Warren and eaten lunch at the World’s Largest Truck Stop. That’s all to say: We’d been busy.
Since this wasn’t just any concert — this was a Bernie Sanders Caucus Concert — there was an hour of Iowan folk bands to open the show, 2 hours of energetic political speeches from Sanders’ political surrogates (the senator himself was stuck in D.C. for the impeachment trials) and then about 45 minutes of Justin Vernon closing out the show with a solo acoustic set. I wasn’t used to this Iowa reporting schedule of 18-hour days, so by the time Justin Vernon took the stage at 9 p.m., I was pretty damn exhausted.
Still, I left the press area — buzzing with professional journalists all very excited to be at this rather unusual event — and planted myself squarely in the middle of the crowd for Vernon’s set. About 2,000 people had turned out to support Bernie and see Bon Iver, and as far as I could tell, it wasn’t much different from the crowd at a packed university co-op party. I’d never seen more rolled-up beanies, circular glasses frames or Doc Martens in one space before. People of all ages had come out to see the show (there were multiple babies in attendance!), but the majority of attendees looked between the ages of 18 and 30, which checks out, considering Sanders’ appeal to young voters. The crowd was energized by the call, and screamed when Vernon took the stage, just as they had during the rallying cries of the political figures who’d spoken earlier in the evening. The couple next to me looked so thrilled by the combination of Bernie and Bon Iver that I thought they might jump each other right there in the middle of the Horizons Event Center.
The feeling in the event center shifted suddenly, though. Vernon, who hails from Wisconsin, opened his set with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Your Side.” When he croned “the country I come from is called the Midwest,” the audience cheered, but far more softly than they had earlier. A man to my right wearing a cow print baseball cap and sporting a thick mustache (no beard) swayed from side to side. I felt whiplashed; the softness of Vernon provided a stark contrast to the angry radical energy that had precipitated the room just before he took the stage.
The tonal shift left me feeling confused and even more exhausted. My back hurt from standing for so long in bad shoes. Plus I wanted to see how professional political journalists were treating this caucus concert.
Out of respect for the Midwestern energy in the room, I “excused me”-d and “pardon me”-d back to the press area. But when I got back there, the tables were almost entirely empty. Gone were all the laptops, voice recorders and cameras. Everyone seemed to have gone home to their company-expensed motels. I thought back to the buzz I’d felt emanating off the other reporters in the press area before diving into the crowd of Bernie supporters and Bon Iver fans. Had it just been an excitement to leave the event?
I felt betrayed, in a way. A free Bon Iver concert that you get paid to go to! Sure, for an arts and culture journalist, no big deal. But for a political reporter? That doesn’t happen every day! Covering 2020 is a serious job, but I felt like no one should be above having a little fun at a free concert.
Disappointed, I didn’t want to go back into the crowd, but I couldn’t see Vernon from the press tables, so I walked up the stairs to the small press balcony. The balcony also had a view of the stage, but an even better view of the press area below, and as I counted the number of journalists who’d stuck around on my fingers, I noticed someone I hadn’t seen before: One lone journalist sat asleep in her chair at a press table, head down on the cold plastic.
As I looked at this sleeping comrade, I realized the heaviness of my own exhaustion. Sure, I loved Bon Iver as much as the next guy. But I’d been working for 15 hours at that point. The newsworthy part of this event had come and gone. I didn’t need to be there, and frankly, I wanted to be asleep, too. I decided to cut the other journalists — who’d probably been working 18-hour days in Iowa for weeks now — some slack. We were all tired. We could pay to see Bon Iver another time. Let’s all go back to our motel rooms and go to sleep.