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What John Hickenlooper's Love of Music Says About His Politics

John Hickenlooper on stage with Old Crow Medicine Show.
John Hickenlooper on stage with Old Crow Medicine Show. Jacqueline Collins
John Hickenlooper wants people to know he’s a music man. And if the centrist's presidential bid goes his way, we'll all sing in purple harmony, jamming along with the Banjo Player-in-Chief.

In Trumpworld, some say that a friendly disposition is a non-starter for a candidate; others say it’s what the country needs. One thing everybody can agree on is that Hick's a music geek, something he has never kept to himself.

When he launched his presidential campaign on March 4, he posted a handful of photos on Twitter. In one, he’s a lanky young hipster, noodling on an electric guitar with his feet kicked back, a beer next to him and a handsome dog underneath his chair. The photo harks back to simpler times, when he wanted to be a musician — or at least a music journalist, as he often confesses.

“If you had told me at this age I'd someday be an entrepreneur, I would have laughed. If you had told me I'd get into politics, I wouldn't have believed you,” he wrote in the accompanying tweet. “But today, this Geologist, Brewer, Mayor, and Governor is submitting his application to be your next President."

In the other photo, he’s hobnobbing with Nathaniel Rateliff, holding the singer's first album with the Night Sweats. That band — whose Marigold Project has funded a glut of lefty causes, much like the social-justice-minded Chinook Fund, which Hickenlooper founded in 1987 and then later distanced himself from — will be playing a free concert and rally that will kick off Hick's campaign today, March 7, in Civic Center Park. Gates open at 5 p.m.; get more info here.
Hick flashing his earnest love of music has earned some jabs from day one of his campaign, as people accuse him of trying to out-Beto Beto O’Rourke, the hip Texan who gave Ted Cruz a run for his money and nearly turned his home state blue. That Democratic candidate's time in the punk band Foss raised Republicans’ hackles and made liberals swoon during his nearly successful campaign last year.

Turning youthful musical aspirations into a stumping point seems to be how white men are attempting to appear relevant to disgruntled millennials who'd prefer that that demographic quit trying to lead the country. The move: See, kids, we’re hip, too, because we've got electric guitars!

Hick's musical taste appears narrow. He shows up for apolitical, feel-good bands — mostly Americana. His preferences veer toward Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers and the Fray. When those bands play Colorado, he's in the crowd, on the sidelines and occasionally even on stage, strumming along. Those musicians show up for him, too.

When it comes to music, Hick's musical buddies play it safe in the center, as he does. And like Hickenlooper, most of them are white and male. They play music nostalgic for a mythical happy-go-lucky United States that never really existed, where slavery, genocide, segregation and war didn't sully pastoral bliss. They don't play with the “Take This Job and Shove It” fury of country, nor the “Fuck tha Police” ethos of old-school rap. Hick's is polite, friendly music, easy to listen to without delivering a punch. Even Rateliff, who nods to black American soul, has largely kept his activism out of his lyrics.

Hickenlooper's relationship to the music industry is as purple as his platform and his taste. Look at Take Note Colorado, the nonprofit he formed with Democratic billionaire funder Pat Stryker and Libby Anschutz, the Republican daughter of conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz, who owns one of the nation’s leading entertainment companies, Anschutz Entertainment Group. The CEO of that company's regional offshoot, AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, is Chuck Morris, a longtime Democratic funder who has supported Hickenlooper for decades and another Take Note backer. Along for the ride: independent Isaac Slade of the Fray, progressive Rateliff, and pop superstar Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic.

With Take Note, Hick has brought together rich Republicans, Democrats and independents to create a heavyweight nonprofit that intends to put an instrument in the hands of each student in Colorado. As he tells it, the whole thing shows what happens when people put aside their differences to work toward a shared goal. The nonprofit is mostly a feel-good project for now (its goals are years out of reach), a private-public partnership, the sort of thing Hickenlooper embraces.

Whatever his fate in next year's presidential race, Hick's doing what he did in all his previous campaigns: dancing to his own tune with a grin on his face. That's worked in Denver and Colorado. But will the nation rock along? 
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris