At 7 P.M. on election night, around 50 people milled about a ballroom on the lower level of Capitol Hill's Hyatt Regency hotel, waiting for a party hosted by the Tea Party Patriots to really get started. Most guests loaded up their plates at a buffet filled with upscale versions of football-stadium food: hot wings, baked brie, multi-colored tortillas covered in nacho cheese, and sliders with optional fixings. In lieu of Earl Grey, they sipped wine and beer as they watched election returns roll in. The crowd, mostly white and middle-aged, was optimistic but nervous. They knew the Republicans were going to come out ahead, but they weren't sure how many seats the GOP would gain in the House. They were even less sure of the outcome in the Senate, though they were confident a few darlings, like Marco Rubio in Florida and Rand Paul in Kentucky, would win.
No one noticed the arrival of Jeremy Hoop, who had an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder and wore a fedora to complete his look. He mingled with the crowd, occasionally repositioning his guitar as if he were going to strum it, but never did. Hoop, a 38-year-old singer-songwriter from Utah, describes himself as a "blue-collar artist" and is also an actor: In addition to a few minor TV roles, he has starred in film adaptations of stories from the Book of Mormon. When it was finally time for his performance, Hoop grabbed a microphone from the lectern perched on the platform stage. He launched into "Rise Up," his Tea Party anthem -- and the title track of the EP he brought to sell at the event. "I regard myself as a soldier, a soldier for peace," he sang in a breathy whisper.
The official video of the song, which played in the background, is mostly footage of Hoop among the monuments on the National Mall. "Shout I'm mad as hell and I will ring the bell of freedom," he sang before repeating the chorus, a rising crescendo of "the British are coming, the British are coming!" He made a few vague exhortations to political action ("Grab your tea and follow me") and repeated the words from a Martin Luther King Jr. speech, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!" When he stepped off the stage, a woman gave him a thumbs-up. "Great lyrics!" she said.
Hoop says his song isn't really political, even though people tend to take it that way. "It's about the need to stand up for constitutional principles," he says, which aren't values heard often in popular music. "Imagine having a Bruce Springsteen for the right. They just don't exist."
The right has long sought a Springsteen of its own. Ronald Reagan famously praised the patriotism of "Born in the U.S.A." without, apparently, gleaning its true meaning. The Boss, of course, regularly comes out for the Democrats, and Comedy Central personalities Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert called upon both old-school legends, like Tony Bennett and Cat Stevens, and younger musical heavyweights like Sheryl Crow and The Roots, to entertain a crowd of about a quarter of a million at their rally the weekend before Election Day. Despite Ted Nugent's recent appearances at Sarah Palin's side and country star Bryan White headlining events for Sharron Angle in Nevada, conservative politicians have a contentious relationship with most popular musicians.
Hoop and others clearly sense an opportunity. Other entertainers at the Tea Party election-night event included a country-music group that came from Nashville, a songstress from upstate New York, and a hip-hop duo from Dartmouth College called The Young Cons. Well, half a duo: Josh Riddle, a 22-year-old originally from Denver who performs under the name "Stiltz," was in attendance, but his co-rapper, David Rufful, who performs as "Serious C," couldn't make the trip to the District because he had a test the next morning. Mark Meckler, a founder of the Tea Party Patriots, introduced Riddle by telling the crowd that The Young Cons spread the message that "it is hip to be a patriot." Riddle gave a short speech onstage before playing a recording of one of their songs, "Master of My Destiny."
A woman who stood with a younger couple in the back of the room moved her arms back and forth rhythmically, as if she were in a slow-motion but spirited jog, to the lyrics "I live for liberty with Founding Fathers on my pedigree." It was the same dance move she used at other exciting moments of the night, like when news broke that the Republicans had taken the House. The jams were briefly interrupted by a cell-phone ringtone of "When the Saints Go Marching In" -- the older man from whose hip it emanated didn't seem to notice.
The Young Cons achieved some YouTube celebrity last year when they released their first video, "The Young Con Anthem," a rap ode to low taxes and the intellectual prowess of Fox News personality Megyn Kelly. Rufful and Riddle were freshmen and basketball teammates when they shot the video with a camera rented from the school library in the spring of 2009. Spurred by Tea Party fervor, the video had half a million hits by the midterm elections. Comments on YouTube include a testimonial from a parent whose sons own all The Young Cons' songs: "The kids are listening, and they are sharing their media and knowledge of the political nightmare known as liberalism." (Liberals, of course, loved the video for entirely different reasons: "This is a joke right?" asked another commenter.)
While the recording of "Master of My Destiny" played at the election-night party, Riddle left the stage and shook hands with admirers. He told folks he was surprised and humbled by his group's success and that he and Rufful had just fallen into it. Riddle says they want to keep making music -- they have five songs for sale on iTunes. "We don't do it to make money; we do it to start a conversation," he says. A woman interrupted to ask him to explain a line in one of their songs: "I'm dropping truth bombs on these libs, no Jaeger." Jaeger, Riddle explained, refers to Jaegermeister.
One college-aged student in the crowd, Leanne Livingston, a 20-year-old who attends Kennesaw State University in Georgia, excitedly swapped cards with one of the Nashville musicians at the end of the night. She liked The Young Cons, too, and thought the music could reach her peers, whom she regards as mostly uneducated about politics, free -- market economics, and history. "College kids will hear the beat," she says. "It will get down on their level; something they can relate to."
Despite the competition, Hoop is just happy that conservatives are making music. After all, popular entertainment has been used by liberals to recruit impressionable youngsters since the 1930s. "We really need top-notch talent," he says. "And we especially need rock and rollers."