Has anybody checked on Jennifer Hudson? She was nearly done wrestling Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to the floor of the Chicago Cultural Center when, as the closing act for night three of the Democratic National Convention, she walked away from her microphone. Mid-belt, the convention feed called it a day for her just as she seemed prepared to throw herself down the marble staircase. Did she?
I didn’t like the arrangement, either. She gave it plenty of volume but couldn’t find the drama. So rather than hunt it down, Hudson switched at the end to opera, a pivot that was its own kind of drama. Gliding her long body, wrapped in a rippling gown the color of a grapefruit, past her physically distanced band, she’d turned away from the camera to have a moment with herself. Then, poof! I was suddenly looking at folks milling around the Wilmington convention space where Kamala Harris had just officially accepted the vice-president slot on Joe Biden’s presidential ticket. It was the last shot of “The Sopranos,” except Hudson had maybe whacked herself.
All that horsepower and visual elegance was meant to cap a historic night for Harris and therefore the country with a rendition of Cooke’s civil rights elegy. It was optimistic overkill and, given that exhilarating cross-country roll call that certified Biden’s nomination Tuesday night, overdetermined anticlimax.
Nonetheless, the people putting this Covid-era convention on have really thought about how to expunge the live, in-person bloat in order to both make television and simulate the internet. Ordinarily, Hudson might’ve been drowned out by post-convocation commotion among the attendees. Now her overcompensation had true intimacy: You hurt for her; you hurt with her.
Somebody has figured out that a little premeditated randomness is actually exciting. You can plant entertainment amid the get-to-know-you montages, lacerating exhortations to vote, and short, stirring policy infomercials. You can plant Prince Royce on actual streets and have him do a bachata version of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” You can plop Billie Eilish in a production studio and let her sing something new. Just because.
The people who cover politics for a living might have been baffled to see a smoothie like Royce and a stylist like Eilish taking time away from Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. But there’s no reason they can’t coexist. Wednesday night they did. Eilish was as transfixing in the tender granularity of her enunciation as Barack Obama was in the surgically deployed third-degree burn of his pique.
The broadcast introduced the 18-year-old singer behind a keyboard. The song was “My Future,” a fully sketched promise to put herself first for a moment. It’s got two phases: the first a ballad, the second the ballad with a beat. It’s among the best gimmicks in pop: the song that rips off its business suit and reveals a bikini. “My Future” continued where Eilish left off at the Grammys back in January, implying that beneath the wit of her impish, hip-hop-tinged instigations beats the heart of a classicist, a mannerist, someone in league with Jennifer Hudson but still too cool to prove it.
Hudson is the institution-approved star the old political convention craves, even if what she came up with in Chicago was still too strange for that model. Eilish is what this on-location iteration needs — Royce, also. Who knows how many young people watch these things. But if they found themselves in some parent’s sidecar, imagine the surprise of discovering the two of them, alongside an activist like Emma González. The professionals who might miss the traditional noise — reporters, pundits, campaign staffers — might also miss why a Billie Eilish makes sense amid so many politicians, in part because you can faintly hear in “My Future” a wish for other people’s, too.