” … an encyclopedia for creative activism.”Sandra Cuff, Vancouver Media Co-op
By the fall of 2009, with Sarah Palin tweeting about “death panels” and town hall meetings overrun by angry teabaggers up in arms (literally) about a supposed “government takeover of healthcare,” progressives had officially lost control of the healthcare debate. Could a daring creative action that brought the fight directly to the insurance industry help reframe the conversation and shift momentum back toward reform? One group of activists centered around a small “subvertising” agency called Agit-Pop, certainly thought so.
Working closely with the main healthcare reform coalition, we snuck a handful of professional singers and stealth videographers into a high-profile gathering of insurance industry lobbyists. With fake name tags and business suits, we blended in with the crowd and, just as the closing keynote began, let loose with a “guerrilla musical” complete with soloists, chorus and comic asides. Dubbed “Public Option Annie,” and set to the tune of Annie’s “Tomorrow,” it by turn surprised, charmed and irritated the assembled lobbyists until security escorted everyone out. Within two hours we had turned the footage and audio into a polished viral video, loaded it onto YouTube and shopped it around to media outlets.
Rachel Maddow ran a glowing segment on it that same night, calling it “the single most unexpected turn of events yet in the fight over health reform.” It was then picked up by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and numerous local TV stations. The blogosphere lit up, reform supporters cheered, and Jon Stewart picked up the story, mocking the “terrible” singing for blowing out his eardrums.
That same week the public option made it into the Senate bill. Of course, it later got struck from the final legislation. “Tomorrow,” indeed!
Here’s what Variety magazine had to say about the prank:
The stunt was worthy of something dreamed up by a Hollywood press agent of yesteryear: A group of health reform activists quietly infiltrated a D.C. meeting of health insurance executives and, one by one, added their voices to a growing chorus of a satirical version of “Tomorrow” from “Annie.” The antics, from the group Billionaires for Wealthcare, was a bit of showmanship in a health care debate that has until only recently been scarce in showbiz moments.
And as one YouTube user commented:
The right sends armed, angry and misinformed people to disrupt town halls. The left invades with clever send ups. Charm, wit and intelligence will eventually carry the day.
Public Option Annie shows what a few determined pranksters can do when they combine moxie, military precision, fake IDs and good old musical theater. It’s also a great example of the synergies possible when an action has both a “real world” and online dimension. While the action itself was a surgical strike inside the belly of the insurance industry beast, the “stickiness” of the presentation ensured that millions of Americans witnessed it on the tubes.
Who doesn’t love a good song and dance number? And how much more exciting when the musical breaks out unexpectedly, right next to you, in the middle of an otherwise boring day? And, if on top of that, this “guerrilla musical” is actually singing truth to power behind enemy lines, all the while smiling and staying in key? Those insurance industry lobbyists never had a chance.
In the theater proper there’s a literal stage, but in the (political) world at large, a stage is wherever the action is, whether that’s Tiananmen Square or inside an insurance industry conference. By inserting your action into a contested space, you turn it into a stage. By challenging the powers that rule that space, you create the kind of real-world, conflict-laced drama that can powerfully tell your story — and, if packaged right, go viral.
You cannot count on the mainstream media to tell your story for you — and in our age of cell phone cams, YouTube and instant blogging, you don’t have to. The “Annie” team snuck more videographers (six) into the conference than they did singers (five). The whole action was orchestrated for expressive impact, scripted, rehearsed and performed for the camera. Our own cameras.
There’s a tendency on the Left to think that if intentions are good, art doesn’t have to be. This is rarely true. If your art is good, people will pay more attention to what you’re trying to say. Even people who disagree with your views will still respect your effort because you showed them the respect of making as strong and beautiful an artwork as possible. The lead “Annie” soloist was a professionally trained opera singer with six years at the Met. The “Annie” team went through four scripts till they hit on the right one, and then rehearsed it as intensely as time would allow. That amount of preparation isn’t always possible but, in general, if you take your art seriously, your audience is more likely to take your ideas seriously.