Nobody could ever accuse Michael Franti of not being a master of crowd service. He punctuated Wednesday night’s hyper-buoyant mix of reggae-tinged pop-rock every half-minute or so with calls to action: “Salt Lake City, show me your hands,” “Hug somebody,” “Everybody jump around,” “Someone needs to come upstage and sing with me.”
The Red Butte audience was happy to oblige. Franti brought children on stage to sing and spent two or three full songs walking around the venue grounds, singing with eager fans. The unrelenting sunniness would have felt heavy-handed if the audience didn’t embrace it so wholeheartedly. The show took on the feeling of a megachurch baptism service without any doctrine—joyful, balmy, but also contextless.
In fact, audiences could be forgiven if they left the show not knowing anything about Franti’s political activism, which for so much of his career was his guiding light. Some fans might champion this fact, suggesting that music and politics don’t mix. But all music is political, whether explicit or implicit, and much of Franti’s work is explicitly political. (Read our interview with Michael Franti here.)
So, what does it mean that the writer of songs like “Bomb The World,” “Television The Drug of the Nation” and “Crime To Broke In America” has obscured his deeply-felt beliefs in favor of vague lyrics about love and sunshine and loving sunshine?
It’s possible that beneath his pleas for optimism, Franti has grown cynical about music’s ability to radicalize. There were times that Franti’s performance felt like Pepsi’s much-maligned 2017 commercial with Kendall Jenner—wrapped in images of revolution and resistance, while suggesting that sugary, market-tested bullshit might be the solution to a nuanced, volatile problem. It’s also possible that Franti, a longtime disciple of Gil Scott-Heron, has taken a more subversive approach to delivering his message.
Perhaps his foray into pop music is an attempt to widen his net so more people might hear his message of social justice. It’s a tactic famously used by British band Chumbawamba in the late ’90s. Members of the band were fierce proponents of queer liberation, class struggle and anti-fascism, and, in search of larger congregation, transformed their animated post-punk into a fad-friendly dance sound as heard on their mega-hit “Tubthumping.”
Franti’s performance on Wednesday was bubbly and often undeniably fun. It also sounded tailor-made for an Old Navy “School’s Out” commercial. It was a far-cry from his early work, which featured political musings sung in a Barry White-low voice over blazed-up trip-hop. Has his mission as an artist changed or is he attacking an old problem with a new approach? Our consumer culture should make anyone skeptical of a person selling forever-sunshine. But maybe Franti still has something important to offer, and he’s simply added some sugar to help the medicine go down.