- Hearing Jackie Evancho in the Age of Donald Trump
During a 14 December 2016 Today Show appearance, sixteen-year-old Jackie Evancho proudly announced that she would perform the national anthem at Donald Trump’s inaugural ceremony, unleashing a maelstrom of both adulation and criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.1 Fans framed her acceptance of the invitation as a testament to her patriotism and ability to transcend party lines, while detractors (and cyberbullies) derided her as sellout, has-been, puppet, and pawn. From others on social media, the response was “Jackie who?” In 2010 Jackie Evancho captured the hearts of viewers across the nation with her performance of Puccini’s aria “O mio babbino caro” on the fifth season of America’s Got Talent (AGT).2 Taking home second place, the ten-year-old classical crossover singer soon after embarked on a meteoric rise to international stardom. She released a handful of chart-topping CDs; collaborated with numerous pop and classical artists, including Tony Bennett and Plácido Domingo; performed solo concerts at elite venues, including Avery Fisher Hall; and made high-profile appearances for dignitaries, world leaders, and even Oprah. Indeed, Evancho’s commercial and critical success thus far is both impressive and unprecedented, yet at the same time, her reception reaffirms Jacqueline Warwick and Allison [End Page 467] Adrian’s assertion that the voices of girls and young women serve as “potent emblems and lightning rods for many of our cultural anxieties about authority and power.”3
During the first three years of her professional career, Evancho shifted between three complicated subject positions: prodigy, diva, and ideal girl, figures that historically have been valorized in some contexts and devalued in others.4 But now, in 2017, the teenage soprano sings to audiences immersed in a more highly contentious political climate. Taking the responses to Evancho’s inauguration announcement as a starting point, this essay offers a reading of three intersecting subject positions she occupies in the age of Donald Trump—classical crossover artist, ideal woman, and true patriot. While on the surface the singer appears an apolitical choice, the rhetoric of purity surrounding her biography, repertoire, and vocality allows her to reinscribe a vision of femininity, whiteness, and patriotic zeal that perfectly aligns with Republican ideologies. Moreover, an analysis of the discourses surrounding her performance of the national anthem unveil the inner workings of the Right’s efforts to elevate Evancho as a symbol of embattled whiteness.
Critical race theory positions race as a socially constituted phenomenon that legitimizes structural inequalities, thereby reinforcing white supremacy and maintaining the subjugation of people of color. Pre-Trump, being “white” meant one was devoid of a racialized identity, or unmarked, but as his campaign unfolded, white became a racial category, albeit a contested one.5 Trump’s campaign platform, which stoked fear over issues such as immigration, gun rights, and liberal secularism, deftly played into the insecurities of white males lamenting the loss of their default position of dominance in the socioeconomic hierarchy. As a group impacted by deindustrialization and outsourcing, this disenfranchised demographic harbored resentment toward the outgoing administration, with many perceiving the attendant rise of identity politics, ethos of multiculturalism, and political correctness as the cultural shifts that deprived them of their rights, traditions, and economic self-determination. Trump uniquely positioned himself as the antidote to both the inefficacy of traditional conservativism and the hypocrisy of liberal elitism. But rather than embracing the full-blown rhetoric of white supremacy, he deployed coded language that appealed to the alt-right without alienating the Republican Party’s old guard. The causes (and factuality) of this population’s victimization remain a point of contention, but colloquies regarding the plight of the God-fearing white male indeed dominated election-year headlines and persist even now as pundits grapple with the election’s aftermath. While journalists have opined on both white male disenfranchisement and the rhetorical and communicative strategies that allowed Trump to appeal to this demographic, there has been less attention directed to investigating how Trump’s campaign music [End Page 468] strategy reinforced these efforts and how these strategies extended to the festivities that marked...