Perhaps the most infamous intersection of music and U.S. presidential inaugurations occurred in 1953. Congressman Fred Busbey successfully persuaded the entering Eisenhower administration to remove Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait from their inaugural program due to Copland’s leftist politics—an unprecedented act.1 Copland’s removal may have been the most high profile change, but his was not the only contentious name on the roster—Guy Lombardo’s “staunch” Republican status was questioned by members of Eisenhower’s inaugural committee because he had performed for Democratic president Harry Truman.2 And actress Corrine Griffith wrote to Darryl Zanuck, who advised Eisenhower on his public appearances, approving the celebrities Zanuck suggested “not only because they are artists but because they are good Americans.”3 The moment was one not merely of celebration but of political endorsement of a specific vision of America.
Some sixty years later, the inauguration remains just as potent a mutual endorsement between art and politics. Certainly, the spectacular aspects of size and stardom impart a kind of grandeur to the event, which has been especially important since the mid-twentieth century, when television broadened the viewership considerably. But the programming decisions have continued to be political in explicit and implicit ways. Jimmy Carter’s inauguration featured square dancing, Bill Clinton’s a [End Page 478] fifteen-minute-long multilingual and multiracial performance of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and George W. Bush’s concluded with Ricky Martin’s bilingual performance. All of these articulate a vision of the United States through musical demography. Even more so, Barack Obama’s historic election has prompted a wealth of recent scholarship examining the politics of his musical tastes and of musical artists’ support of him.4
When Donald Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, it may have been the most public and overt example yet of the political nature of musical programming. But unlike the public debates over Copland, where politicians refused to program a composer, Trump’s ceremony was overshadowed by dozens of performers asserting their own political agency. Those who have chosen to play or not to play offer a glimpse into the complex ways both politicians and musicians assert their vision of America under President Trump.
The Politics of Performance
Artists who declined the offer to perform frequently spoke publicly through Twitter and the press about their reasons. Garth Brooks, for example, tersely noted a previous tour engagement, but Charlotte Church took the opportunity to rebuke Trump by calling him a “tyrant” on Twitter, while Elton John distanced himself more politely, responding to an erroneous claim that he had agreed to play by stating, “It’s nothing personal, his political views are his own, mine are very different.”5 The public nature of these refusals took on a performative aspect of artistic resistance and shaped other artists’ decisions. Many artists joined in by “turning down” the possibility of playing, even if no actual invitation had been issued.6 And for both Jennifer Holliday and the B Street Band, enormous public backlash from fans convinced them to withdraw their acceptances.
While not participating (even if not invited) became an overtly political act, many of the musicians who did perform took great pains to depoliticize their appearances. Interviewed by Billboard magazine, DJ Ravidrums acknowledged that his “politics were clearly in a different area” from Trump’s but characterized his music as “super positive songs about people coming together through music, and I thought, ‘man that’s what the world needs.’”7 The Piano Guys echoed this sentiment in an interview with Forbes—while cagily refusing to make any statements about Trump, they stated, “We’re here to do what music was always intended to do. That’s to be something that can lift people in a time of dissonance.”8 Both musical acts also adopted a second, related strategy: to insist upon the patriotic call of performing. DJ Ravidrums cited his father, an immigrant from India who framed the performance as the [End Page 479] fulfillment of his dreams coming to the United States.9 The Piano Guys insisted, “We are here not to be political, we’re here to be patriotic...