USA Politics

Is an inauguration performance a political statement?

Some say the participation of high-profile musicians in Donald Trump's presidential inauguration concert implicitly supports the president-elect and his rhetoric. Others don't see it that way. 

3 Doors Down performs at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Sept. 7, 2016. The band will be performing at Thursday's 'Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration' presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Christopher Dolan/The Citizens' Voice/AP
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Members of a Bruce Springsteen cover band became the latest performers to back out of the upcoming presidential inauguration concert on Jan. 19, going the way of Broadway actress Jennifer Holliday and opera singer Andrea Bocelli. 

The musical lineup for "Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration" on Thursday, which still includes rock band 3 Doors Down, country star Toby Keith, and Lee Greenwood, the man behind the patriotic hit "God Bless the USA," has grown progressively thinner as Inauguration Day draws closer and artists come under fire for agreeing to participate in the event celebrating President-elect Donald Trump's move into the White House. To perform, Mr. Trump's opponents argue, is to implicitly support and normalize the controversial ideologies touted by the president-elect throughout his campaign and transition period.

But a number of participating musicians disagree – some on the grounds that their involvement is "not political," and others because they see the event as an opportunity to bring together fans from both sides of a deepening political divide.

Musicians, particularly liberal musicians, have long been territorial over their music being used in political campaigns by politicians with whom they disagree. But in the past, the presidential inauguration has served an opportunity for Americans of all political leanings to come together to honor the president-elect and the peaceful transfer of political power. This year, however, a climate of continuing political strife is bringing legions of protestors to the nation's capital for the weekend and has unraveled the fabric of what is ordinarily a moment to celebrate some of the nation's most recognized and beloved musicians.

Traditionally, an invitation to perform for a presidential inauguration has been seen as an "honor," regardless of political party affiliation, with little to no discussion over whether a musician should accept the offer, says Eric Kasper, associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The level of debate taking place in 2017, he notes, is unprecedented – but may reflect a growing schism that began long before Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. 

"Although some of this debate is probably related to the relatively low public approval rating for the president-elect, the controversies over musical performers at this inauguration mark not necessarily a rapid break with tradition as much as a sign of a longer trend of political polarization in the United States," says Dr. Kasper, co-author of "Don't Stop Thinking About the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns," in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. 

A Pew Research Center poll published in June found that political animosity between Democrats and Republicans hit a record high in 2016, with 58 percent of Republicans holding a "very unfavorable" view of the Democratic Party and 55 percent of Democrats feeling the same way about the GOP. 

"These divisions carry over into popular culture as well, due in part to the a la carte menu of media choices we have for news and entertainment," Kasper says. As a result, he adds, "musicians are finding that being politically neutral in a polarized time can be difficult.... Although [Jennifer] Holliday’s initial decision to perform at the inauguration was a norm for musicians that existed for decades, it is now a political mine field." 

Given the divisiveness of the president-elect's rise to presidential victory, agreeing to participate in the inauguration ceremonies inevitably sends a political message, some industry experts argue, regardless of the intention of the performer.

"In the past, one could say: 'He’s the president.' But I'd tell a client who was asked that this one is different," Howard Bragman, chairman of Fifteen Minutes, a Los Angeles public relations firm, told The Guardian. "In our politically charged world, performing for Trump is a political statement, and if one chooses to perform they should go in with their eyes wide open."  

Jan Chamberlin, a former member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir who left the group after feeling she could not perform with the choir at the inauguration performance in good conscience, has expressed concern that instead of helping to bring a nation together, artists risk dividing their fans further by showing what could be perceived as implied support for a controversial political figure. 

"I know the goodness of your hearts, and your desire to go out there and show that we are politically neutral and share good will," wrote Ms. Chamberlin in a since-deleted Facebook post announcing her resignation. "I also know, looking from the outside in, it will appear that Choir is endorsing tyranny and [fascism] by singing for this man. And Choir’s wonderful image and networking will be severely damaged and that many good people throughout this land and throughout the world already do and will continue to feel betrayed." 

For her part, Ms. Holliday, best known for her Broadway performances in "Dreamgirls" and "Arms Too Short to Box with God" and who performed at presidential inaugurations for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both presidents Bush, backed out of her inauguration performance last Saturday after facing pressure from fans in the LGBT community. Holliday told The Washington Post she "had no idea [performing] would be interpreted as a political statement," as she had not paid attention to "what the climate is like in the country right now." 

But that polarized climate is precisely why some artists, such as The Piano Guys, say participating in the inauguration celebration is important. 

"We've found that our music has offered the most optimism when we've had the opportunity to perform for people who may not completely agree with who we are or what we stand for," said the pop-classical group from Utah in a statement explaining their decision to perform at Thursday's concert at the Lincoln Memorial. "We're not performing for politics or in support of one man or one woman. We're just doing all we can to follow our hearts in the unconditional pursuit of making this nation, and this world, a better place for all people – to use our music, which is a small thing, to span divides, spread love, and displace discord with harmony." 

Jackie Evancho, the 16-year-old former "America's Got Talent" contestant who will sing the national anthem at the inauguration ceremony, echoed a similar desire to unite a fractured country through music. 

"I hope to just kind of make everyone forget about rivals and politics for a second, and just think about America and the pretty song that I'm singing," Ms. Evancho, an LGBT rights supporter who has performed for President Obama, told CBS. "I'm hoping that I can bring people together." 

A musical performance is, of course, unlikely to heal the sharp partisan divides that deepened throughout the 2016 election. But it could be a start, says Patricia Phalen, associate professor in the School of Media & Public Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She sees the act of performing at the inauguration – even while disagreeing with Trump's politics – as a "terrific gesture." 

"I think celebrities could have a great deal of influence on unity if they chose to do so," she writes in an email to the Monitor. "What a great signal this would send to the world – we may disagree on many things, but we agree on many, many more."