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The erasure of politics in Trump’s inauguration concert

Trying to make sense of the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s inauguration performances is like trying to make sense of the election itself; a bit darkly comedic perhaps, but mostly just depressing. Despite Trump’s claim that “we will have the biggest celebrities in the world” at his inauguration, his team had trouble booking major acts for the swearing-in weekend. It’s hard to imagine that anyone was surprised by this, considering the wide range of bands and musicians that objected to Trump using their songs at his campaign rallies, suchas The Rolling Stones, Adele, R.E.M, Neil Young and Queen.

Since Trump’s election, however, the rumour mill speculated on the appearance of a dizzying number of performers. Included on the list was Elton John, who Trump transition team member Anthony Scaramucci claimed would perform. The rumour was vehemently denied, however, by Elton John’s spokesperson Fran Curtis, and by the singer himself, a Hillary Clinton supporter who has said in July that the idea of a Trump presidency “makes him fear for the world,” with regard to the HIV epidemic

While a litany of performers turned down offers to perform, the Trump team did manage to secure four relatively well known acts; country music star Toby Keith, who also performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration; 3 Doors Down, (“If I go crazy then will you still call me Superman?” America asks the rest of the globe) who also performed at President George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration; Jackie Evancho, a sixteen year old classical crossover singer who was 2010’s America’s Got Talent runner up; and, lastly, (some of) The Rockette’s.

A few of the other, slightly less known performers include the Mormon Tabernacle choir, an 80’s cover band called The Reagan Years and country musician Lee Greenwood. Regardless of popularity, nearly all those performing have been quick to stress that their choosing to perform was “not political.” Greenwood, for example, told Hollywood Reporter “I think it’s in bad taste to say ‘no,’ then clarified “it’s not political.”

Country star Toby Keith was also quick to point out that his decision was based not on partisan politics, and responded to criticism, stating “I don’t apologize for playing for our country or our military.” Adding to his nonpartisan credentials, in an interview in August with the Chicago Tribune, Keith said “I can’t believe there’s 300 million American’s in this country, and we’ve got these two as our final two. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Perhaps the most drama has swirled around the singer of the Star-Spangled Banner, Jackie Evancho. The teen singer and ex contestant of America’s Got Talent has faced media scrutiny both for being the first person to publically announce that they would perform at the inauguration, and for the news surrounding her sister Juliet, who published an article in Teen Vogue on the same day of Jackie’s announcement, titled “How Juliet Evancho Came Out as Transgender to Her Family, and the Entire World.”

As pointed out by New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, Jackie Evancho has gone through pains to distance herself from political controversy. Interviewed by USA TODAY, she said “It’s an honor to perform for my country and I don’t really do politics.” Also characterized by Evancho as “not political” was her family’s ongoing lawsuit against their Pittsburgh school district over a bathroom policy that prevents her trans sister Juliet from using the female restrooms.

Given the historically low approval rating that Trump has coming into office (37% according a Fox News survey) and the plethora of people and identities that he has insulted on his way there, it’s not surprising that even those musicians who decided to perform were quick to the distance themselves from the new president. Some performers who came on board, such as Jennifer Holliday, were met with such backlash from their fans that they backed out. Explaining her decision, she wrote in a letter “Please know that I HEAR you and I feel your pain. The LBGT community was mostly responsible for birthing my career and I am deeply indebted to you.”

It’s tempting to write off all the controversy surrounding the performances as just another distraction that can take our attention away from issues like the repeal of the Affordable Act. For better or for worse, however, many people still look to celebrities as a guide in politics, and in this writer’s humble opinion, holding performers accountable for their political positions is one of many valid ways to attempt to enact change. Any performance for a political leader can not be written off as apolitical, despite what said performers may say or believe.

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