On Jan. 15, the Newtown Music Project released an iTunes single covering “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” launching the song with an appearance on “Good Morning America.” Several days later, the singers appeared at Ridgefield Playhouse, a Connecticut theater, for a benefit concert that also featured Paul Simon. On Feb. 2, the children sang the national anthem at a Knicks game.
Eight weeks after the shooting tragedy that killed 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the concept of a “Newtown kid” has raised questions about the slender line between remembrance and commodification.
On Sunday, in a live broadcast streamed from Connecticut to the Hollywood red carpet, the students have been invited to perform an as-yet-unidentified song. (Previous reports that the song would be Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” were premature.)
To many viewers and commentators, the choir’s presence at these events is inspirational and reassuring, a symbol of hope and healing. Hayes said he originally intended the Newtown Music Project’s signature song to be heard as “a prayer,” something solemn and moving, and that he hopes the Grammy Awards performance will be a “lighthearted distraction” for the town.
Others have accused the entertainment industry of exploiting the children and the audience they sing for. Is there something uncomfortable about widespread recognition being born of horrible tragedy? In crassest terms, are Newtown children the living embodiments of cause ribbons worn on lapels?
The chorus scheduled to perform at the Grammy Awards, it should be noted, is an entirely different chorus than the one that performed at the Super Bowl with Jennifer Hudson. That one was made up solely of children from Sandy Hook Elementary. Their travel was funded by an anonymous donor, Connecticut’s News-Times reported.
When asked how the Super Bowl performance came about — whether the NFL extended the invitation or whether it was arranged by the anonymous donor — Brian McCarthy, an NFL vice president of communications, said he couldn’t discuss that, adding that the NFL needed “to be able to protect a couple of different constituencies.” A call to the Newtown school superintendent’s office about the Super Bowl choir was not returned.
The Newtown Music Project is a private endeavor with students from several Newtown area schools, including Sandy Hook. “We get a lot of requests, and we say no to almost everything,” said Hayes, estimating that he’d turned down 95 percent of offers for public performances. “When the team from E! contacted us,” Hayes said, “it sounded like they cared about the right things.”