As a result, questions about who will perform at Trump’s inauguration, who wouldn’t if asked and why have become a way to look at artists’ roles in the aftermath of that shake-up. (They have also left the president-elect attempting to claim that he boosted album sales for classical crossover artist Jackie Evancho, the transition’s biggest “get” so far.) A Morning Consult poll reveals a partisan divide on the subject: Seventy-seven percent of Democrats say artists should feel perfectly comfortable turning down invitations to perform if they don’t want to, while 53 percent of Republicans think artists should say yes, regardless of their opinions about the incoming administration. If those responses are predictable, the reasoning behind these views reveals ideas about art more complicated than mere party bickering.
For Talladega College president Billy Hawkins, neither the event, nor the decision that the historically black college’s marching band will perform at the inauguration, is about partisan politics. “We feel the inauguration of a new president is not a political event but a civil ceremony celebrating the transfer of power,” he told CNN.
That’s a perspective that essentially shares the sentiment behind the proposition that Morning Consult asked respondents to evaluate: “Celebrities and artists should perform at the inauguration if invited; the country needs to come together and continue to heal after a long election. Celebrities turning down invitations to make political statements only furthers the divide and disrespects the person who won the presidency.”
That statement presupposes that artists’ politics ought to be secondary to the demands of those who want to see them perform. No matter how a president’s policies might affect an artist, that person’s friends or family, or their fans, this is a position that suggests an artist should put those politics aside in deference to a nebulous idea of “healing.” (This formulation also potentially spares conservative fans from being confronted with the fact that artists they love vigorously disagree with them.)
Behind that idea lies the premise that performing for an incoming president at an inauguration (as opposed to at a campaign event) is a neutral act, rather than a contribution to the pageantry that a new president uses to set the tone of his administration. When Beyoncé Knowles-Carter sang “At Last,” a song rendered iconic by blues and soul singer Etta James’s rendition, for the newly inaugurated President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in 2009, a performance introduced by Denzel Washington, an observer could have strained for a studiously apolitical reading of the moment, which ended with Knowles-Carter smiling away tears. But it would have taken real work to ignore the resonance of two of America’s most celebrated black entertainers giving the first black president and first lady the gift of that moment set to a song that celebrated both their love and the historic nature of their achievement.
Artists and entertainers who do see inaugurations as political events frame the decision differently. They don’t want to participate in Trump’s assumption of office, because they believe that doing so would be a show of support for and faith in the incoming administration. Nancy Sinatra suggested that her father, Frank, would have turned down an invitation to perform because “he would never support a bigot.” (Sinatra was a lifelong advocate for racial equality, comparing anti-black racism to anti-Italian sentiment, working to desegregate Las Vegas and performing on behalf of the civil rights movement.) British singer Rebecca Ferguson said that she would be happy to perform as long as she got to pick what she got to sing, and her choice would be “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s famous song about racism and lynchings. Trump can have her presence, but not the spectacle of her celebration or praise.
This is a position that presupposes that artists don’t merely become political actors when they get onstage with candidates. It’s not really a matter of interpretation; it’s simply true that artists like Elton John, John Legend, Katy Perry and the Dixie Chicks — all of whom have spoken out about the prospect of inaugural performances — have spoken about politics when they perform for general-interest audiences and at times made politics the subject of their art. Accepting an invitation to sing for Trump wouldn’t be a nonpartisan act; it would be a choice that introduced new elements into those artists’ political records, with real implications for what their fans think about them and their ability to be effective political actors in the future.
When it comes to efficacy, the 2016 election ought to encourage a lot of stars to take a hard look at the tactics they chose. But if Trump’s fumbling inauguration encourages a public conversation about the fact that artists are citizens with real political interests rather than ephemeral sprites sent to heal a wounded country, our discussions about the arts and politics will at least be heading in a useful direction.