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How performing at Trump’s inauguration — or not — became a political statement

President-elect Donald Trump and first lady-elect Melania Trump at the Lincoln Memorial.
President-elect Donald Trump and first lady-elect Melania Trump at the Lincoln Memorial.
Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

One of the most iconic moments of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration celebrations came during one of that night’s galas. As Barack and Michelle Obama danced together for the first time as president and first lady, Beyoncé serenaded them with Etta James’s “At Last.”

The moment encapsulated everything that was new and exciting about the beginning of the Obama era: the youth and cool of the first couple, their unapologetic celebration of black culture, the pervasiveness and sincerity of the optimism that surrounded them.

By the end of the song, both Beyoncé and the Obamas were beaming through their tears.

That’s what a really great celebrity performance can do at a presidential inauguration. It can help the new president calibrate and define his image: This is whom I have chosen to represent me, and this is the person I will be for you, the American people.

That’s why it’s so unfortunate for Donald Trump that he wasn’t able to arrange the same kind of moment for himself. Since the election in November, a litany of performers have announced that they were invited to perform at the inauguration but wouldn’t accept because of scheduling problems, or because Trump’s team had disinvited them, or because they frankly disliked Trump. And the roster he ended up with doesn’t include any world-famous stars at the level of Beyoncé.

Trump’s public struggle to secure A-list talent to perform at his inauguration signals a new and uncharted relationship between the office of the president and celebrity culture. Trump himself is a creature of celebrity culture, someone who rode his reality TV fame all the way to the White House. And now many of the famous performers he once rubbed elbows with have disowned him.

Hollywood’s relationship to politics has certainly undergone periods of tension in the past. But no incoming president has ever encountered such a high level of disdain within the entertainment industry — especially not to the point where many celebrities have patently refused to participate in his inauguration and have advocated for boycotting an administration before it officially begins. As a result, Trump has found himself without any effective celebrity mouthpieces, except for himself.

The story of Trump’s inauguration entertainment is now a story about controversy — and he’s fighting to control the narrative

To be fair, Trump does have some celebrities performing at his inauguration. He’s got country stars Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood, and the rock group 3 Doors Down. He has teen classical singer Jackie Evancho, who may be most famous for coming in second on America’s Got Talent but is still at least a vaguely recognizable name. He has at least some of the Rockettes, who are iconic as a group if not famous as individuals. But the inaugural performance roster also features acts whose level of fame is more dubious, like the YouTube stars the Piano Guys and Wii Music drumming dude DJ Ravidrums.

And on the whole, the inauguration has become characterized by confusion and controversy. Multiple celebrities at first agreed to perform — most likely under the assumption that the gig would be as apolitical as it had been in the past — and then canceled after facing fan backlash.

Broadway star Jennifer Holliday, who sang at the inaugurations of Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes, said she initially thought she would be continuing her tradition as a “bi-partisan songbird” if she sang at Trump’s inauguration, but realized that “my performing for the concert would actually instead be taken as a political act against my own personal beliefs and be mistaken for support of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.” It’s no longer the default assumption to think of an inauguration performance as an apolitical act.

The saga made for a deluge of press. Journalist after journalist, writing for both hard news and entertainment outlets, ate up the story, making it almost impossible to avoid. Where previous presidents got the “there’s a famous person coming!” inauguration narrative, Trump was saddled with the “all the famous people are refusing to come” narrative.

In response to the frenzied coverage of who would and would not be performing at his inauguration, Trump and his team pushed two opposing narratives: first, that his inauguration would in fact be fabulously star-studded. Second, that inaugurations aren’t about celebrities anyway, but about the American people.

That these two narratives contradicted each other did not stop Trump himself from using them both in the same breath. On January 18, he told Fox News, "I don't want the celebrities, I want the people. And we have the biggest celebrities in the world there."

Let’s be clear: Both of these narratives are most likely nonsense. If Trump didn’t want celebrities at the inauguration, he and his team certainly appeared to have spent a great deal of time and resources trying to get them there. (Although their efforts were apparently limited by their desire to stage a “traditionally American” event, which inauguration committee chair Tom Barrack cited as the reason Kanye West — who’s said he admires Trump and whom Trump has called a friendwas not asked to perform.)

And Trump does not have the biggest celebrities in the world at his inauguration. He doesn’t even have the biggest celebrities in America. He has a couple of famous country singers — notably excluding crossover pop/country stars like Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift — and he has a respectably famous rock band, a reality TV runner-up, and some randoms. That’s it.

But the fact that Trump and his team are so committed to these narratives suggests it is important to them that America believes the president-elect has easy, reliable access to celebrities, so much access that he doesn’t even really need them present at his inauguration to back him up.

After Trump’s campaign, the act of being a celebrity has become political

What we’re seeing in Trump’s inauguration struggles is the natural result of Trump’s transition from reality TV star to political figure: the politicization of celebrity.

Trump won the presidency in part on the strength of his celebrity credentials. He demonstrated that the platforms celebrities have at their disposal — adoring audiences, name recognition, press coverage — can translate into real, tangible political power. He also demonstrated that he is ready and willing to use that tangible political power in the service of far-right policies and ideas that liberals in Hollywood will not forgive.

Perhaps more importantly from the entertainment industry’s point of view, Trump won the presidency while violating norms of civility. That’s one major thing that separates him from America’s other showbiz president, Ronald Reagan: Unlike Reagan, Trump doesn’t have a genial, cheerfully paternal star image to work with. Reagan was the host of a variety show and exuded sunny, gee-whiz optimism; Trump was the host of The Apprentice and built his celebrity image on the idea that he was a harsh and demanding boss. As Frank Rich wrote before the election, where Reagan was avuncular, Trump is autocratic. Trump’s incivility is why so many people have turned against him, and what Meryl Streep decried in her Golden Globes speech.

As a result, the celebrities who might have thought of the inauguration as a prestigious, apolitical gig before Trump are now thinking seriously about the political power their own platforms grant them, and whether they want to follow Trump’s lead in putting them in service to his ethos. They have made the conscious decision to treat an inauguration performance as, as Holliday said, “a political act.” That’s why British singer Rebecca Ferguson said she would only perform at the inauguration if she were allowed to sing the protest song “Strange Fruit,” about the history of lynchings in the American South.

So Trump’s inauguration celebrations won’t be defined by any iconic celebrity performances, like the cool optimism of Beyoncé serenading the Obamas as they danced together. They will, instead, be defined by the absence of such performances, by the absence of a simple, effective cultural shorthand that tells the American people exactly who Donald Trump plans to be for them. Instead, there will be Trump, acting as his own celebrity stand-in, selling his story to America by himself.

Celebrities have not historically avoided Republican inaugurations

The number of celebrities who have declined an invitation to perform at Trump’s inauguration is more or less unprecedented. Although the entertainment industry tends to be liberal, celebrities generally do appear at Republican presidential inaugurations, regardless of their political affiliations. In 2001, after a wildly contentious election that was ultimately settled in the Supreme Court, George W. Bush’s inauguration was marked by a star-studded concert featuring Destiny’s Child and 98 Degrees. Bush’s presidency was controversial even before he took office, but few major celebrities had any compunctions about performing at his inauguration.

Traditionally, the general attitude has been that the inauguration isn’t for the new president but for the American people, and performing there is an apolitical, patriotic act.

“There are a few state functions that have historically been occasions to put down the cudgels and celebrate, or at least watch the celebrations,” Paul Smith, a cultural studies professor at George Mason University, told me. “This inauguration is different, perhaps because so many people, including a lot who voted for Trump, realize that there’s just not a lot to celebrate.”

“Trump has done a lot to make the old civic idea of bipartisanship redundant,” Smith says. “Artists who might have had no problem coming out for, say, a Mitt Romney or a Marco Rubio aren’t going to come out for someone who has so spectacularly torn up the civility play book.”

The closest historical precedent, says Paul McEwan, an associate professor of media and cinema studies at Muhlenberg College, is the celebrity boycott of Sun City, South Africa, in which, as Fast Company puts it, “50 of the most famous musicians in the world pledged a cultural boycott against South Africa” during the apartheid era. “It wasn't just supposed to be about individual artist choice,” McEwan says. “The clear point was to pressure other artists to take a stand, and to make it socially unacceptable to choose to play for all-white audiences in a South African resort.”

McEwan points out that it will be a while before we can measure whether the new White House boycott has a lasting effect.

“It's purely symbolic, but the symbolism is important,” he says. “The unspoken audience is the people of the future, who will look back on this as a historical turning point. Since we don't know how bad it's going to get, and there is zero chance it's going to work out great, there is no upside in going down in history as the one who sang patriotic songs to a tyrant.”

But in the more immediate present, the celebrity inauguration boycott isn’t just sending a message to the people of the future. It signals that the traditionally cozy — or at least cordial — relationship between our biggest stars and the president of the United States is over.

In its absence, Trump won’t be able to rely on celebrity proxies to spread his message for him. He’ll have to act as his own celebrity and do his own messaging.

That’s a strategy that worked out well for him on the campaign trail. It remains to be seen how it will work for him as president.