Even before reports of low attendance at President Donald Trump’s inauguration, his administration encountered an issue that was unprecedented in modern history: no one wanted to perform. In the weeks leading up to Jan. 20, the nation was gripped by reports of the many performers bailing on or even flat-out objecting to the president’s inauguration on Twitter and elsewhere. This issue was just one of many on the road to Trump’s presidency, gaining coverage along with allegations of his “golden showers” in Moscow and concerns regarding his unreleased tax returns and business dealings.
Here’s a quick who’s who for this year’s inauguration performers: Jackie Evancho — runner-up for season five of “America’s Got Talent,” 3 Doors Down – whose biggest hit “Kryptonite” peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 before the Bush administration – and Toby Keith, who you might know best for his hit single “Red Solo Cup.” And before we forget, there was at least one notable celebrity sighting: Jon Voight – most famous in this millennium for being Angelina Jolie’s dad – who thanked God for answering “our prayers” at the inauguration, whatever that means.
This is a lineup that, by most measures, is just fine. It’s fine in the same way that the music that plays at Applebee’s is fine, or fine in the same way that eating sandwiches at Subway is fine. Barring the uber-patriotism of Keith’s music or Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” it’s not a soundtrack to inspire or unite, least of all entertain.
For comparison’s (and nostalgia’s) sake, Barack Obama got Aretha Franklin to perform “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at his 2009 inauguration. That’s not to mention the pre-inaugural concert – lovingly titled “We Are One” – where Usher, John Legend, Beyoncé Knowles, Jon Bon Jovi, Shakira, Garth Brooks, Steve Carell, Jamie Foxx, Bruce Springsteen, among many, many others, headlined the most star-studded festival this side of Coachella.
Even George W. Bush was able to rally the likes of Ricky Martin and Destiny’s Child for a song or two at his first inauguration, which is remarkable, given his own series of controversies leading up to that point.
As far as presidential inaugurations go, Donald Trump’s might be the most dull. And for a man who lives and dies by the attention that comes with celebrity, this is bad news.
Business as usual
Historically, inauguration performances are meant to be a bipartisan affair, a moment for the nation to come together under the glorious banner of patriotism. It stands to reason that performers across political stripes would, at the bare minimum, grin and bear it for five minutes, take their check and go.
For most performers, it’s business as usual — another ceremonial transition of power that’s meant to honor the office of the President more than any individual political figurehead. It’s not so much an endorsement as it is a willingness to accept the new administration. That, all things considered, all politics set aside, the great experiment that is this nation will endure for at least four more years.
This was a tacit agreement shared by Trump’s performers regardless of their affiliations, whether they be musical or sociopolitical. “Dreamgirl” actress Jennifer Holliday hoped her performance would be “a healing and unifying force of hope,” but declined to perform after mass critique from her LGBT fanbase and, horrifyingly, reported death threats. There was R&B singer Chrisette Michele, whose performance at a Trump inauguration event was an attempt to represent Black Americans. (Ultimately, it sounded more like a ploy for press coverage more than anything else.)
Utah’s finest YouTube classical cover band The Piano Guys summed up the collective sentiment best. “We’re here to be patriotic,” said Piano Guys cellist Steven Sharp Nelson in an interview with Forbes before the inauguration.
There’s no glory in being associated with Trump, and whatever goodwill he might have gained from the presidential title has already dwindled to nothing. The formula of the inauguration is upended when the biggest celebrity at your event is yourself.
Lonely at the top
Donald Trump is a man obsessed with Nielsen ratings, if not his presidential ratings.
Less than a week leading up to the inauguration, he came for another celebrity-turned-politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for low ratings on the latest season of “Celebrity Apprentice.” It appeared as petty retribution for the former Governator’s rejection of Trump’s campaign. (As for why Schwarzenegger wants to be involved with this trainwreck: Who knows? Perhaps Schwarzenegger’s stint on “Celebrity Apprentice” might be his way of announcing his own presidential campaign. Maybe Terminator 2020 will come to fruition.)
Wow, the ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got "swamped" (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT. So much for….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2017
Whether he likes it or not, Trump refuses to be extricated from his celebrity status. He’s still tied to “Celebrity Apprentice” as an executive producer. He still uses the same Twitter handle, where, just four years ago, he was one of many mediocre computer chair pundits.
Trump’s outright rejection of presidential tradition is part and parcel of his reality-star past. President Trump, more than any president, built his notoriety off the glitz of mainstream media — the same mainstream media that granted him a platform to peddle his celebrity entrepreneurship and his half-baked political views, the same mainstream media that covered every moment leading up to Jan. 20 with the buyer’s remorse of a Trump University graduate.
Contrary to claims made by Trump and his legion of staffers, he still thirsts for approval by the mainstream media elite. If you recall, he largely cooperated with the mainstream media he so often lambasts. He was on “Saturday Night Live” almost exactly a year before Election Day. He got his neon orange locks petted by Jimmy Fallon on national television.
According to data from the Washington, D.C. Metro system, Trump had fewer than 600,000 people ride to his inauguration. That’s less than Obama’s tally. Fewer people tuned in to watch the inauguration on the small screen than Reagan’s.
Now that his ratings are through the tube, it’s clear that his star power just won’t cut it. The least surprising thing about his presidency thus far is that there are no surprises; the unprecedented recklessness of Trump’s political moves are exactly he promised during his campaign trail.
“There’s no glory in being associated with Trump, and whatever goodwill he might have gained from the presidential title has already dwindled to nothing. The formula of the inauguration is upended when the biggest celebrity at your event is yourself.”
His presidency isn’t just another episode of “The Apprentice.” There’s no kooky antic that he can pull that he hasn’t already pulled; there’s no surprise guest that he can pull out from the woodwork. And the one surprise guest who could have performed at Trump’s inauguration, Kanye West, was refused by the Trump administration on grounds that the venue is “traditionally American.” West, apparently, is not.
A celebrity revolution
There’s some comfort to be taken in the fact that the countermovement, celebrities and all, is showing up in droves.
The turnout of the international Women’s Marches competed with that of the election, both in size and in starpower. D.C. got Scarlett Johansson and Janelle Monae in the fray, with a crowd that nearly matched Trump’s inauguration the day. Los Angeles women’s march organizers reported over 750,000 in attendance, handily beating Trump’s. In attendance was Kerry Washington and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who, on “Scandal” and “Veep,” prove themselves more competent than our reality star-in-chief.
More than tiny hands or “bad” Alec Baldwin impersonations, Trump’s ego has undoubtedly been wounded by the mass outpouring of support against him. But the lack of celebrity support thus far will be just the first of many failures as we enter the first 100 days of his presidency. We’ll be dealing with a beast far more worrisome than ratings or celebrity affiliations with the upcoming administration, and no amount of shame from the awards season-attending masses will be enough to alleviate that.
There’s one thing that Donald Trump is right about: Celebrities aren’t representative of the people. but they’re still part of the people. Trump threw away the rulebook of the presidency in favor of celebrity and will continue to do so long after Jan. 20. Star-studded reactionary tweets are useful, as is rejecting the cult of celebrity that comes with Trump. But they can’t fade back into the crowd once activism is no longer politically convenient. (Some, such as Monae, have marched before Jan. 21 and continue to march onward. For that, I’m grateful.)
Right now, more than ever, folks such as Johansson and Washington provide voices that will serve as checks to the executive branch. The revolution will be televised and made visible to the masses at an astronomical scale. Celebrity visibility counts for something. And it needs to keep counting for something once the award show speeches die down and the pink hats are out of sight.
Contact Joshua Bote at [email protected].