It is not true, as a lot of commentary would have it, that Donald Trump’s inauguration will feature “no stars.” Some of the entertainers who have signed on to play have, in fact, built their success on entertaining millions of people. But it is true that what’s considered “the A-list” will be conspicuously absent, as will be acts from other lists: The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, backed out from an unofficial inaugural party after outcry; Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday reneged from the main concert event.
The mix of entertainers lined up for Thursday’s “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” on the National Mall and Friday’s swearing-in ceremony represents a hodgepodge of ideology and expediency. In a savvy MTV essay about Trump’s national-anthem singer Jackie Evancho, Doreen St. Félix argued that booking the 16-year-old America’s Got Talent runner up was “a matter of scavenging, and then gilding over the spoils”—a description that could apply across the lineup given the many headlines about Trump’s team getting turned down by celebrities then saying that not having famous people is a good thing. But in its relative lack of glitz, and in its coalition of performers well familiar to state-fair stages, this week’s bill may inadvertently achieve the stated inaugural goal of projecting an image not of Trump but of the people who elected him.
One group of musicians have made careers off of earnest performances of support-the-troops patriotism—which is to say they are, for the most part, country singers. Thursday night will bring out Toby Keith, the nation’s reigning musical jingoist, who aired post-9/11 rage and pride in “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” “American Soldier,” and “Made In America.” The first song of that list is his most indelible, a reminder of the kind of blow-’em-to-hell rhetoric that the administration of the past eight years has avoided but that Trump has vowed a return to.
Keith will be joined by comrades in genre, like the Frontmen of Country, a trio of Lonestar’s Richie McDonald, Little Texas’s Tim Rushlow, and Restless Heart’s Larry Stewart. He’ll also have comrades in troops tributes, in the form of 3 Doors Down, the post-grunge band known both for early-2000s smashes (“Kryptonite,” “When I’m Gone”) and for a promotional partnership with the National Guard. And he’ll have a comrade in both genre and iconic patriotism: Lee Greenwood, the country singer of 1984’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” Jon Voight, the actor who’s been one of the most outspoken critics of liberal Hollywood, will also play some sort of role in Thursday’s concert, as will Trump himself.
There’ll also be performers of less obvious political or aesthetic identification with Trump. Take the unexplained case of DJ Ravi Drums, a self-styled futuristic solo drummer and DJ whose claims to fame include a cameo in The Matrix Reloaded’s party scene, a role on Howie Mandel’s short-lived NBC variety show Howie Do It, and, most internet-famously, a 2008 Wii Music demonstration that many took as unintended comedy. He hasn’t spoken about the politics of this upcoming gig, but his website makes it seem as though his bread-and-butter are corporate and private parties; the inaugural publicity could help with those.
Other acts have put forth a standard line about the inauguration, talking about non-partisan civic duty and a desire to wish the president—any president—well. “I was a participant in the civil rights movement and have seen many positive changes and advancement in my 81 years of living in this wonderful country, but I know we must all join hands and work together with our new president,” the soul singer Sam Moore, formerly of Sam and Dave, said. And indeed, he played an Obama inaugural event in 2008.
Other artists have more visibly struggled with the decision to play. “I just kind of thought that this is for my country,” the 16-year-old Evancho has said, though Trump himself turned her into something of a political prop by taking credit for a boost in her album sales after she became the first recognizable name to sign on to perform. Profiles both by The New York Times and CBS have spotlighted the backlash that has visited the teenager lately; they have also publicized the fact that her sister Juliet is transgender and supports the decision to perform, but will be skipping the inauguration.
Utah’s The Piano Guys, a band of classical and pop players whose videos radiate uplift and dad-next-door vibes, have also given the typical line that they’re performing out of duty. But they elaborated in a lengthy statement to fans about where they depart from Trump’s public image:
Those of you who know us, know we grew up as “nerdy” musicians and we experienced bullying firsthand. We abhor and decry bullying. You know that we honor our relationships with our spouses more than anything else. You know we believe women are Divinely appointed to not only equality, but also respect and chivalrous deference.
The tension between the notion of doing one’s civic duty and the notion that Donald Trump embodies incivility has also drawn attention to the Rockettes, some of whose members reportedly clashed with management over the decision to play, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who lost at least one singer because of the issue. They, along with Evancho, will make their contributions before the swearing-in on Friday, with the Tabernacle Choir apparently set to sing “America the Beautiful.”
Setting aside the American institutions that are the Rockettes and the Tabernacle Choir (and maybe Toby Keith), Trump’s inaugural musicians all clearly might stand to gain by the attention surrounding the event—either because they’re past their heyday or still on a career climb. Whether their careers actually end up benefiting depends to some extent on how they do on stage. But it depends, perhaps more, on what happens in America in the years after.