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US singer Beyonce performs the National Anthem to conclude the 57th Presidential Inauguration


Inauguration’s Got Talent: highlights from US presidential inauguration performances

Today is Inauguration Day, when Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. Aside from the formal ceremony, presidential inaugurations usually include balls and galas in the days leading up to the main event, with spectacular musical performances. This year, of course, the ceremony looks a bit different...

By Emily Busvine

Four years ago, Donald J. Trump made headlines as he struggled to get artists to perform at his presidential inauguration. Unlike the star-studded line-up that graced Barack Obama’s inaugural events, Trump was reportedly turned down by artists like Elton John, The Beach Boys, and Celine Dion. In the end, he was left with country singer Toby Keith, America’s Got Talent runner-up Jackie Evancho, and a Mormon choir, among other performers. Considering that Obama’s inaugurations featured the likes of Aretha Franklin, Beyoncé, and many other A-list celebrities, it was clear that many artists were trying to distance themselves from the incoming President.

Most US Presidents have had music at their inaugurations, and before Trump, inauguration performances weren’t nearly so contentious. In fact, singing for a new president wasn’t even considered a partisan statement. Several singers, like Broadway star Ethel Merman and opera singers Jessye Norman and Marian Anderson, performed for two presidents with opposing ideologies. And Ray Charles, a Democrat, even performed at Ronald Reagan’s inaugural ball.

Before we look at this year’s schedule, let’s take a look at some past highlights:

1941 – Where it all began

In the past, presidential inaugurations were quite sombre affairs, with military parades and marching bands instead of pop stars and grand performances. Even though there had always been inaugural balls and galas, these events were typically accompanied by orchestras playing light music.

It wasn’t until 1941, at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third inauguration, that it became common practice to invite celebrities to perform and participate in inaugural events. At his Constitution Hall pre-inaugural gala, the line-up included the composer Irving Berlin, comedian Mickey Rooney, and even Charlie Chaplin, who performed the famous final speech from his film, „The Great Dictator“.

„We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.“

1961 – The Lost Inaugural Gala

John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 included some equally impressive names. The pre-inaugural gala was produced and organised by none other than Frank Sinatra, who also performed at the event. He used his industry connections to draw the nation’s top talent, and even convinced producer Leland Hayward to close two Broadway shows so that Ethel Merman and Laurence Olivier could participate! The gala was videotaped for national broadcast, with performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Gene Kelly, Sidney Poitier, and many more.

For many years, however, the footage of these performances was lost. On the night of the gala, there was a huge snowstorm that knocked out the power in Washington D.C., and so the event was never broadcast – until 2017, when it was retrieved from the vaults and broadcast on PBS.

During the show, actress Bette Davis famously said, “The world of entertainment – showbiz, if you please – has become the Sixth Estate, just as Hawaii became the 50th state,” illustrating the growing relationship between Hollywood and Washington.

The 1961 inauguration was not without controversy, however. Sammy Davis Jr., the only African American member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack, was asked not to attend due to his recent marriage to May Britt, a white Swedish actress. Although he was initially invited to both the gala and the inauguration, Kennedy allegedly worried that the couple’s presence would annoy some Southern Democrats, as interracial marriage was still prohibited in several states.

No punk in the ’70s

Although previous inaugurations closely reflected what was happening in pop culture at the time, it would have been difficult for incoming presidents in the 1970s to play punk music at their inaugural events. That didn’t mean that there weren’t stand-out performances, but they were few and far between, compared to Kennedy’s A-list inaugural line-up.

Soul singer James Brown reportedly voted for the Democrats in the 1968 election, but he still performed at Richard Nixon’s inaugural gala in 1969. In the 1960s, both John and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, as well as Martin Luther King Jr., and the Vietnam War was still ongoing. “I accepted because I want to give our new president a chance to bring the people of this nation together in every respect of our national life,” he told a reporter. In the spirit of unity, Brown performed “Say It Loud – I’m Black And Proud,” a performance that will undoubtedly go down as one of the most memorable in history.

Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration saw Linda Ronstadt perform a cover of singer and activist Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” as well as Aretha Franklin’s first inaugural appearance.

Although Ronald Reagan had been an actor himself, his inaugural line-up was perhaps only second to Trump in its shortage of A-listers. According to a New York Times story about the events, “some critics said that what was surprising was [the event’s] lack of stars. The suggestion has been made that the Democrats still have most of the big stars, especially the youth-oriented ones.”

At his 1985 inauguration, however, The Beach Boys performed an acapella rendition of the Four Freshmen’s “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring,” reportedly one of Reagan’s personal favourites.

1993 – Collaborations and reunions

After a few inaugurations lacking in big names, Bill Clinton pulled out all the stops. Musicians came out in full force for the first Democrat to hold office in 12 years. A few days before the inauguration ceremony, a two-day festival called “America’s Reunion on the Mall” was held in D.C., which included performances by Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. Another memorable performance was Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World,” which featured artists like Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross.

At the inauguration gala, the unthinkable happened. For the first time since 1982, Fleetwood Mac agreed to a brief reunion to perform their famous single, “Don’t Stop,” which Clinton had used as his campaign song. During the highly anticipated performance, Bill Clinton joined the band on stage and tried his best at playing Stevie Nicks’s tambourine.

The Obama years – the ceremony gets some star power

Barack Obama’s inaugurations set a new precedent. Previously, performances by celebrities had largely been restricted to the balls, galas, and after-parties, but Obama’s inauguration even featured some serious star power at the swearing-in ceremony.

At his first inauguration in 2009, Aretha Franklin performed “My Country, ‚Tis of Thee,” a patriotic song that was used as one of the de facto national anthems of the US before the adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1931. Mary J. Blige sang Bill Withers‘ “Lean On Me,” and Bruce Springsteen gave an emotional rendition of his post-9/11 track, “The Rising,” accompanied by a choir.

But perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the 2009 inauguration was the President and First Lady’s first dance to Beyoncé serenading them with Etta James’ classic, “At Last.” Though the singer caused some controversy at the 2013 inauguration – she reportedly lip-synched the national anthem – this performance is truly spectacular.

We continue to live in unprecedented times

This year, of course, everything is going to be different. Following the attacks on the Capitol on January 6, security in D.C. is on high alert, and because of the coronavirus pandemic, Joe Biden’s inauguration will be a much smaller affair than usual.

At the swearing-in ceremony itself, Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem, and Jennifer Lopez is set to give a musical performance. All other performances are taking place via livestream.

The past few days have already seen a series of livestream events, with performances by the likes of the Black Pumas, Carole King, James Taylor, Fall Out Boy, Yo-Yo Ma, Lin Manuel Miranda, and many, many more. You can check out the full schedule here.

And today, after Biden is sworn in, Tom Hanks will host 90 minutes of primetime television – a COVID-friendly replacement of celebrations typically held in person. The event, featuring Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, and more, will be broadcast on all major US TV networks, except Fox News.

Reportedly, Trump is “furious” that so many top celebrities are performing at Biden’s inauguration, in contrast to his own event four years ago.