In 1835 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow hailed music as “the universal language of mankind.” Few would disbelieve him and deny themselves the comfort of the cliché that music has the power to transcend cultural, political, and even geographical divides.
A few years on, Longfellow’s Transcendental Club colleague Henry David Thoreau struck a more quavering, conditional note: “In a world of peace and love music would be the universal language.”
Music has the power to bring people together but also to divide and destroy: the fife, drum, and bugle have been used to organize troops from Byzantium to Little Big Horn; the bass drum of the Turkish Janissary band was meant to fill the enemy with terror; the electric guitar, boom box, stacked speakers have been deployed to infuriate fogeys and crush cultists from Woodstock to Waco, and to wreck prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib.
Most musical weapons leave no physical trace, but they can leave their mark on the body politic. After the shock troops of song carried out their orders at last Wednesday’s Inauguration, the damage was not merely collateral.
The battle plan was simple. The commander-in-chief’s incantations of unity threw up a smoke screen through which the smart sonic weapons hit their targets with an accuracy more devastating than Lady Gaga’s perfect pitch.
With the exception of one invitee—the black-hatted Country conservative, Garth Brooks—the participants were drawn from the Democratic special forces, music division.
Never has an inauguration been so heavily militarized. In this atmosphere of heightened security, the fanfares and marches rang out with lethal force, admonitory rather than celebratory.
As the grandees of the Republic took the stage, the President’s Own Marine Band played the repertoire of Souza favorites and other military numbers, and did the palate-cleansing “musical honors.” Ritual serves its purpose: vestments—whether uniforms or dark suits—and time-tested liturgical music draw attention away from the individual and to the ceremony itself and its symbolic value.
Not so the two Democratic Divas—Lady Gaga for the Star-Spangled Banner and Jennifer Lopez for America the Beautiful. The message was clear even before either began to sing: their appearances were about themselves, not reconciliation.
First, the high-octave Gaga burbled down the steps in a hoop skirt wider than the Capitol dome above. An eighteenth-century fashion updated to the Age of Celebrity, the gown’s expanse and expense summoned thoughts of the decadence of the ancien régime—and its restoration. The vibrant red was the color of a swamp hibiscus flower.
The First Lady of Song let loose with amazing power and precision, not straying from the patriotic pitch, even if the finicky arrangement monkeyed with the tune’s usual foursquare rhythm. The Gagantuan show of strength already manifest in the opening lines of the anthem did not deplete her: she still had massive crescendo reserves. Even if, as one must assume ever since the infamous canned chamber music of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, what we heard was prerecorded, all one could do was duck and cover as her vocal cords delivered the necessary shock and awe. As her voice rocketed out over the “Home of the Brave,” Gaga swept her hand over the balustrade like a general cueing a Blue Angels flyover. It never came. Here’s betting that four years from now the Inauguration will have learned this lesson from its big brother, the Super Bowl, and adds jets to the inaugural order of service.
The choice of Jennifer Lopez was another dagger to the Heartland. JLO appeared in an opulent white outfit and an abundance of pearls: an ensemble that matched the marble of the Capitol. Her back-beat version of the nineteenth-century patriotic hymn was stitched to an introduction that gave Biden’s Populism fitting musical form—Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, its lines of protest redacted and the original’s sincerity smothered by the syrupy canned accompaniment. Lopez then slathered the melody of America the Beautiful with seductive decorations and threw in some Spanish interpolations, like pepper spray in the face of any Trumpites watching the proceedings.
Country singer Garth Brooks was the third and last to sing. He was not basking in self-glory, but seemed intent on doing his job. He marched in purposefully in Cowboy rig, did his Amazing Grace, intoned by a mournful trumpet, without accompaniment and asked for the nation to join in for a second verse. He’s nowhere near the singer that Lady Gaga is, but there was more authenticity in his delivery than in his counterparts’ pyrotechnics and grandstanding. Brooks joked that he was the only Republican on the roster, and only his demeanor and delivery echoed Biden’s calls for unity.
After Brooks finished singing, he walked over to the former and present presidents and, however ill-advised in the pandemic, shook their hands. He then departed the Capitol porch rather than stick around to schmooze as the starstruck Obamas did with Lopez and Gaga.
The Democratic display of strength was even more robust at the Inaugural Concert that night. The event was staged at the Lincoln Memorial, and the statue of Honest Abe in the background was the only Republican in sight. Unlike the morning show, even the token Country singers Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard were Blue Dogs.
Called “Celebrating America,” the show was a pumped up re-run of the Democratic National Convention this past summer with many of the same performers and hosts from that four-day slog somewhat mercifully condensed to ninety minutes. Bruce Springsteen, the truest and longest-serving of the party’s musicians started things off with “a small prayer for our country”—Land of Hope and Dreams. Forsaking the technological razzle-dazzle that was soon to come, things began with just a gritty singer and his guitar.
After the opening number, emcee Tom Hanks appeared halfway up the monument’s stairs. In his dark suit and gloves he looked like the Undertaker of Democracy, on whom rigor mortis had begun to set in. As the evening went on Broadway got its glory with spots from Lin-Manuel Miranda and other cast members of Hamilton which had hosted a confrontation with Mike Pence early on in Trump Time. From some city apartment balcony, Yo-Yo Ma recalled the Shaker Hymn he joined-in on at Obama’s first inauguration. In his opener Springsteen had sung of sunlight. From a Florida pier, Bon Jovi did “Here Comes the Sun”—not live (little was live on this evening) but in throwback music video fashion.
Even the skies answered to Democratic commands: fake news includes a fake weather report, and as Bon Jovi closed the sunlight poured out over the Gulf of Mexico. The middle-aged, long-haired Foo Fighters thrashed and bashed from socialist Seattle. Demi Lovato discoed from an Artificial Reality penthouse above the Gomorrah of LA, and she, too, sang of sunlight. Another pre-fab video had Ant Clemmons and Justin Timberlake hymning “Better Days” from Memphis. The ubiquitous John Legend sang from a grand piano hauled in for the show; DJ Cassidy did encore and passed the mic for some Spanish-language contributions and hymned the keyboard of “Unity” and “One Love.”
How about actually bringing Democrats and Republicans together in a real bi-partisan chorus? Was an invitation sent to Trump fanatic, gun-crazy Ted Nugent in his hardened silo to see if he might be persuaded to join in a duet with the Boss on “Born in the USA”—a MAGA/Build Back Better anthem if ever there were one?
The Trumps had made use of the White House to close the Republican Convention, and faced criticism for likely violation of the Hatch Act which prohibits political fundraising on federal property. From the Truman Balcony of the White House, the Trumps had watched the family name written like bombs bursting in air above Washington’s Tomb.
It was inevitable that Perry would conclude the inaugural victory party and that she would do so with Firework. A number-one hit from Obama’s first term, the tune also capped Perry’s halftime show at the 2015 Super Bowl, a sparkling show of “resistance” just a few weeks into the dark Trump years. Punctuating that family’s retreat from the capitol and abject defeat, the Democrats now unleashed their full sonic and pyrotechnic arsenal, obliterating the Trumps in the very site of their summer’s apotheosis: the night sky.
With the Lincoln Memorial behind her Perry appeared in an ivory gown, piped with red and blue buttons. Shot from below and set against the Doric columns of the monument, she attained the size and magnificence of Phidias’s gold-and-ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon, a Wonder of the Ancient World come to life to stride forth from her temple of Democracy.
This goddess sang of darkness and light and of fire: “there’s a spark in you.”
The camera circled around her as she turned, and the illuminated reflecting pool and Washington Monument extended behind:
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
She drew her hand up the length of the obelisk, as the music surged: “Baby, you’re a Firework.”
The final assault began. It reduced the incendiary “TRUMP 2020” of the RNC to a puny footnote in a forgotten sky and the Capitol Insurrectionists to piddling ants. Even on television the din and glare of the battle was stupendous, ever more firepower unleashed as the bombardment threatened to incinerate the capital and the world:
“Boom, boom, boom / Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon,” sang this Athena of Pop in devastating concert with the final fusillade.
The brassed-up orchestral coda resolved from dissonance into triumphant concord, the detonations echoed over the monuments, the smoke lifting towards heaven.
Masked more for protection from the gunpowder than the virus, the new President and First Lady watched and waved from that same balcony as the Day of Unity ended with a preview of the Apocalypse.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)