In the days since the second Obama inauguration, I’ve been thinking about Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé. No, not the great lip-synching controversy, but the choice of popular entertainment for a solemn national rite.
That Beyoncé apparently lip-synched her beautiful rendition of the national anthem is a triviality. It’s cold on the steps of the Capitol, and even the greatest singer might have trouble sounding good in those conditions. Kelly Clarkson apparently sang live (and perhaps paid a price in quality). Four years ago, at Obama’s first inauguration, a quartet consisting of Yo-Yo Ma, Yitzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill (it sounds as if they were chosen by a diversity committee, but they’re all great classical musicians) also used a recording and only pretended to play their instruments in the January chill. String instruments get out of tune quickly in cold, dry weather. You can tune up a cello just before playing it, but it isn’t practical to do that with a piano.
It’s not live versus taped that’s important. It’s high culture versus pop culture. The presence of classical musicians lent the first inauguration a certain majesty. What do pop musicians contribute? With all due respect to Clarkson and Beyoncé, they are creatures of the vast pop-music behemoth churning out tunes that are with us perpetually, on the radio of course, but also in shopping malls and in movies and even in elevators. Pop music is the soundtrack of ordinary life — which is fitting, because pop music itself is ordinary.
So fine, let the pop stars shine at the Super Bowl and at NASCAR races. There’s a time and place for pop. Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl can still bring tears to my eyes.
Classical music, on the other hand, is both a symbol and an example of the higher things. It’s not often easy and it’s not always accessible — which is one of the reasons it’s respected. Previous presidents have chosen opera stars to sing at their inaugurations. John F. Kennedy asked Marian Anderson to sing the national anthem. He was also the first president to ask a poet, Robert Frost, to read his work. Jimmy Carter invited mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Ronald Reagan asked Jessye Norman (who accepted, though she disagreed with his policies). Denyce Graves sang at George W. Bush’s second inauguration. Even Bill Clinton, who styled himself a Bubba from the sticks, had the sense to ask Marilyn Horne to perform at his first inauguration. Jessye Norman did a return engagement for Clinton’s second.
Mr. Obama chose two pop stars and a dreadful poet (see Andrew Ferguson’s exegesis in The Weekly Standard). Beyoncé was appropriately dressed for the occasion. But who could fail to picture her as she usually appears when performing?
An inauguration should be august. Obama’s second was pedestrian. It seemed to suggest, through its undistinguished music, leaden rhetoric, and shallow poetry, that to aim high was some sort of offense against the democratic (or Democratic?) spirit.
That is the very opposite of the truth. We’ve lost a great deal of the cultural ambition that characterized America in the postwar 20th century. That was a time when Leonard Bernstein was a fixture on television, offering “young people’s concerts” that weren’t just for the young. It was a time when Mortimer Adler sold millions of copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Books compendium to the vast American middle class. Newly economically secure Americans were hungry to sample the best that had been thought and written, and eager to expand their musical horizons. Publishers coined the term “middlebrow” for this audience, and perhaps intended it derisively. But it was a sign of national growth and confidence, not weakness.
This was before the multicultural assault. Accordingly, anyone from any background felt that the great works of Western civilization were their inheritance too. When I entered college, I didn’t feel “alienated” by reading Plato because I wasn’t Greek, nor excluded from the works of Shakespeare because I wasn’t male, nor particularly appreciative of Herman Melville because I was American. The intellectual straitjacket of race, class, and gender was still in the future.
The American spirit at its best aims high — and not just for the few, but for everyone. A presidential inauguration is a ceremony that ratifies our beliefs and reminds us of what is best. As such, it should be celebrated with high art, not American Idol.