Do you remember the heady days of early 2008, when the world was full of innocence and light, and Queen Bey crooned over Barack and Michelle during their first inauguration ball? When Stevie Wonder, Bono, Shakira, John Legend, and a dozen other mega-stars threw a “We Are One” pre-inauguration concert on the National Mall for 400,000 revelers?
This weekend, when our spray-tanned President-Elect becomes our spray-tanned President, his inauguration festivities will be headlined by powerhouse artists like… 3 Doors Down. And Marty Roe, who fronted a country group that was popular in the mid-90s. If you’re anything like me, you’ve watched with petty glee as star after star turned down the invitation to Trump’s party. Other acts, like Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday, agreed but quickly backpedaled, citing thunderous opposition from fans. The few that remain tend to be grey-headed and cowboy-booted.
So imagine my dismay when I discovered on Monday that The Piano Guys, one of my favorite musical groups, had accepted Trump’s toxic invitation. Pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steve Nelson are the backbone of this cheery, cheeky Utah-based group, whose pop-classical mashups and luscious covers have earned them over 5 million subscribers on YouTube. If you haven’t heard their Beethoven/OneRepublic mash-up or their cover of Nearer My God to Thee (arranged for 9 cellos!), go listen.
Steve and Jon are Mormons and consistently project a message of positivity, hope, faith, and inclusion. That’s why their decision to play at Trump’s pre-inauguration weekend concert caught me off guard. According to dozens of disappointed or scathing comments on their Facebook page and website, plenty of other fans felt my pain.
But then I read Steve and Jon’s heartfelt statement explaining their decision. Here’s a portion:
“If you know our music, you know that we painstakingly, prayerfully write and perform it with the intention to give it the greatest potential to lift others and break down barriers, not build them… We’ve found that our music has offered the most optimism when we’ve had the opportunity to perform for people who may not completely agree with who we are or what we stand for.”
They cite the story of Marian Anderson, “one of history’s bravest proponents of civil rights–an African American woman who sang for two inaugurations in a divided, segregated nation, despite being treated by many in that nation with unthinkable prejudice and baseless hatred. She once said, ‘As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.’”
Fundamentally, they conclude, “We’re not performing for politics or in support of one man or one woman. We’re just doing all we can to follow our hearts in the unconditional pursuit of making this nation, and this world, a better place for all people–to use our music, which is a small thing, to span divides, spread love, and displace discord with harmony.”
You should really read the whole statement. It’s compelling and convicting. I admire their commitment to being lights in a dark place. Their desire to spread a message of hope and acceptance comes from very good, loving hearts.
But they’ll still be sharing a symbolic stage with Trump. And, try as I might, I can’t quite shed a lingering sense of disappointment and betrayal over that fact.
This frustrates me. I don’t like being ruled by knee-jerk reactions and gut-based judgments. I try hard to carefully examine my reactions and make sure all perspectives have been weighed and respected. I leave room for gray areas and unanswered questions. Steve and Jon have done their part by carefully and lovingly unpacking their motivations for accepting the inaugural invitation. It’s my turn to give their message space and merit, rather than instantly judging them for seizing an opportunity to spread their music to a new audience.
But I fear their lovely message will sink into the political morass as fans experience the same knee-jerk reactions that I did. And I wonder if I’ll ever be able to completely wash the taint of Trump off a musical group I adore. Maybe if I crank up my Piano Guys playlist as I drive to Lansing for Saturday’s solidarity march, that’ll be a start.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.