Francis The First. Who remembers him? I don’t. I didn’t even study him in history class. At least I don’t remember it if I did. But he was the king of Austria when Beethoven lived and worked there. How about Maria Theresa? Remember her? No? Queen of Austria when Mozart was alive and composing there. True art is always bigger than politics. It survives longer and continues to speak to generations long after political figures have faded into dust-covered history books.
We in America, however, are starting to think of it the other way around. Politics is becoming the new rock and roll. Or worse yet …the new religion. And it’s starting to do what all religion eventually does …bring out the worst in us and consume our very soul. Right now, we need true art more than ever.
A good friend of mine books political events. In fact, she’s booking a lot of the inauguration events. She and I have had very lengthy discussions about what political setting I might be comfortable performing in. As it turns out …not many. I don’t publicly endorse or campaign for candidates.
I’m not political in my work. I genuinely want everyone, in whatever room I’m playing, to be a part of the moment. It doesn’t matter to me who you voted for. It doesn’t matter to me how you feel about the Federal Reserve or Socialism or Planned Parenthood or The Chamber of Commerce or the Constitution or Trump or Hillary. I want you to be drawn into something deeper and wider and more spiritual than all of that stuff. My goal in a performance is to resonate with the deepest parts of your humanity …the parts that transcend the immediacy of the political. I don’t want you to ever feel like you have to pass some sort of political test to be a part of my club. So, I don’t get booked on a lot of political rallies. It’s just not my thing.
I’m also not a big fan of inauguration day becoming a show, in the first place. I think we spend way too much time and money on the pageantry of the presidency. If I were ever elected president, the inauguration would take about fifteen minutes. I’d take the oath, standing next to my wife, in a room somewhere within walking distance of the oval office (efficiency). Someone would say a prayer (preferably my dad) …then we’d get to work. Once you take the oath, you’re on the clock. You work for the people. And they don’t pay you to go to parties. On the first day of my administration, there would be no “Ball.” No dance. No parade. None of that. My inauguration would be over before lunch and cost about $75 bucks. Having said that …
Americans love a good party. And so we send our new presidents off with a shindig. I get it. And I do appreciate the fact that we have music and prayers at these events. We need much more of both in this world.
So, a few days ago, I broke my own rule and texted my booking agent friend. I asked if there were any slots open at the inauguration that I might fill. I’d thought about it a lot and decided that of all the political events I would NOT want to play …this was one someone SHOULD play. I’d been watching what looked like a mass exodus of artists from performing at the peaceful transfer of power (something I AM very passionate about).
And it seemed as though they were being frightened, shamed or bullied out of serving the event. For me as an artist …that’s the time to show up.
I’m no one of note. But I wanted to offer my services in any way possible for the COUNTRY …not necessarily the candidate.
She informed me that the press coverage was actually sort of comical. And that despite a few isolated incidents, there was actually a line of people who wanted to play the event. That made me feel a little better. In a time when we are SO divided, the musicians and artists should be the ones bringing us together …instead of driving us further apart.
I understand not liking a candidate. In fact, I understand absolutely loathing a candidate. I understand being at a philosophical impasse with a candidate. But maybe that’s the candidate who needs to hear from you the most. Maybe the whole country needs to hear from you. Performing for someone who makes you feel good is easy. But that’s not an act of unity. That’s just an act of emotional tribalism. And anyone can do that.
We throw around the term “brave” a lot, with artists. But no one who only plays for sympathetic crowds is really brave. The truly brave are the artists who bring their art into hostile circumstances. You have to risk being hated. And for people who live and breathe in a business fueled by fan love …that is often a risk that is simply unacceptable.
U2 just put off a record release because of the recent election. What? Really? I thought they were supposed to be the guys who would get in your face and “speak truth to power” (one of my least favorite phrases) and show up to save Africa (whether Africa liked it or not).
I suppose everyone has a breaking point. But if your art is dependent on an American presidential election, you’ve officially gone from being the show …to being the audience. Am I bugging ya, U2? I don’t mean to …bug ya.
In wars of different eras, drummers and fife players marched on the front lines …ahead of the soldiers. As much as I am horrified by the thought of young musicians being blown to bits, the idea that musicians saw the enemy before anyone else is intriguing. And I love the image of them bringing music into that horror instead of weaponry. The truth is the front of an issue is where artists belong. If there is a battle taking place, artists should be there, bringing their ART into it …not just their protest. And certainly not becoming combatants, themselves.
Protest is momentary. Art is eternal.
I hope if I’m ever asked to perform at a presidential inauguration, I spend my time searching my soul for the perfect song; for the right words and melodies; for the healing powers that course through the veins of the higher language I aspire to speak. I hope I can breathe something deeper into the event; something that allows us to soar closer to the ideals occupying the atmosphere, rather than lowering myself to the smallness of the personalities occupying the seats.
George Washington took the first oath of office and then added (himself – under his breath) “so help me God.” It was a solemn and spontaneous prayer that has endured to this day. Government of the people, for the people, by the people is serious business. It’s sacred. And moments like presidential inaugurations are for everyone in the country …not just the winners of elections.
The art expressed at such events should rise to that occasion. And artists should do the same.