Joe Biden Inauguration Music: J-Lo Is No Aretha Franklin

COMMENTARY: The music chosen to celebrate President Biden’s inauguration stands in stark contrast to one the president-elect participated in just 12 years prior.

Jennifer Lopez blows a kiss after performing in front of Joe Biden (R) at the 59th Presidential Inaguruation on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
Jennifer Lopez blows a kiss after performing in front of Joe Biden (R) at the 59th Presidential Inaguruation on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. (photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty)

After Garth Brooks sang Amazing Grace at the inauguration of President Joe Biden yesterday, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, chairman of the ceremony, curiously observed that “in our culture [that song] is as close to both poetry and prayer as you could possibly come.” 

A strange thing to say, because any hymn is precisely that, a poem that is a prayer set to music. U.S. culture has tens of thousands of them.

It is possible that the senator was simply flummoxed after the earlier musical performance of Jennifer Lopez, easily the worst ever in inaugural history. Was it a folk classic? Was it an anthem? Was she plugging her 20-year-old party song?

All of the above. For reasons unexplained, Lopez opened with a verse of This Land Is Your Land, then shifted into a verse of America the Beautiful before the mash-up diverted into a shouted line from the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, rising to a crescendo with her bellowing Let’s Get Loud!, the pop hit from her 1999 album. 

America the Beautiful does not need — least of all at an inauguration — help from Woody Guthrie; to scream “Let’s Get Loud” turns a patriotic hymn into a vainglorious marketing plug. It degraded the moment. 

Music at inaugurations is usually carefully chosen, though one expects that President Biden did not envision that J-Lo would update “God-shed-His-grace-on-thee” to “everyone-please-look-at-me.” 

I imagine that President Barack Obama was thinking that they got it right in 2009, at his first inauguration. I was there, at the Capitol, covering it for the Canadian press. The most memorable moment was not the oath of office, nor even the inaugural address, which was strangely flat given Obama’s rhetorical prowess. It was the music. 

Aretha Franklin, whose career began during the civil rights movement, took the podium to sing My Country ’Tis of Thee. It was one of the de facto national anthems before 1931, when The Star-Spangled Banner was officially designated as such.

The singer and the song — poetry and prayer — were chosen with history in mind. Indeed, in the weeks before the inauguration, Obama was finishing a children’s book about historic U.S. figures, which he entitled Of Thee I Sing, a line from that patriotic hymn.

The history went back three score and 10 to 1939. That year one of the premiere classical singers in the U.S., Marian Anderson, had been booked for a concert at Washington’s Constitution Hall. But the Daughters of the American Revolution, who operated the hall, would not permit the black Anderson to perform to an integrated audience. The subsequent uproar led thousands of members of the DAR to quit the organization, the most prominent among them being First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt mobilized her husband’s administration to host the concert instead at the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson performed there on Easter Sunday 1939, in front of a crowd of some 75,000. The concert opened with My Country ’Tis of Thee; it became a signal moment in the drive for racial equality.

Twenty-four years later, Anderson was invited to sing again at the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington, her presence an homage to the importance of the 1939 concert. Martin Luther King took up the lines of My Country ’Tis of Thee — “From every mountain side, Let freedom ring!” as the peroration of his I Have a Dream speech, thus inscribing the hymn into the pages of consequential American oratory.

Anderson was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and later the Congressional Gold Medal, as much for her civil rights contribution as her artistic excellence.

So in 2009, 70 years after the Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial, how would Obama honor the civil rights movement, of which his election was a milestone? From the other end of the Mall, facing the Lincoln Memorial, there could only be one song, My Country ’Tis of Thee. And only one singer. It had to be Aretha, the Queen of Soul. 

So it was, with Aretha arriving splendidly arrayed in a stupendous hat, studded with crystals, reflecting her roots in the black church. Aretha had by far the best one, but there were thousands upon thousands of church hats in the “congregation” that January day, a testimony to the role of the black church in the civil rights movement, the importance of gospel music to the marches, the protests, the vigils and the funerals.

My Country ’Tis of Thee has four verses, but the inaugural ceremony only allowed a few minutes so Aretha, given her improvisational style, only sang two of them. (Four years later, Kelly Clarkson was able to sing three of them in a more conventional, linear manner.)

As Aretha got toward the end, to her peroration as it were, she improvised on the “let freedom ring” from the first verse, echoing Martin Luther King from 1963 at the other end of the Mall. It was the perfect inaugural musical moment, telling the best of the American story in song.

The music this year, a descent from Aretha to J-Lo, did not meet that mark.

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