The Voice of Biden’s America

Music in presidential politics: The singing voice as a tool in the articulation of power. (Ethnomusicology)

January 20th, 2021, Joseph Biden Jr. is inaugurated to the 46th presidency of the United States of America. On the West Front of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., this ritual performance is one of power and political difference: the motion from one administration to another. Voice, as both an act and object, forms a central part in the articulation of power. Among the speeches and gestures were three patriotic vocal songs, performed by iconic American artists. As Nicholas Cook notes, “politics is as much a performance as music” (2001, 2). Having watched the inauguration live, I was struck by the contrast of these performances relative to the homogenous stoic and seriousness of the ceremony. I felt the difference that these performances engendered––that they stood out against the serious political backdrop. But, were these artists really expressing difference, or were they simply pawns used to communicate the singular message of the Biden inauguration?

Each of the three superstar artists at the inauguration communicates to different aesthetic and demographic communities. The first artist, Stefani Germanotta (stage name Lady Gaga), singing “The Star Spangled Banner” is heralded as a goddess in the LGBT community, fusing disco with soaring vocal ballads. The second artist, Jennifer Lopez (aka J.Lo), a pop-culture icon, sings a mashup of “This Land is Your Land” and several other songs. Finally, Garth Brooks, a legendary country singer and songwriter, sings “Amazing Grace”. Review each artist’s performance, I argue that the distinctions between each, when taken together, disappear into an intentional articulation of power on the behalf of the Biden administration…

The Performances
In making the distinction between the performer and the song, I analyze “the relationship between the script and the social interaction” (Cook 2001, 9). Each of the three songs serves as a “script” which each artist performs according to their own aesthetic aims (Cook 2001, 5). The scripts that are suggested by these songs are firmly patriotic and ubiquitously-known across the United States. The songs represent an American patriotism which transcends the individual performer. Through their musical and rhetorical consensus, the songs weld together in family-resemblance. In this way, it is possible to take these three performances together — three interpretations of the same “script”.

Within the performances, each artists build different aesthetic worlds: modifying underlying lyric, melodic, and rhythmic instructions. As an example of textual flexibility, two of the performances, Garth Brooks and J.Lo, both interject with their own spoken interactions to the audience. J.Lo’s performance is the best example, mashing four different texts together (transcript- Appendix 2). J.Lo’s articulation of the “Pledge of Allegiance” in Spanish was a clear nod to her Hispanic heritage and the Latinx viewers. While the entirety of “This Land is your Land” was not sung, it is interesting to note that two of the verses of the original 1940’s pamphlet contained verses regarding “a wall that tried to stop me” and “my hungry people [by the Relief Office]“. The choice not to sing these is even more striking when considering the context of a celebratory ceremony.

As I touched on, the songs share a variety of musical features. All in the major mode, slow tempi, simple rhythms, simple time signatures, and tonal harmonic template. Each performance, however, orchestrates these scripts differently. Garth Brooks sings “Amazing Grace” a cappella, highlighting the song’s intimacy and vulnerability. His country-style melodic embellishments and pronunciation further underline the homeliness (and, perhaps, a rural whiteness). J.Lo’s orchestration brings together various textures including electrified rock and an orchestral film-soundtrack. The presence of latin percussion also supports hispanic heritage. In comparison to her famous 2016 Super Bowl performance, Lady Gaga’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” leans towards musical show-tune. Indeed, the orchestration of the Marine Band strongly resembles a Tchaikovsky overture (snare rolls, triangle, brass trio, harp glissandi, etc.).

Lady Gaga’s performance struck me for several reasons. Firstly, the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner” glorify war. Orchestrating it as if it were the Nutcracker subverts the lyric content. Second, maintaining her signature outfits, Lady Gaga’s costume consisted of a golden brooch of a golden dove and a large-braided hairstyle. Viewers immediately drew connections between her apparel and the Hunger Games, a dystopian sci-fi novel about the overthrowing of a totalitarian regime. Apparel, however, forms part of a larger performance of embodiment. Jane Davidson (Davidson, 2002) considers various aspects of physical embodiment in expression. Both Lady Gaga and J.Lo (more the latter) are famous for their stage choreography. Here, not a single step is taken in either of the three performances. Rather, expressive movement is restricted to arm and hand gestures — Garth Brooks removes his hat — head angles, and facial expressions. In fact, there is no physical space for these artists to move. This highlights the sense of gravity and solemnity of each artist.

I note that many of my observations are only noticeable in the wider context of the performance. It is against the backdrop of the audience and venue that difference can be located. The audience is stoic, silent, immobile, dressed seriously in black and masked. The venue — the Capital Building — features heavy Roman architecture, encumbered by centuries of historic symbolism. Each artist wields the heavy aura and musical script together in their articulation of difference. In sum, Lady Gaga mocks power with her almost-parodic performance; J.Lo commandingly directs this power towards the Latinx community; finally, Garth Brooks humanizes the event, inviting “regular Americans” on the other side of the screen to join in [Biden’s] message:

“Now, if I can ask you to sing this last verse with me. Not just the people here, but the people at home, at work, as one, united.”

Who’s Voice?
Vocal performance is inherently political, and it’s inclusion at political events is a valuable to study. That voices distinguish themselves is key for the articulation of difference. Differentiation occurs not only in the words articulated, but in the timbres and accents that shape them; in the dressed bodies that create them; through the gestures and facial expressions that inflect them; and, finally, through the social context that frames it. In the performance of power, comprising partly of the nation-wide attention it receives, the inauguration reiterates and perpetuates norms of power display. By performing power and articulating difference, these artists also perform in the transmission of these values, translating power to their respective aesthetic communities.

I conclude by asking what affect the artists have altogether. What does it mean to appeal to various demographics groups by articulating difference at the inauguration ceremony? Taken together, I argue, these artists only serve to reinforce the message put forth by the Biden inauguration: power has been transferred. To conclude, I re-purpose a quote from Marlene Schäfers…

“This public presence, however, was subject to stringent disciplinary framing aimed at rendering this identity governable”(Schäfers 2018, 20).

Bibliography

Bowenbank, Starr. “Twitter Is Living for the ‘Hunger Games’–Inspired Mockingjay Pin Lady Gaga Wore to the Inauguration.” Cosmopolitan, 20 Jan. 2021, www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/celebs/a35267491/lady-gaga-hunger-games- mockingjay-inauguration-twitter-reactions/. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

Cook, Nicholas. “Between process and product: Music and/as performance.” Music theory online 7.2 (2001): 1–31.

CNBC Television. “Garth Brooks Performs ‘Amazing Grace’ at Joe Biden’s Inauguration.” YouTube, 20 Jan. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2J-5zF6UvY. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

Feld, Steven, et al. “Vocal anthropology: from the music of language to the language of song.” A companion to linguistic anthropology 321 (2004): 47.

NFL. “Lady Gaga Sings the National Anthem at Super Bowl 50 | NFL.” YouTube, 11 Feb. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=oU_UEVp2ynU. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.

PBS NewsHour. “WATCH: Jennifer Lopez Sings ‘This Land Is Your Land’ for Biden Inauguration.” YouTube, 20 Jan. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEAtsgMsWmo. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

PBS NewsHour. “WATCH: Lady Gaga Sings ‘the Star Spangled Banner’ at Biden Inauguration.” YouTube, 20 Jan. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7Fw2cxQspM. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

Schäfers, Marlene. “”It Used to Be Forbidden”: Kurdish Women and the Limits of Gaining Voice.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, vol. 14 no. 1, 2018, p. 3–24. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/689429.

Appendix 1 — Lady Gaga’s Amazing Grace

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Appendix 2 — Jennifer Lopez’s Medley

(“This Land is Your Land”)
This land is your land, and this land is my land
From the California to the Staten New York Island, From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters, God blessed America for me.
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking that ribbon of highway And saw above me that endless skyway, And saw below me the golden valley, I said: God blessed America for me.

This land was made for you and me… you and me… oh…

(“America the Beautiful”)
America, America, God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood. From sea to shining sea!

(National Anthem — Spanish)
Una nación bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos

(“Let’s get Loud”, by Jennifer Lopez) Let’s get Loud

(“This Land is your Land”)
‘Cuz this land was made for you and me

Appendix 3 — Garth Brooks’ Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found Was blind but now I see

Was Grace that taught my heart to fear And Grace, my fears relieved
How precious did that Grace appear The hour I first believed

Through many dangers, toils and snares We have already come
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far And Grace will lead us home

And Grace will lead us home Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found Was blind but now I see
Was blind, but now I see

Appendix 4 — This Land 1940 Lyrics

This land is your land, and this land is my land
From the California to the Staten New York Island, From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters, God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]

As I went walking that ribbon of highway

And saw above me that endless skyway, And saw below me the golden valley, I said: God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts, And all around me, a voice was sounding:
God blessed America for me.

[This land was made for you and me.]

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me A sign was painted said: Private Property, But on the back side it didn’t say nothing — God blessed America for me.

[This land was made for you and me.]

When the sun come shining, then I was strolling In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling; The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting: God blessed America for me.

[This land was made for you and me.]

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.

[This land was made for you and me.]

Researcher in comparative musicology; MA Ethnomusicology at SOAS, London. julienpalliere.com

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