That Beyonce 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 Beyonce, 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 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.
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