It’s Time to Put Down Biden’s Dog
Bob Menendez Wanted to Address Corruption Charges With Dem Colleagues. Here's How They...
The GOP Needs to Get Some of These Idiots Off Stage
So, That's Who Authorities Think Should Be Blamed for Creating Havoc in Philly
Here's the Government Spending Measure the House GOP Failed to Pass Late Last...
The Ukrainian Gordian Knot
Unlike California, Congress Gets Hunting and Shooting Sports Right
Michigan Judges Now Forced to Refer to Attorneys by Their Preferred Pronouns
California Fast Food Workers Will Soon Be Paid the Highest Minimum Wage in...
BREAKING: Sen. Dianne Feinstein Has Died
Rand Paul Explains What He'll Do to Avoid a Shutdown
How One California City Is Handling the Illegal Immigration Crisis
Top Georgia State Senator Removed From Caucus For Daring to Stand Up to...
The Economy Isn't Biden's Only Problem
Why the 2024 Presidential Election Is Crucial for the Future of America

High Culture Belongs at Inaugurations

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
In the days since the second Obama inauguration, I've been thinking about Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce. No, not the great lip-synching controversy, but the choice of popular entertainment for a solemn national rite.

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.

Mr. Obama chose two pop stars and a dreadful poet (see Andrew Ferguson's exegesis in the Weekly Standard). Beyonce was appropriately dressed for the occasion. But who could fail to picture her as she usually appears when performing?

An inauguration should be august. Obama's second was pedestrian. It seemed to suggest, through it's undistinguished music, leaden rhetoric and shallow poetry, that to aim high was some sort of offense against the democratic (or Democratic?) spirit.

That is the very opposite of the truth. We've lost a great deal of the cultural ambition that characterized America in the post-war 20th century. That was a time when Leonard Bernstein was a fixture on television, offering "young people's concerts" that weren't just for the young. It was a time when Mortimer Adler sold millions of copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books compendium to the vast American middle class. Newly economically secure Americans were hungry to sample the best that had been thought and written and eager to expand their musical horizons. Publishers coined the term "middle brow" for this audience and perhaps intended it derisively. But it was a sign of national growth and confidence, not weakness.


This was before the multicultural assault. Accordingly, anyone from any background felt that the great works of Western civilization were their inheritance, too.

When I entered college, I didn't feel "alienated" by reading Plato because I wasn't Greek, nor excluded from the works of Shakespeare because I wasn't male, nor particularly appreciative of Herman Melville because I was American. The intellectual straightjacket of race, class, gender was still in the future.

The American spirit at its best aims high -- and not just for the few, but for everyone. A presidential inauguration is a ceremony that ratifies our beliefs and reminds us of what is best. As such, it should be celebrated with high art, not American Idol.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member


Trending on Townhall Videos