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Making Music Out of the Post-Inaugural Blues

Jackson Browne and Tom Morello, musicians who have made social justice and public protest central to their artistic visions, played together during a 2013 tribute to Bruce Springsteen. (Photo: Mark Davis/

It’s a beautiful thing, the refusal of big-name singers like Celine Dion, Elton John, and Garth Brooks to perform at Trump’s inauguration.  Their absence has Trump’s spin doctors grasping at straws. Inaugural committee chair, Tom Barrack, said last week that instead of trying to surround Trump with A-list acts, “we are going to surround him with the soft sensuality of the place.” The inauguration, he claims, will have a “much more poetic cadence than having a circus-like celebration that’s a coronation.”  Really?  Isn’t such a circus Trump’s hallmark? As for poetic cadences – will they have the rhythm of Twitter feeds?

Trump’s inauguration will largely be remembered for the opposition it inspired, not just by the famous performers who refused to perform, but by the numerous protests that will take place in the streets. With an anticipated 200,000 participants, the Women’s March on Washington on January 21 is slated to be the biggest inauguration-related protest in U.S. history.  That’s good news, but afterwards, when the inevitable blues of a Trump presidency set in, how do we stayed jazzed?

We need a musical score, or rather multiple ones, not just from the A-list performers but all the way down the alphabet, from the big concert stage to the smallest corner cafe.

"When I’m feeling optimistic, I imagine that future generations will look at this time as a major turning point, a sort of political and cultural renaissance when Americans joined together not just to take back their country back, but to take it forwards."

I came of age in the sixties, at the height of the civil rights and anti-war movements. The powerful protest music of that time—from spirituals to folk to rock and beyond—was always playing in the background. The lyrics and guitar riffs expanded my universe and kept me and my friends energized for activism. The music had an appeal for many in the older generation too. I’ll never forget my mother playing Bob Dylan as she did the weekly ironing.  Music broke down barriers. Impassioned chords of justice and solidarity drowned out, even if only temporarily, the discord and divisiveness of a fractured left.  We might have had a hard time talking to each other, but at least we could march and dance together. Share a little joy.    

Good politics doesn’t necessarily make for good music, or good music for good politics. You can have one without the other, but how powerful it is when they come together. Music, as well as the other creative arts, can awaken new senses of possibility.  A tough challenge in the days ahead will be building a strong resistance to Trump while simultaneously constructing a hopeful, progressive vision of the future. We will have to straddle reactive and proactive ways of being and organizing. A radical flourishing of music and the arts could help by stretching the boundaries of our political imaginations so that we give ourselves the freedom to think outside the box. After all, this is a moment crying out for new ideas. And it could remind us that we not only need bread but roses to sustain us.

Such a flourishing of creativity would also help sideline Trump’s creepy and seductive Reality TV aesthetic. The comedians poking fun at him are necessary but not sufficient. Laugh all we want, but he’ll still occupy center stage unless his entertainment value and media ratings are forcefully and masterfully diminished by much better alternatives. Drown him out.

When I’m feeling optimistic, I imagine that future generations will look at this time as a major turning point, a sort of political and cultural renaissance when Americans joined together not just to take back their country back, but to take it forwards.  And the music was fantastic, they’ll say with a hint of wistfulness, even better than the 1960s.  Wish we’d been alive.

Why not leave such a legacy? And along the way, maybe share a little joy.

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Betsy Hartmann

Betsy Hartmann is the author of The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness (Seven Stories Press/NY) and Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (third edition, Haymarket Books). She is a professor emerita of Development Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. Visit her website


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