Obama vs. Trump: The value of musical literacy in a president
AU students and faculty weigh in on Obama and Trump’s relationships with the arts
President Barack Obama’s love of music is no secret - he has curated a few Spotify playlists of his favorites, has close relationships with artists like Beyoncé and Jay Z and Chance the Rapper and even hosted his own White House music festival, “South by South Lawn,” in 2016.
This is a stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s contentious relationship with artists, considering his difficulty securing an artist to perform at his inauguration, and his general criticism of contemporary music and the arts.
President Obama established himself as a cool celebrity president whom millennials can relate to, beloved by musicians, comedians and talk show hosts alike. On the other hand, despite having been a celebrity before running for president, President Trump has become known for having thin skin in regards to dealing with entertainers. He has made an enemy out of Saturday Night Live and has been denounced by dozens of actors and musicians.
The pinnacle of his struggle against pop culture was the numerous musicians who refused to perform at his inauguration, leaving him with Jackie Evancho, the runner-up to the reality show “America’s Got Talent” in 2010.
AU students and faculty weigh in
Audra Gale, a sophomore double majoring in political science and musical theatre, has been interning at the U.S. House of Representatives and has been a theater performer since she was 7-years-old. She started getting involved with social justice theatre work about 4 years ago, and Gale said she strongly believes that the arts and politics are more closely intertwined than people often think.
Gale said that for performers, getting booked and getting hired is the main goal of the profession. She added that she isn’t sure what she would have done if she had been approached to perform at President Trump’s inauguration.
“For people to turn down getting paid, being on national television and being on a platform in front of the U.S. and the world really speaks to their unwillingness to perform for someone who doesn’t respect them or appreciate the craft,” said Gale.
Gale believes that Trump and Obama have two totally different approaches in terms of their relationships with the music industry.
“Trump views performers as dancing monkeys whereas Obama understands the gravitational pull that an amazing artist can have,” Gale said. “At AU, our aim is social justice and protest through theater, and we’re taught to use art as a vehicle for change and not just entertainment.”
Joshua Bayer, a musician in residence at AU, plays the guitar and bass and directs the AU Jazz Orchestra. He performed at events celebrating Obama’s inauguration, but turned down offers to play at gigs various groups organized to celebrate Trump’s inauguration.
“You have to compromise your values to be a musician. I’ve played stuff that doesn’t match my values. I do gigs for defense contractors and an annual job for Republican committees, and I will again,” said Bayer. “But [Trump] was different.”
Bayer said that not only as a musician but as an American, going from Obama to Trump was like breaking up with a high school girlfriend.
“It was heart wrenching, I miss [Obama] terribly,” said Bayer. “There was definitely a huge section of the artistic community that really appreciated Obama’s existence, and I was part of that camp.”
Bayer said that although Obama respected and supported the arts, there was still a lot left to be desired during his presidency in terms of funding for the arts and education.
“The poor guy was dealing with the race-based opposition to his existence, so I don’t think he could have pushed an artistic agenda through,” said Bayer. “That stuff is easy to squash because it’s no defense contract - if the arts industry was producing billions upon billions of dollars like a defense contract, we’d be living in a different world.”
Bayer said that the one silver lining in the present situation is that times of upheaval produce great art.
“Satire flourishes when it doesn’t have to try very hard,” said Bayer. “Artists respond to society, people are angry and unhappy and disenfranchised, [so] it’ll be an interesting time for comedy, art, and music.”
Hannah Zakrewski, a junior majoring in history and minoring in musical theatre, served as an Out of Commonwealth and Campus Organizing Fellow for the Democratic Party of Virginia last year and has been involved with the AU College Democrats and AU Students for Hillary Clinton. Zakrewski said that in her opinion, Obama made the White House into a performance space, not just a place for politics.
“Donald Trump is out of touch and that’s okay because not everyone has to be the coolest president ever,” said Zakrewski. “But it does speak to his larger character that he doesn’t want to engage [with artists].”
Zakrewski said she was a huge Hillary Clinton supporter and voted for her in the election, but added that she wasn’t sure Clinton would have been any more in touch with contemporary culture than Trump is. Clinton has been known to embarrass herself when trying to keep up with pop culture, but Zakrewski believes that she would have at least made the effort to to support the arts.
“I think that [Trump] definitely has an attitude where art in general is less than what he does because he is a businessman,” said Zakrewski. “I don’t think he recognizes that you can be really talented and passionate and be an artist.”