Who Runs the 2013 Inauguration? A President (And Girls!)

Posted January 21, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in HiDef

Big things prove to grow in Texas, as Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Clarkson heat up the festivities at Obama’s 2013 inauguration

Presidential inaugurations in America are steeped in a long history of tradition. The ceremonies are deeply saturated with familiar chants of history, preambles, quotes and the perfect gaze into a better tomorrow. During the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, for the millions of those who partook in its majesty via TV or by streaming Internet, we saw a diverse body of people – black, white, gay, straight, Democratic and Republican – saluting our past and embracing a more contemporary America. It’s still a bit hard to believe that the second inauguration of Obama – only five years away from George W.’s – feels a bit odd when placed with the ones that came before it. It should be noted here that Obama is America’s first elected black president (or biracial, if that’s what you want to call it). But that’s not what gave off the perception of a more contemporary America. It was the short list of musical performers that gave it away.

If your musical diet is highly saturated with tradition, then you probably didn’t care who sung “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “My Country Tis’ of Thee.” And that’s probably because you were unaware of the two young ladies who sung those selections. But if you like your tradition dipped in creamy bisque then you may have taken a fancy towards those two young ladies.

Texas native Kelly Clarkson, a survivor of the American Idol academy, approached the podium with an ever-present display of awe and jovial spunk. Although she has won the hearts of teen America with her long list of pop hits, including “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” and inherited her own inaugural experience as the winner of American Idol’s first season, her Mickey Mouse smile conjured an innocence that’s so rare in the world of pop music. Her take on “My Country, Tis of Thee” was a mountaintop moment for Clarkson. What echoed from her lips was just as epic. Clearly the master of ceremonies Charles Schumer (D-NY) hired the right person for the job, even if Clarkson’s uncontrollable and apparent giddiness didn’t exactly imply that. She sung her low notes with ease and patience, while fighting off the few remnants of jitters that came with the occasion. As her voice modulated into orbit, so did her energy. The arrangement flourished with a message of hope with every whip of the brass and drums from the United States Marine Band. But Clarkson’s pipes were as muscular than Whitney Houston’s, when the late R&B/pop singer proudly echoed her Star-Spangled Banner rendition at Super Bowl XXV. The comparisons were just that close. The blend of the classical from the band and the popular extravagance of Clarkson proved to be a healthy marriage, proving that the two worlds could coexist.

If I could copy and paste the previous statements of Clarkson with  Knowles’s stellar performance of the national anthem, I would. But that would be tacky. But you could easily say the same thing for Knowles, another Texas native. What usually baffles me with Knowles’ vocal style is her constant need to enforce melisma and her wavering vibrato on long, extended holds. Maybe the weather was working in her favor, but Beyonce’s performance was flawless. Let it be said, even if you contemporize it like Marvin Gaye did in 1983 or gospel-lize it like Aretha, Dr. John and Aaron Neville did in 2006, the Star-Spangled Banner is one tricky composition: The note drops are endless; The tricky duple time speaks against the very nature of enduring pop; the lyrics are constantly butchered. But Beyonce’s version was one that accurately summoned the spirit of greater performances. Where it ranks in comparison with those, I don’t know right now. I think it’ll be too time consuming to try to finger point the best version, although some theories of logic would point at the real moneymaker.

Beyoncé’s voice knew where to execute her vibrato, using it for effect. Her runs were well managed, showing that she isn’t going to totally abide by the rules of hymnology.  But what proved to be her sweet spot was her ability to project grace, womanhood and a champion spirit, right after taking out her ear piece and then belting “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

By the way, exceptional praise from music critics was universal over Clarkson and Knowles.

SPIN quickly published their Bey praise:

“Starting in a lofty octave, and eventually removing her earpiece, the former Destiny’s Child singer gave a suave, evocative rendition of a notoriously difficult tune — not quite Whitney-Houston-in-1991 levels of superlativeness, perhaps, but definitely part of the same conversation.”

Rolling Stone echoed the praises:

“The singer kept it airy and soothing for most of the song before bursting open for a powerful finish.”

The Huffington Post called Clarkson’s performance “stunning.”

MTV also marvelled at Clarkson’s version:

“Joined by the United States Marine Band, the singer performed a heartfelt rendition of the patriotic tune. Wearing shades of purple, a color also worn by the President’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, the former ‘American Idol’ dazzled with her version of the track, helping to celebrate Obama taking office for the second time.”

SPIN went on to write about :

“Earlier, Kelly Clarkson began somewhat tentatively but ended on a commanding note in a performance of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”…”

What may have been the scariest sight to see was watching Jay-Z and Beyoncé departing with Republican Paul Ryan right behind them. Scary stuff.

The other musical performances weren’t filled with Twitter-raging pageantry, but still were complimentary to the occasion. Most importantly, James Taylor’s acoustic rendering of “America the Beautiful” ushered in a tender Paul Simon-esque moment. The authenticity of Taylor’s moment, with him and his guitar, felt personal and intimate. It was the perfect breather for a period in U.S. history still marred with tomorrow’s uncertainty over its lingering challenges. At the core, it was that “We Shall Overcome” moment we all needed.

The Grammy-award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, directed by Carol Cymbala, travelled the same distance Schumer did to get there, except they probably took up half a plane. I love the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, for what they stand for: A unified pop choir reflecting the gorgeous tapestry of racial integration. But I still can’t understand their reckless need to lipsynch to pre-recorded tracks. Sure the 100-voice aggregation had to brave the 44-degree, yet mild-for-D.C. January cold, but so did Clarkson, Knowles, and Taylor. While their combustible and highly theatric version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic sounded like it came off the press like a Glee on Broadway, the idea of traveling so far with a “push play” button has never proved to be all that impressive to me.

The slew of presidential inaugural balls, another pasttime stepped in American history, are scheduled to feature a long list of contemporary performers, including fun., Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Usher, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Brad Paisley, Far East Movement, and recently-announced rock band Soundgarden.

UPDATED: 1/22/13, 1:00 p.m.

The U.S. Marine Band may be the snitch of the week, after revealing that Beyonce’ lipsynched her performance of the National Anthem. According to the New York  Times, the band’s spokeswoman, Master Sergeant Kristin duBois, said the weather was good and the Marine Band had no trouble with intonation during most of the prelude and ceremony, nearly two and half hours of music.  Still, at the last minute, she said, Beyoncé and the band received orders to use a recorded version of the national anthem, a track recorded on Sunday night at the Marine Barracks Annex. No word if Kelly Clarkson lipsynched her performance.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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