by Chez Pazienza
Maybe you can argue that Scott Baio got the last laugh. When the campaign of Donald Trump announced that Baio and his fellow traveler in irrelevancy Antonio Sabato, Jr. would be speaking at the Republican National Convention this past summer — after Trump’s characteristically grandiose promises of an A-list “showbiz” event — we all had a good chuckle. In Hillary Clinton’s corner, after all, were truly megawatt stars like Beyoncé and Jay Z, George Clooney, Katy Perry, Meryl Streep and Bruce Springsteen. And the best Trump could do was a washed-up underwear model who now does cheesy SyFy knockoffs and Chachi. While the crowd on hand of course embraced Baio like he was guy who’d just completed his EGOT and was voted People‘s Sexiest Man Alive, a good percentage of the politically interested home audience was either flooding Twitter with snark or cringing that Trump’s promise of star power had topped out at — that.
The thing is, while Trump is well-known for rewarding loyalty — and Scott Baio had emerged as a seemingly unlikely and yet somehow completely appropriate mouthpiece for a “reality TV” presidential candidate — he’s also acutely aware of how the world looks at him. He can’t be seen to fail; that would contradict everything his self-created mythology is based on. So at some level you just know it ate him alive that all that crowing about an A-list Republican Convention fell flat — that he just wasn’t respected or well-liked enough by actual superstars that he could issue a demand for a command performance and they’d come running, eager to be seen kissing his ring while he supernaturally feeds off their suddenly subservient egos. There was a time when Donald Trump’s name actually did mean something and he could hob-nob with societal royalty — but that was a hell of a long time ago, before he made himself a fledgling demagogue and a global punchline.
Fast forward to today.
Donald Trump is reportedly “very unhappy” right now. So says an extensive article in The Wrap detailing Team Trump’s efforts to find somebody, anybody with even an ounce of genuine star power or artistic relevancy who’s willing to play the incoming president’s inaugural celebration. This is a story that’s been snowballing for weeks as the inauguration fast approaches and Trump’s desperation becomes more and more tragic and pronounced. Last week there was the news that Trump’s team was actually authorized to offer talent bookers ambassadorships if they could bring some actual, you know, talent under the tent. That didn’t end what The Wrap calls an effective “freeze-out” by Hollywood and so now Trump’s personal pick for handling inauguration entertainment, Mark Burnett — the, of course, reality TV icon who created both Survivor and the Trump vehicle The Apprentice — is shaking things up. He’s apparently throwing a “Hail Mary” and bringing in another reality TV vet, Suzanne Bender, who worked on Dancing with the Stars and American Idol, to book stars for the series of events.
To some extent, it’s bound to work. Somebody’s going to break ranks, risk the inevitable backlash, and actually be remembered by future generations as performing for America’s first contribution to the corrupt despots of history. There’s always somebody willing to put short-term gain over long-term loss and personal profit over something as ephemeral as politics. So far, though, that person hasn’t really emerged. Trump tried floating the story that Elton John — Elton John — would be performing, but Elton embarrassed Trump by shooting that down in the time it takes to say, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Trump eventually turned to Garth Brooks, which makes sense given that country stars are almost always the go-to entertainment for any Republican victory party, but even after initially saying that he might consider it a “service” to the country, he ultimately balked. Even Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion — neither of whom are American, by the way — backed out, citing the inevitable backlash.
At the moment, then, Trump’s rolling snake eyes. Nobody wants to play for him.
The question is, why? Regardless of who Trump might happen to be, it’s typically considered an honor to play the inauguration of the President of the United States. You’d figure that by now, even merely citing the Brooksian “service” argument, some relatively famous artist somewhere would have stepped up. The problem is, of course, Trump himself. It is who he happens to be. Trump takes great pride in not being a normal presidential victor the same way he wasn’t a normal presidential candidate. Well, now he gets to choke on that a little. There’s a serious downside to Trump being nothing more than who he is, and this is it: the people who will boost your gargantuan ego maybe don’t necessarily want to do it, particularly not when you’ve proven yourself an unhinged, mendacious monster who rose to power by sowing the seeds of hate and resentment and your incoming era promises unprecedented corruption and political violence against your enemies.
More than that, though, is something that we may be seeing a return to in the era of Trump — that’s music used as a weapon against oppression. Pop music has always been a subversive art form and it may very well rediscover that fact on a broad scale. Art in general has never been the dominion of conservatism for the simple reason that good art requires nonlinear thinking. It’s pure expression, often in a way that embraces nuance and uncertainty, leaving itself open to interpretation, which runs contrary to so much of what makes modern conservatives tick. It’s no surprise that throughout America’s recent history it’s always been conservatives who stood sometimes violently against artistic expression they didn’t agree with and didn’t understand and it’s been the more liberal-minded who both embraced “dangerous” art and who often made it themselves. If you’re an artist of any caliber, there’s a good chance you’re not a hardcore conservative. That’s just how it is.
Now you can certainly argue that there are purely commercial reasons for not playing the inauguration of Donald Trump and those are definitely coming into play here. From a cost/benefit perspective, it’s simply a less financially risky move to piss off the would-be boycotters of the alt-right — who are a small number and have already proven that their boycotts fail monumentally — than it is to piss off a good portion of the rest of the music-buying public. Not only do you not want to be seen by history performing for an almost certain American Nightmare like Trump, you don’t want the people who buy your records to see it either — unless you’re someone who either caters specifically to conservatives or doesn’t have anything to lose anyway. In the latter column, that’s where Scott Baio fell. Nobody was talking about him one way or the other so why not become an instant hero to somebody out there.
That may very well be the direction Trump eventually goes in: bringing back performers who are long-since forgotten and casting it as a kind of “American nostalgia” inauguration. Find some idiots from the 80s — when Trump was at the height of his social and business status — and feed the rabble that voted for Trump exactly what they want. (Imagine “Inauguration and Poison” on the invitation, sort of like “Puppet Show and Spinal Tap.”) The problem is that wouldn’t satisfy Trump because, again, he’d know in his soul that he’d been forced to settle because nobody with any real talent wanted a damn thing to do with him. Hence why he’s called out his reality TV heavy-hitters — people who’ve already proven that they’re incapable of feeling shame — in a desperate 11th hour crusade to find musical talent Trump considers to be “of his caliber.” It remains to be seen just who or what they’ll come up with.
Right now, the big “All American Ball,” scheduled for January 19th in celebration of Trump’s inauguration, is a garbage fire so bereft of star power it’s almost laughable. It bills itself as a celebration of our nation with “a stellar list of special guests, plus multiple areas of entertainment and attractions, which represent the diversity, energy and promise of America.” Unfortunately, that stellar list of special guests is basically Beau Davidson, a singer-songwriter from Nashville; an 80s cover band — see? — called “The Reagan Years”; as well as a wedding band and a series of DJs including someone who calls himself “DJ Freedom.” Oh, and there’s “The Star Spangled Singers.” Sure, it’s elitist to ridicule this kind of thing and, for the record, the Democrats have relied far too long on being the “cool” party, but even for an unofficial event this line-up — with tickets going for $350 a pop — is, to quote Trump himself, sad.
Considering the inordinate amount of crap Trump took from the bands whose music he played at his Nuremberg-style rallies during his campaign, it’ll be a miracle if anybody truly worthwhile steps up and agrees to debase themselves in Trump’s presence. But at some point someone somewhere will. If nothing else, it’s practically a guarantee that right now Kid Rock and Ted Nugent are jumping up and down excitedly, their hands thrust high, trying to get Trump to call on them. He may yet. But make no mistake: He won’t be happy about it.
Hell, does anybody know if Scott Baio can sing? Or, hey, there’s always Kanye.
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