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Renée Graham

Snubbing Trump, musicians lead the resistance

Elton John performs at Radio City Music Hall during a fundraiser for Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton on April 9, 2008.Andrew Theodorakis/AP/Associated Press

Nobody wants to play with Donald Trump.

Or, to be more precise, no one wants to play for Trump. Less than a month before his inauguration, the president-elect and his minions are flapping about trying to convince somebody — anybody — to perform at his various inaugural events. Last week, pop-opera tenor Andrea Bocelli declined Trump’s invitation after some of the singer’s fans threatened to boycott his concerts and albums if he sang a single note at the inauguration.

Bocelli’s refusal joins snubs from Elton John, Garth Brooks, and Celine Dion. So far, no A-list performers are willing to do anything that might suggest support for Trump, especially on a day he likely views more as a coronation than a swearing-in. Mark the moment: This is the first perceptible proof of life for an anti-Trump resistance that has been more bark than bite since Election Day. This is a silent but effective protest from artists usually thrilled to make a joyful noise.

Normally, it likely takes no more than a call or two to get artists to perform at inaugural events, highly coveted gigs that, after all, only come around once every four years. Aretha Franklin sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. Beyoncé performed her rendition of “At Last” for the Obamas’ first dance as first couple at an inaugural ball that also included Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Sting, Mary J. Blige, and Stevie Wonder. Obama’s second inaugural weekend featured Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, Brad Paisley, John Legend, Marc Anthony, and Smokey Robinson. At the inauguration, Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” while Beyoncé performed “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


So far, Trump has booked Jackie Evancho, a 16-year-old former “America’s Got Talent” runner-up, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the latter somehow feeling like yet another swipe at Mitt Romney.


Granted, Republicans rarely draw the biggest names for their inaugural bashes. In 1993, Bill Clinton got Bob Dylan; in 2001, George W. Bush got 98 Degrees. (They were the turn-of-the-millennium boy band for those who found Backstreet Boys too musically challenging.)

Yet no president-elect has come up as empty as Trump, and it must have him in knots. This is a man concocting new math to prove he actually won the popular vote, which he lost to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.8 million votes. It’s not enough that he’s going to be the 45th president of the United States. He has to be the cock of the walk, the man who crushed his opponent, the business genius who believes everyone wants to touch the hem of his oddly tailored suit.

Trump is not a man accustomed to the word “no.” Like all bullies, he’s riddled with insecurities, a rich man’s son who expects to get his way through force, lawsuits, or stacks of cash pushed into the right hands at the right time. When a member of Trump’s transition team claimed last month that Elton John would perform at an inaugural event, John’s publicist issued an unequivocal e-mail smackdown: “He will NOT be performing.” Mind you, John, openly gay for years, once performed with Eminem on the Grammys at a time when the rapper was being dragged for his homophobic lyrics. Clearly, even the Rocket Man has his limits.

Now, as these things go, this is small. Celine Dion refusing to warble “My Heart Will Go On” to a sea of tuxedos, gowns, and “Make America Great Again” caps won’t deter any of Trump’s appalling Cabinet picks. Bocelli choosing not to perform “Nessun Dorma” for Donald and Melania’s first dance won’t change any of the dreadful policies Trump is threatening to impose. Yet these musicians’ resistance should not be lightly dismissed, either. It comes as Trump is trying to prove his might and ability to bend people to his will. If Trump can’t convince Brooks to don his formal cowboy hat and strum a few tunes for the new president, how will he fare against world leaders already convinced that he’s a buffoon?


It doesn’t matter whether stars are declining Trump’s request because they oppose his rhetoric and proposed policies or because they just want to avoid backlash from their fans. This is tangible defiance that Trump can’t ignore, because it makes him look foolish and ineffectual. And you don’t have to be Alec Baldwin to recognize how deeply that kind of thing wounds the petulant manchild who will be president.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.