There's something fascinating and a little frightening about putting together a playlist for an event that is not you sitting in front of your computer in a bathrobe, refreshing Twitter. All the things you take for granted in the music you enjoy--the little background flourishes that charmed you once and then vanished with familiarity, the thickness of the sound, the weirdly forgettable repetition of the n-word--are lurking at the edges of your Thanksgiving get-together or wedding reception or Presidential Inauguration Ball, waiting to offend a rogue great aunt.
Which is why it was so interesting to see just who played at Barack Obama's inauguration ball. Which pop stars, in cartoonishly polarized 2013, can perform for the president without finding themselves threaded into a Loose Change sequel about the protocols of the elders of Kenya?
Any playlist-maker knows that the decision, here, is between going for broad apeal--artists everyone at least kind of likes--or broad apathy--artists nobody can bring themselves to hate. Since Barack Obama is the actual president, the people in charge of the Inaugural Ball's entertainment were able to spring for both kinds.
This weirdly conversational AP review (featuring the only sentence about Marlon Wayans and Bill Russell you'll read today, aside from this one) gives us a list of performers. So--broadly acceptable or broadly inoffensive?
James Taylor: Broadly inoffensive. Taylor appeals to fans of soft-rock and season five of The Simpsons and offends nobody except people who read music blogs and don't like season five of The Simpsons -- a demographic which is, at this date, entirely theoretical.
Most other people will hear his name; think, "Yes, I believe that is the name of a musician;" and go back to their lives. That is why the "Current events" section of his Wikipedia page is devoted almost entirely to his performing for large groups of rich, famous, politically minded, or otherwise sharp-elbowed people.Kelly Clarkson
: Both, somehow.American Idol
has been consistently excellent at churning out winners who offend nobody, but its slide into acoustic-rawker-purgatory has shown just how difficult it is to go from inoffensive to appealing.
Kelly Clarkson, though--after a bland, inoffensive Idol-winner single that would've strangled her career if it had the chance--turned up the electric guitars and the Max Martin and became a genuine pop star. "Since U Been Gone" even earned her plaudits from the comic-book-guys at Pitchfork.
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Being a pop star is risky, inasmuch as people sometimes dislike musicians who make them feel things. But Clarkson has benefited from another Idol phenomenon: The great aunts of the world who might otherwise look askance at the word "suck" in a chorus are consistently disarmed when it's delivered by someone with a southern accent.
Beyonce: Behold, the reigning champion of broad appeal! Confident enough to reform Destiny's Child, eternally relevant, well-regarded enough to make people forget about that Super Bowl halftime show where apl.de.ap and Taboo murdered each other on the game grid.
And so secure in her grip on broad appeal that she got a nearly identical nod for Obama's last inauguration.