Tuesday night, Washington hosted the Staff Inaugural Ball and with that, we mark the last big to-do of this year's inaugural season. For the past few days, Washington has hosted visiting celebrants and dignitaries and they have, of course, been treated to many musical performances. Tuesday night, for example, guests of the staff ball heard Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga singing songs, and earlier this week Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor sang some songs, and Beyonce ... well, she did something with her voice, anyway. Nobody seems to know when and where she did it, but I think everyone agrees that whenever or wherever she did stuff with her voice, it was pretty awesome.
In fact, the one musical performance of the inauguration celebration that seems to have stuck out like a sore thumb was that rendered by Chicago hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco. He was booked to perform at an event hosted by StartUp RockOn, an organization that celebrates "entrepreneurs, innovators, and risk takers" -- only I guess there are limits to the risk-taking they are willing to celebrate. Here is what happened when Lupe Fiasco took the stage, according to Politico, which probably couldn't have predicted it would be publishing a story about Lupe Fiasco:
Lupe Fiasco was asked to leave the stage during his performance at an inauguration party in Washington, D.C. on Sunday.
The rapper had been repeating politically charged lyrics for an unusually long time when event officials forced him to stop, according to various attendees.
“So Lupe played one anti-war song for 30 min and said he didn't vote for Obama and eventually was told to move on to the next song,” Josh Rogin, a reporter at Foreign Policy, tweeted from the bash hosted by StartUp RockOn. “Lupe refused to move to the next song so a team of security guards came on stage and told him to go.”
The folks at NowThisNews have a video of what happened:
Now, let me state from the outset that I personally have tremendous respect for the rights of rock and hip-hop performers to perform their material in the fashion of their choosing, and I will further stipulate that I have long admired and will continue to admire the tradition of musicians offering robust dissent of authority whenever they feel free to do so, regardless of who they choose to target. The responsibility for what's being widely treated as a debacle in this case falls squarely on the people who opted to book Lupe Fiasco for this event. Yes, they certainly were entitled to expect their event to not get swamped in weird controversy, but still: rock and hip-hop is often not "safe," even for courageous, risk-taking, start-up people.
So, in the interests of helping everyone involved with these sorts of events get what they want in the future, I want to offer this: "Is The Performer I Booked For My Event Going To Ruin My Inauguration Party? The Super Helpful Guide For Idiots."
1. Is the name of the artist I booked for my event literally a play on "Super Crazy Hot Chaotic Mess?"
If so, this is may be what is known as a "red flag." Of course, the usual caveats about books and covers apply. If you book The Airborne Toxic Event for your event, you won't actually get a band dedicated to scabrous, diseasey music or a band that performs nothing but white noise (that's a joke for you DeLillo fans), you will actually get a lot of swoopy, crescendo-filled music about the lovelorn. Nevertheless, the name of the act is a clue to what you are getting. Just as "Hoobastank" says to the world, "No thanks, we don't want to headline Live Aid or anything," "Lupe Fiasco" conveys the idea that stuff could get a wee bit unpredictable up there on stage.
2. In assessing how the artist might be willing to suborn his or her personal artistic preferences for the sake of advancing your organization's message, is there anything about the artist's music that offers a clue?
This could take some amount of vetting, but then, if your organization's message means anything to do, you should go to some minimal effort and apply some deductive reasoning. Now, as it happens, Lupe Fiasco has this song called "Words I Never Said" that sort of addresses this matter directly in the chorus of the song, with Skylar Grey singing the hook:
It’s so loud Inside my head / With words that I should have said! / As I drown in my regrets / I can’t take back the words I never said
Okay! So, right here you have a song in which Lupe Fiasco states pretty forthrightly that he has intense regrets about the words he should have said, to the extent that those regrets are causing him to have some sort of noisy brain maelstrom. This is a pretty big clue that perhaps Lupe Fiasco is the sort of person who personally cannot abide holding back when he has something he wants to say and has the chance to say it.
Now, of course, this is a song that was only a modest hit from his second-most recent album, but it's also the song he recently performed on the Colbert Report, a show that the sort of hip, wonky people at the intersection of politics and entrepreneurship might be expected to be aware of.
You also sort of expect anyone with a passing knowledge of Lupe Fiasco to be conversant in this song, which, by the way, was the very tune Fiasco was performing at this StartUp RockOn event. It sort of makes you wonder if Fiasco's best-known songs offer clues as to whether he'd be a good fit for certain events.
3. So, does the artist you've booked for your celebration of President Barack Obama's second inauguration have lyrics in their hit songs that indicate that maybe they are not the best person to book -- LIKE, REALLY REALLY NOT THE BEST PERSON?
Well, consider some of the lyrics of the first verse of this aforementioned well-known Lupe Fiasco song, with the banging hook and everything:
--"I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit." Let's recall that the Obama administration's position on drone strikes and electronic surveillance and kill lists is that it is not, surprisingly, "a bunch of bullshit."
--"If you turn on TV all you see’s a bunch of 'what the fucks,' / Dude is dating so and so blabbering bout such and such / And that ain't Jersey Shore, homie that's the news." Aren't you going to have a bunch of reporters at your event? Probably you'll want them to cover it in a positive fashion and so having the performer slag them is not the sort of mood you want to set, I'm just guessing.
--"9/11 building 7 did they really pull it?" Ha, so this should really be self-explanatory.
--"Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit / That's why I ain't vote for him, next one either." Oh, so, part of the song is explicitly about not voting for the guy you are celebrating having been elected to a second term? Guys, this stuff isn't that hard!
--"Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist." Okay, okay, Lupe would have been a bad fit for a Romney inaugural party, too. I guess not everything in culture fits squarely into your Droning Right-Left Dichotomy For Pundit Jerks.
The evidence is stacking up, though, that Lupe Fiasco might not be the sort of performer you want for your inauguration party. Unless, of course, you are hosting the Dinesh D'Souza Kenyan Conspiracy A-Go-Go Ball, but even in that case, why book Lupe Fiasco? You could probably get Orly Taitz and six guys dressed as Chewbacca to screech birther lawsuits over a dupstep track in return for a few bags of Chex mix.
4. Okay, sure, the artist sings some controversial stuff. But Johnny Cash sang about that undying dream of all Americans: killing people in Reno, Nev. But he didn't actually do that. Is it possible that all of that is just posturing?
Sure, it's possible! Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage, et cetera. But in Lupe Fiasco's case, he really seems committed to his core beliefs. As he explained during his appearance on The Colbert Report, "I always criticize power. Even if you agree with it you should criticize it." By contrast, Colbert offered a prophetic quip, "I believe you should be a toady to power." And then Fiasco went on, in that interview, to basically throw shade all over the successful dispatch of Osama bin Laden.
FUN FACT: The last time Washington's wonky event organizers booked an entertainer who they probably shoudn't have, it was Stephen Colbert, who performed comedy at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, and went on to demonstrate that he wasn't a performing seal by doing a whole set about the corrupt relationship between Beltway reporters and the political figures they cover.
At this point, the organizers of the StartUp RockOn event should have been asking themselves something like, "Okay, are you sure Mumford & Sons are not available?" Or maybe they just should have re-examined what their organization is all about and booked someone really appropriate. For example -- you are celebrating start-up entrepreneurs, right? Well, couldn't you just get Mark Zuckerberg's sister's weird cover band? (This is a thing that actually exists.) If so, that should be fine, your guests will go home feeling like they really had an authentic DC experience (in that it will over-promise and under-deliver).
So, there you have it. A basic guide to ensuring that your happy little corporate event at the inauguration doesn't go all sideways on you and end in an embarrassing spectacle. Of course, the much much shorter version is simply: Before you book a band, know even one thing about them.
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