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Jennifer Lopez's performance at the Biden inauguration has a complicated history

Acknowledging this context doesn’t diminish from the achievement of the moment; if we understand it, it only leads us to appreciate it more fully.
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Jennifer Lopez arrives to sing during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the Capitol on Thursday.Patrick Semansky / AP

As symbolism goes, it could hardly have been stronger. During Donald Trump’s four years in office, he outraged many in the Hispanic community with his racist outbursts and inhumane immigration policies. In Joe Biden’s very inauguration, he struck a far different note by inviting the Latina icon Jennifer Lopez to perform the American classics “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful.” J.Lo gave rousing renditions and bridged the two songs by loudly chanting part of the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The history behind Lopez’s performance is not easy or straightforward. It speaks to that very perennial battle fought over the soul of America in its union halls, city streets and farmlands.

Lopez’s appearance wasn’t a matter of an empty symbolism or token representation. The notion of enjoying “liberty and justice for all” holds significance for communities terrorized by a president whose support base included open white supremacists. Uttering sacred American phrases in Spanish during the inauguration provided real cultural inclusion and recognition. And Biden himself, in his first minutes in office, put deeds behind words, signing executive orders that unravel some of Trump’s immigration policies.

But the deeper history behind J.Lo’s performance complicates the simple story of inclusionary progress and celebration. The iconic song she performed was written by a pioneering American artist in criticism of another, speaking to contrasting patriotic visions as well as his own frustration at the gap between the United States’ promise and its realities. And each of these songs has been buffeted by dark forces in America that disapprove of difference and dissent. Acknowledging this context doesn’t diminish from the achievement of the moment; if we understand it, it only leads us to appreciate it more fully.

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So what is that history? “This Land Is Your Land” was written in 1940 by Woody Guthrie, an Oklahoma-born folk musician, as a progressive and egalitarian homage to the nation. In the decades before it featured in America’s highest day of pageantry, the song was a favorite of socialists and radicals in the United States and other countries, from Canada and Guyana to Wales and Sweden, where local musicians and activists took the central theme of the song and adapted it to their own national geographies. Guthrie, a communist sympathizer, found himself blacklisted during the Red Scare in the 1950s.

Guthrie’s song has found some belated justice in having been performed at the celebration the day before Barack Obama’s first inauguration by one of Guthrie’s proteges, the socialist singer-activist Pete Seeger, and then on Wednesday at the inauguration itself. This speaks to the appeal of its vision of fraternity, equity and community, as well as the majesty of America’s natural environment. But it’s important not to overlook its troubled historical path to widespread embrace.

American folk singer and composer Woody Guthrie playing his guitar in the 1960s.John Springer Collection / Corbis via Getty Images

Also important not to overlook is that Guthrie initially wrote the song in reaction to the popularity of “God Bless America,” which had become popular on radio stations in the late 1930s and today is known as a kind of second national anthem played routinely at sporting events and other communal gatherings.

In his original lyrics — more radical than the sanitized version familiar to most Americans today — Guthrie mocked the uncritical patriotism of “God Bless America” by pointing to the victims of the Great Depression. While the earlier composition spoke of America’s geographical features without mentioning any of its people, Guthrie’s retort referred to toiling farmers and the hungry ranks of the unemployed forming lines outside relief offices.

But “God Bless America” itself is more complicated than it might appear, with a past that reveals much about the best and worst sides of American history. Far from a reactionary defender of the status quo, the song’s writer had traveled a winding path to becoming the best-known songwriter of his day.

Irving Berlin, born Israel Beilin in the Russian Empire in 1888 before relocating with his family to New York at the age of 5, wrote “God Bless America” in 1918. The song was pioneering in its own right, as it affirmed the patriotism of a Jewish immigrant at a time when Jews faced widespread exclusion and discrimination in the United States. For this very reason, it was boycotted by the Ku Klux Klan.

Songwriter Irving Berlin is shown at the keyboards of an upright piano in the 1920s.AP

In January 1941, Berlin performed the song at the third inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the U.S. had yet to join World War II, the inclusion of a Jewish performer at his inauguration was an unmistakable sign of FDR’s opposition to Hitler’s Germany and its persecution of the Jewish people.

Separated by 80 years, performances by Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, and Lopez, the daughter of Puerto Ricans, can be read optimistically as a sign of America’s increasing inclusion. And they should be.

But the fact that Obama’s hopeful presidency was followed by the rise of far-right extremism under the Trump administration should also be a reminder that this path is seldom linear, that progress toward equality and away from discrimination can face obstacles and even be overturned.

The fact that the two songs were birthed in ideological opposition to each other by two American artists who asserted their patriotism in different ways should also be a reminder that loving your country doesn’t mean opposing dissent. In fact, the latter can be an expression of the former. Guthrie’s song has also led to dissent of its own, with Indigenous artists divided over its lack of reference to the genocide of the land’s original inhabitants.

The iconic song she performed was written by a pioneering American artist in criticism of another, speaking to contrasting patriotic visions as well as his own frustration.

In his inaugural speech, Biden spoke of American history as “a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal, and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.”

He stressed, “The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.”

The history behind Lopez’s performance is not easy or straightforward. It speaks to that very perennial battle fought over the soul of America in its union halls, city streets and farmlands. As Americans celebrate their democracy in the wake of an extremist assault on its very seat, they’d do well to remember that this democracy didn’t come to be by complacent worship of the status quo, but by the ceaseless struggle for progress.

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