An Open Letter to The Piano Guys

Dear Piano Guys,

I don’t listen to your music anymore. This is not a boycott, though it did begin with the inauguration. A boycott would be an intentional decision to avoid some business in order to make a point. I don’t have a point here, nor a desire to convince others to stand with me. It’s only that your beautiful music lost something, and I’m writing this to try to explain why, to myself as much as the world.

At the time of the inauguration, many celebrities saw that Donald Trump was A. dangerous in an unprecedented way and B. prone to seeing their presence at his events as an affirmation of what he stood for. Therefore, most of them refused to appear at the inauguration. Many others cancelled after outcry from fans. You, when you fans objected, wrote your own open letter. When I first read it, it actually made me feel better. You said a good deal about your positive message of love and you affirmed the rights of women and immigrants. I interpreted this as a subtle hint that you were were going to use the performance to engage in active outreach, rather like how the cast of Hamilton had respectfully engaged Mike Pence earlier that year. Perhaps you would point out how many of your hit videos have featured singers who were immigrants, or mention how, as Mormons, your people have a history of religious oppression and you believe no one should be denied freedom of religion.

I don’t think the Trump administration would have listened to that outreach, but I still think the effort to reach out publicly has merit, if only because it inspires other people to stand up. Also, his reactions tend to highlight his temperamental flaws and make it difficult for the media to normalize him. I think that there are many forms of resistance, all with advantages and disadvantages, and the movement as a whole is best if we all do our best at the type of resistance we are most suited to. I might not have chosen to perform, even with outreach, at that inauguration, but I could respect someone’s decision to accept and then use that platform.

But of course, that wasn’t your plan at all. You did nothing newsworthy. You just played for a man who has raped women, incited others to violence and is under investigation for treason. Then you went home with your check.

There is a difference between outreach and validation. Outreach is when you see a person doing something wrong, call them out, but don’t let their wrong behavior stop you from talking to them as fellow humans. It’s hard to do, and not always received well, but when it works the results can be incredible. Validation, on the other hand, is when you prioritize the wrongdoer’s comfort, and refuse to call them out even when your conscience tells you that you should. Your letter indicated to me that you did see and understand all the reasons why the bigoted, hateful rhetoric of Trump’s campaign needed to be called out, but instead you chose the actions that he would see as validating.

This letter comes a long time after the inauguration. This is because part of me has been waiting to see you prove that this validation came from lack of understanding, rather than lack of a desire to affect change. I’ve been waiting for evidence of this. You specifically said you support immigrants and women. If you want to fight xenophobia, why not give a benefit concert for the ACLU? Why not donate a portion of your proceeds to a women’s group, or an interfaith event, or something to benefit refugees? Why not perform for a candidate you actually do believe in? It’s too late to say you don’t want to be political; we all know performing for a politician’s act is at least a partially political act, and you knew that going into this situation. So why not be political in a truly bipartisan, healing spirit? I would still disagree with your choice to perform at the inauguration, but I would at least trust that your letter was honest; that you were flawed, but not disingenuous. At this particular moment, it does not feel like you genuinely care for women and minorities the way you claimed to.

As I’ve re-read your letter, searching a reason to stay a fan, I only see more gaps in your understanding.

You compared yourself to Marian Anderson, who performed at a time when neither party could claim to be supporting Black Americans. But that’s exactly why her situation was different. She knew that to perform at an inauguration at all would be a slap in the face to racists, regardless of their political affiliation. Simply by singing, as a Black woman, she was engaging in outreach to both parties. You performed for a man who spent over a year actively insulting every type of a minority to a degree that even members of his own party would not ordinarily stoop to. You did so as fellow straight cisgender white men. Your presence did not challenge him in any way.

You compared your choice to Barack Obama’s dignified handling of the transition. He only did what he was legally required to, and he did not let democracy’s need for a smooth, peaceful transition stop him from imposing sanctions on Russia, protecting scientific data on climate change and preventing the new administration from erasing all evidence of their Russian ties. You accepted a paying gig that you could have easily turned down. These are not comparable decisions.

Worst of all, you compared the inaugural performance to one you gave in an unnamed country that you perceived as hostile to the USA. Do you not understand the difference between a nation’s leaders and their people? Do you paint a whole nation with their leader’s actions? Performing for the ordinary people of a country we are at odds with should not be different from performing for the people of any other nation. But in your description of this show, you seemed to think that A. the people who showed up were your enemy and B. because your music was so good you had some kind of transformative global impact. No. You played for regular human beings, and it was a good show. That is all.

You used that show to indicate that music changed hearts, and implied that, therefore, it was your duty to perform even for people you disagreed with. I agree that music is powerful and can bind us, but you’re painfully naive if you literally thought an admittedly brilliant mashup of Vivaldi’s Winter with Frozen’s Let it Go could magically un-racist a white supremacist. And if you didn’t actually think that, then your letter was a lie.

But why do I care? Why did the impulse to write this open letter not leave, even after five months? Well, I’m really angry because, to quote the song, you give love a bad name. There’s been plenty of great talk about the power of love to crush hate, and I believe in that power wholeheartedly, but if when fellow activists distrust it, that distrust always seems to originate in the false notion that love is synonymous with pleasantness. The two have nothing to do with each other. Love is a burning force within that drives you; depending on the individual and the circumstances, it can drive you to laugh or cry, embrace or bare your teeth. It can take almost any form, but the one thing it never does is stand by passively when the beloved is harmed or threatened. It might take subtle action, it might bide its time for the opportune moment, but it does not make nice to abusers in the interest of keeping things superficially friendly, then turn it’s back on the abused.

Pleasantness is not a virtue at all. It is something we earn with work, with love, and with willingness to challenge those who would say, “tolerate oppression of others, or I will make your lives unpleasant.” When we skip the unpleasantness of difficult love, in a rush to get to superficial niceness, only the bullies benefit.

You said you wanted to show love. So I waited, but in the end I saw no signs that you were willing to fight, in any way, for me or the people you claimed to support. I saw willingness to co-opt the language of the warriors of love, but no willingness to fight alongside them.

That’s why I no longer listen to your music. It’s not a political statement. It’s only that, where I once heard joy and beauty, I only hear empty pleasantness.

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