Despite the controversy over celebrities performing for Donald Trump, Country music superstar Toby Keith headlined a pre-inaugural concert on January 19 welcoming the new president to Washington, D.C. But Keith’s appearance wasn’t a defiant expression of Republicanism. Unlike those celebrities who refused to perform on political grounds, Keith didn’t regard performing or not performing at the inauguration as a partisan statement.
Instead, Keith’s reasons for appearing on stage transcended politics.
When news broke that Keith had accepted the invitation from the Trump inaugural committee, there was a considerable backlash on social media. One of the most insulting came from the tweeter “glitterbitch.” In the tweet, “glitterbitch” dehumanized and then stereotyped the Oklahoma-born Keith.
Keith offered no apologies about performing at the inauguration.
“I don’t apologize for performing for our country or military,” Keith told Entertainment Weekly after accepting Trump’s invitation.
Keith’s unapologetic patriotism was in stark contrast to other celebrities who either rejected the Trump committees’ invitation on political grounds or bowed out because of a backlash from politicized fans.
Welsh singer Charlotte Church flat out refused Trump’s invitation. Her tweeted rebuff in January managed to be both political and scatological.
In the tweet, she denounced Trump as “a tyrant” and graffitied the tweet with feces’ symbols.
@realDonaldTrump Your staff have asked me to sing at your inauguration, a simple Internet search would show I think you're a tyrant. Bye????
— Charlotte Church (@charlottechurch) January 10, 2017
Others who declined performing at the inauguration took a higher ground but were nonetheless political. Upon learning that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was performing for Trump, a member of the non-partisan group resigned. The unidentified member said singing at the inauguration would have caused her a loss of “self-respect.”
A Rockette named Phoebe Pearl was “embarrassed” that the dancing troupe was appearing as per tradition at the inauguration. Pearl equated her participation with the Rockettes at the inauguration as validating Trump’s supposed misogyny.
Others initially agreed to perform but then pulled out because of a backlash from politicized fans. On January 14, six days before the inauguration, Broadway star Jennifer Holliday apologized to her self-described “allies” in the LGBT community. She characterized her initial acceptance of the invitation as “a lapse in judgment.”
By contrast, Keith was honored to be asked. As a performer, Keith has always put patriotism over political differences.
“I performed at events for previous presidents Bush and Obama,” said the singer, who once lamented that “Politics is killing America.”
Keith singing for President George W. Bush is a perfect example of Keith not letting political differences influence his performance, for Bush waged a war that Keith opposed from the start.
In a 2007 interview with Newsday, Keith said he “never” supported the Iraq war.
Nevertheless, Keith frequently entertained American soldiers fighting in Iraq, as well as those fighting in Afghanistan. By his count, Keith said he “performed over 200 shows in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Keith has cited personal reason for being pro-military.
“My father was a soldier,” the singer said. “He taught his kids to respect veterans. It’s that respect and the thank-you that we have a military that’s in place and ready to defend our nation.”
After his father’s death in a car accident in 2001, Keith composed a song honoring his father’s military service and patriotism.
The song, “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue,” was initially not recorded, and only played for military audiences.
Keith eventually recorded the song, not for profit, but because a soldier appealed to the singer’s patriotism. After hearing the song, Commandant of the Marine Corps James L. Jones told Keith that it was “his duty as an American citizen” to record the song.
“Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue” hit number one during the Fourth of July weekend in 2002.
But not everyone wanted it heard, particularly those in the mainstream media. ABC anchor Peter Jennings went over the heads of the network who invited Keith to perform the hit song at an ABC produced concert. Despite the concert being held on the Fourth of July, Jennings vetoed the song because it “probably wouldn’t set the right tone.”
Keith responded, citing Jennings being from Canada as the reason the anchor vetoed the song a month before the concert.
“I find it interesting that he’s not from the U.S.,” Keith said. “I bet Dan Rather’d let me do it on his special.”
Other liberals targeted the song, the most infamous example being Natalie Maines, the knee-jerk liberal singer for the Dixie Chicks
It was inevitable that Keith and Maines would clash, for Maines attacked the very notion of patriotism that Keith championed.
In an interview with the London newspaper, The Telegraph, Maines bashed American patriotism.
“I don’t understand the necessity for patriotism,” Maines said. “Why do you have to be a patriot? About what? This land is our land? Why? You can like where you live and like your life but as for loving the whole country…I don’t see why people care about patriotism.”
She included patriotic lyrics in her attacks on those who expressed pride in America. In 2003, she denounced “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” as an embarrassment to the country music industry.
The song was “ignorant and makes country music sound ignorant,” she said.
Keith fired back, criticizing Maine not only for her lack of patriotism but also for her lack of musical ability. Keith claimed that Maines didn’t write her own music.
Attacking her anti-patriotism, Keith had a doctored photo blown up of Maines beside then-Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein. Keith played in front of it at concerts.
Maines retaliated by descending into the gutter. At the 2003 Academy of Country Music Awards, Maine appeared wearing a T-shirt with the letters “FUTK” on the front. At the time she claimed the letters stood for “Friends United in Truth and Kindness.” But many at the event, among them host Vince Gill, interpreted the letters to mean “Fuck You Toby Keith.”
Maines later admitted to left-wing talk show host Bill Maher that Gill was right.
Within months, Keith eventually ended his feud with Maines in 2003, not because of exhaustion, but because he wanted to focus on helping the terminally ill daughter of a former band mate.
Keith’s own political history has been bi-partisn. He supported Democratic President Bill Clinton as well as voting for President George Bush re-election in 2004. He also supported Presidential Candidate John McCain in 2008 because of his admiration for McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin.
Today Keith is a registered Independent. Keith left the Democratic Party in 2008 because they “don’t stand for anything I stand for anymore.”
He added, “They’ve lost any sensibility that they had, and they’ve allowed all the kooks in.”
But Keith’s disillusionment with the Democrats did not extend to party member Barack Obama. During the 2008 presidential election, Keith called the Democratic presidential candidate “the best Democratic candidate we’ve had since Bill Clinton.”
Unlike other celebrities who’ve refused to give President Trump a chance, Keith adopted a wait-and-see attitude regarding then-President Obama. In 2009, Obama’s first year in office, Keith said, “I’m giving our commander in chief a chance” before the singer would begin criticizing the president’s policies.
At the pre-inauguration concert for Trump, Keith was characteristically bi-partisan. To the audience who, according to the New York Times, cheered the loudest throughout Keith’s performance, the singer thanked departing-President Obama for “his service.” He also thanked Donald Trump.
Keith is a rarity today’s celebrities, and not just because of his unapologetic patriotism. In contrast to actors Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro assigning courage to Meryl Streep for using a six-minute acceptance speech to bash Trump at the Golden Globes, Keith doesn’t consider the very act of speaking out as an example of bravery. Upon receiving an award from the Marines for his outspoken admiration for the military, Keith replied that he knew the real meaning of courage.
“I’m certain happy to accept this award,” he said at the ceremony, “but I won’t forget for a second who’s really doing the heavy lifting to keep this country safe.”
It is difficult to realize in the controversy over celebrities and the Trump inauguration that once upon a time performers were honored to perform for presidents they disagreed with. Republican actor Mickey Rooney was thrilled to appear at the inauguration for Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Singer Ethel Merman, an equally rock-ribbed Republican, deemed it an honor to sing at the inauguration of Democratic President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Keith is part of this tradition, and by his example, shows it is possible for patriotism to above partisan outbursts.