From Sinatra to Aretha, the role of music in the inauguration

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    The role of music at the inauguration

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Story highlights

  • Popular music has been part of the presidential inauguration for decades
  • John F. Kennedy asked Frank Sinatra to produce his inaugural celebration in 1961
  • Beyonce, James Taylor and others will perform this year at Monday's ceremony

Many Americans recall the image of Barack Obama standing on the steps of the Capitol as he was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in 2009.

But they also remember Aretha Franklin, and how she belted out "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" wearing an enormous bow that threatened to engulf her entire head.

Later that night, Beyonce crooned "At Last" while the Obamas took their first spin on the dance floor as POTUS and FLOTUS.

This time, Beyonce will perform the national anthem, with Kelly Clarkson singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" and James Taylor doing the honors on "America the Beautiful."

Inaugural events have spotlighted the intersection of politics, pop culture and music since the early '60s, said David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University.

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"The person that really changed the nature of inaugural music was John Kennedy, because he was a friend with many in Hollywood -- especially Frank Sinatra," said Gergen, also a CNN contributor. "Sinatra came in and co-produced one of the great shows at an inauguration ... and that became sort of the standard."

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    Kennedy was 43 when he was elected. Bill Clinton and Obama were also in their 40s for their first terms in the Oval Office.

    "The younger the president, the more we see a connection to pop culture and to music," said Phil Gallo, senior correspondent for Billboard. "So Kennedy, you have it. Nixon, you don't."

    At Richard Nixon's first inauguration in 1969, the crowd was treated to "This is My Country" performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Salt Lake City, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

    Gallo believes you can learn a lot about a commander in chief by the musical acts he chooses to spotlight. "George W. Bush loved to portray himself as a Texas rancher. Therefore, what's a Texas rancher listen to? Country." So Brooks & Dunn and Clint Black headlined his first inaugural celebration in 2001.

    In 1977, Jimmy Carter looked to his regional roots for inspiration. "Jimmy Carter, he was a Georgian," Gallo explains. "At that time, that meant the stars of Southern rock. So the Allman Brothers are in the White House."

    Sometimes the musicians are joined on stage by the president himself.

    In 1989, George H.W. Bush strummed a guitar with B.B. King at one of his inaugural galas, while in 1993, Clinton grabbed a saxophone for a duet with the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons. But even they were upstaged by the five members of Fleetwood Mac, who famously reunited to perform their megahit that became Clinton's campaign song, "Don't Stop."

    Frontman Lindsey Buckingham recalls the mood that night. "It was extremely exhilarating and exciting to do a song that you've done a million times, but doing it in a completely different context. As we were going out with the tag, 'Don't you look back, don't you look back,' Bill comes up, and Hillary comes up and shakes our hands. It was just one of those experiences you'll never forget."

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    That one performance caused Fleetwood Mac members to rethink old grievances with each other.

    "Oddly enough, it did act as the catalyst for me to sort of reconsider my options, shall we say, and the band got back together," Buckingham chuckled.

    This year's festivities include a Kids' Inaugural Concert on Saturday and two official balls on Monday night. Performers for those events include Katy Perry, Brad Paisley, Alicia Keys, Marc Anthony, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson -- a mix of pop, country, R & B, Latin, rock and old-school hitmakers.

    Gallo says Obama's lineup is deliberately inclusive to reflect his campaign agenda -- but it could just as easily reflect the playlist of the first family.

    "It almost looks more like they booked it by looking at the iPod of Barack and Michelle, and then looking at the iPod of their daughters."

    Expect Obama's second-term events to be more celebratory than his first-term functions.

    "The first time around, we heard songs that had a message that you wouldn't have heard in previous inaugurations -- 'A Change is Gonna Come,' 'We Shall Overcome.' We had people reflecting on the civil rights movement, the fact that we had our first African-American president," said Gallo. "Now, I think it'll be a little more up-tempo, a little peppier. People want a bit of a diversion as we start to think about the next four years."

    Gergen doesn't disagree. "Presidents often choose to make statements about who they are, and what their hopes and aspirations are through the music, through the inaugural address, through the people they bring together there."

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