Last month, Jackie Evancho, a sixteen-year-old classical-crossover singer, became the first performer to announce her participation in Donald Trump’s notorious hard sell of an inaugural celebration. She broke the news on the “Today” show. Evancho has a sweetly timid poise about her; her long blond waves shook as she laughed, shyly, about the staggering invitation she had received from the President-elect. The anchors spoke the way adults speak to impressive, well-behaved children: “Oh, my goodness!” they exclaimed. “Wow.” Al Roker asked Evancho if the “roller coaster” of her career had sunk in yet. “No,” she said, smiling. She sounded rueful and honest. “I kind of live in the moment. It doesn’t really register until, like, years in the future.”
Evancho’s first big break arrived, in 2010, courtesy of “America’s Got Talent,” then in its fifth season. The producers had instituted a round of YouTube auditions, allowing aspiring contestants to submit their tapes online. From that slush pile, the judges plucked eleven talented performers to compete in a special round of elimination; the twelfth contestant in the YouTube round would be chosen by popular vote.
Evancho, who had been rejected from the show after two previous live auditions, was that twelfth contestant—elected via populist loophole, in the populist audition round, for a proudly populist reality-TV show. Her audition tape, in which she delivers a supernaturally blissful version of the hymn “Panus Angelicus” for an unseen audience at a nursing home, has accumulated more than four million views. It’s just over a minute, and Evancho is tiny and angelic, wearing modest gold hoop earrings and a ponytail frothed into big, stiff curls. The aura of unreality that has only recently, as she has matured, begun to fade from her performances is startling. Her voice is so remarkable and adult-like that she seems like a randomly selected vessel for it. She seems gifted in the literal, God-fearing sense.
On the same day that Evancho made her announcement on “Today,” her older sister Juliet published a personal essay in Teen Vogue, headlined “How Juliet Evancho Came Out as Transgender to Her Family, and the Entire World.” In it, Juliet, who’s now eighteen, explains that she first articulated her transgender identity when she was eleven—around the same time that Jackie was becoming famous on reality TV. Her sister’s fame “put our entire family under a microscope,” Juliet writes. Even so, the entire family was supportive. At the end of her piece, she thanks God for giving her a “large platform” to share her story of transgender self-determination. She doesn’t mention what the size of her platform depends on—the fact that her sister is singing the national anthem at the dawning of a political era widely expected to roll back the nascent, uneven advances in trans rights that were won during the Obama Administration. (In the days after Trump’s election, calls to L.G.B.T.Q. suicide hotlinesdramatically spiked.)
Since then, the Evancho sisters have done press together, attempting to advance, simultaneously, the rights of one sister and the career of the other. They have sometimes attempted to frame both Juliet’s gender transition and Jackie’s decision to sing for Trump in a basically identical fashion—as two brave, isolated, and apolitical acts. Talking to CBS’s Michelle Miller, Juliet said, “Jackie is singing for our country. . . . I feel like that’s where I really look at it, and that’s where I’m going to leave it, for now.” Asked whether she will be attending the Inauguration—it’s not clear whether she has been invited—Juliet delicately but pointedly cited prior engagements.
In another joint interview, with the Times, the sisters insisted that Juliet’s absence from the Inauguration had nothing to do with “polarized politics.” The Evanchos, not incidentally, are suing their school district, in Pittsburgh, over a bathroom policy that prevents Juliet from using the women’s facilities; this, too, Jackie described as “not political.” At CBS, she told Miller that she hoped she could, at the Inauguration, “just kind of make everyone forget about rivals in politics for a second, and just think about America and the pretty song I’m singing. I hope I can bring people together.”
In Evancho’s first “America’s Got Talent” appearance, on the show’s quarter-finals, she sang a Puccini aria called “O mio babbino caro.” The footage is deeply strange, even without the knowledge that, six years later, Donald Trump would start playing Puccini, a Mussolini favorite, at his rallies—and then tap the still young and thus difficult-to-criticize Evancho to sing the national anthem at his Inauguration. On the cavernous stage, electric purple lights dance over a deep blue background; ten-year-old Evancho, in a ruffled pink dress, is dwarfed. She sings the aria—in which a woman begs her father for romantic freedom—with graceful phrasing, a controlled, slow vibrato, and a tone that resonates impersonally, like a bell. (In the next round, a judge asked her to perform a voice exercise on a live mike to prove she wasn’t lip-synching.) At the end, she raises her hands to the heavens; the crowd applauds wildly, having already jumped to its feet.
Soon after, Evancho signed with Columbia Records, and since then she has been performing and releasing music at a relentless pace. She has put out six studio albums, three live albums, and the “O Holy Night” E.P., a Christmas record that came out two months after the “America’s Got Talent” finale. (Recorded in just three days, it made her the youngest solo artist ever to go platinum.) She sings for charity causes and at high-profile celebrity events. She sang at the National Christmas Tree lighting, for President Obama; she sang at the memorial for the victims of United Flight 93. Last year, she put out a pop single that features the refrain “We’re not going to live ’til the apocalypse.” It’s cloying, and she sounds unremarkable outside her genre. But as Jon Caramanica wrote, in a concert review from 2011, “Ms. Evancho is a child. You wouldn’t insult a child, would you?”
As the Inauguration has drawn nearer, Evancho’s narrative has centered on her poise in the face of a vaguely characterized torrent of anti-Trump abuse. It’s true that she has received quite a bit of negative attention: smug declarations that she’s committing career suicide, barbed requests to stop betraying her sister and the L.G.B.T.Q. community, ostentatious assertions that no one knows who the hell Jackie Evancho is anyway. (These last remarks came in a particularly large wave when Trump tweeted, falsely, that Evancho’s record sales had “skyrocketed.”)
But, if you search for Evancho’s name and her accounts across social media platforms, this negativity is more often alluded to than actually dished out. Liberal criticism is mostly present as the basis of conservative praise. “Don’t let the intolerant leftie loonies tell you what to do,” commenters tell her. “Don’t let the bullies get to you.” Evancho has “instantly earned millions of loyal supporters who will protect you from the ignorant haters who support only their own agenda,” one person wrote on Facebook, adding three symbols: a heart, a bald eagle, and an American flag. The underlying argument seems to be that the national anthem at Trump’s Inauguration should have no specific political resonance—that singing it is a contentless act of patriotism, and that saying otherwise constitutes some sort of attack.
Evancho is uniquely positioned to sustain this absurd line of reasoning. As Doreen St. Felix wrote for MTV, the fame of an artist like Evancho feels overtly sinless: “Her meaning, as a pop-classical singer, is to be an essential clean slate.” When she sang that Puccini aria on “America’s Got Talent,” the crowd was dazzled by nothing more or less than her prodigious vocal abilities. She is so technically skilled and emotionally restricted to sweetness that she communicates opera the same way Trump appears to deploy it—as an “empty signifier that arouses grand emotions over rationality,” as Brian Wise wrote at Slate after Trump started blasting Puccini.
And she is so young, of course. TV anchors sound like guidance counsellors when they talk to her; they tend to put their hands over their hearts. On “Today,” Tamron Hall called her “just a child on that stage, just bringing us to tears,” and it was unclear whether Hall meant the reality-TV show in 2010 or the impending spectacle in 2017. One wishes that all sixteen-year-olds received the same sort of delicate treatment. At least four of the wrongfully convicted Central Park Five were younger than Evancho is now when Trump took out a full-page ad in 1989 calling for their execution.
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The Trump Administration, on Wednesday night, withdrew federal guidelines concerning transgender students that were issued last year by the Obama Administration.
The old guidelines instructed schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identities.
Following the announcement, Jackie Evancho, of Pine Township, who sang the National Anthem at Trump’s inauguration last month, sent a message to the president on Twitter.
It said, “@realDonaldTrump u gave me the honor 2 sing at your inauguration. Pls give me & my sis the honor 2 meet with u 2 talk #transgender rghts”
Jackie has a transgender sister, who, along with several other students, has filed a lawsuit against the Pine Richland School District, over its restroom policy.
Jackie Evancho told KDKA-TV’s Ralph Iannotti, “When I heard the news that Trump was pulling back on transgender guidelines, I was thinking about my sister, and all the things she’s gone through, and me watching her suffer like that was really hard.”
Jackie also said she would like to “enlighten the president on her family’s personal experiences, and what we had to see and hear, and open his eyes to see some things he may or may not already know.”
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Juliet Evancho said she was disappointed in Trump’s transgender action.
“In order to make a huge decision like that, you need to have lived it every day, and I think there was never a lot of planning that went into it,” Juliet said.
Juliet fears that President Trump’s decision could be viewed by some as an open invitation to discriminate in even worse ways against transgender people and other members of the LGBT community.
The president, however, says the rights of transgender people will still now be protected.