Peace Through Bookings: How Adrienne Elrod May Have Helped Save Our Democracy

Amanda Gorman
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Unifying: 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, who was booked by Adrienne Elrod and her team for President Joe Biden’s swearing in ceremony, delivers her stirring poem “The Hill We Climb” on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

Adrienne Elrod, in some ways, is an American hero. As Director of Talent and External Affairs for the Biden Inauguration, the artists she and her team curated for President Joe Biden’s Inauguration, including the “Celebrating America” prime time special and especially the swearing in ceremony at the Capitol, may have done more to unify a divided and badly shaken nation in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack than all the punditry and political pronouncements combined.

Powerful performances during the oath-taking ceremony included Lady Gaga’s full-throated rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Jennifer Lopez’s dulcet take on Woody Guthrie’s 1940 folk classic “This Land is Your Land” and “America The Beautiful” complete with her awesome Spanish shout-out “Una nación, bajo Dios, indivisible, con libertad y justicia para todos!” (“One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all!”) and Garth Brooks’ stunning a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” as well as the brilliant 22-year old National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s transcendent poem “The Hill We Climb,” which when taken in total were potent symbols of the resilience, strength and unity so desperately needed.

Significantly, the performances took place at our Capitol, where just days earlier a chaotic and ugly siege had resulted in the tragic loss of lives, our most senior public servants running for safety, and a nation shaken to its core. Even with 25,000 National Guardsman guarding the event, Elrod says some artists pulled out of the event. Thankfully, by ceremony’s end, as tattered, torn and misused as it’s been, the flag (including some 200,000 planted on the Capitol Mall by C3 Presents) was still there.

?Similar parallels could be drawn from subsequent performances during “Celebrating America,” the  prime time special Elrod also programmed. This included Bruce Springsteen, Demi Lovato, Ozuna, Luis Fonsi and DJ Cassidy, Black Pumas, Katy Perry, Justin Timerlake and Ant Clemons, Jon Bon Jovi, Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard, Foo Fighters and others.

These events helped bring solace, unity and stability to many in what has been an unsettling and anxious time. Pollstar spoke with Elrod to learn more about her strategy curating these highly symbolic events under enormous pressure, how much the President and Vice President were involved in programming and if the long-time political communications strategist is interested in a career change.

Adrienne Elrod

Adrienne Elrod

Pollstar: So what does Director of Talent and External Affairs for the Biden Inauguration mean?  
Adrienne Elrod: It means curating and working with all the talent that was part of the inauguration. So all the performers for the swearing-in, the poet, Amanda Gorman…

Wow! She was amazing, that was you?
Yes. Well, that was my team. It’s the producers in the inauguration. So Amanda and then obviously, all the performers that we had for the concert. And then we had a lot of virtual events, too, that didn’t quite make the headlines that the swearing-in and the Celebrating America Concert made. But we did a Day of Service concert. On Martin Luther King Day we had a kickoff concert on Sunday, “Welcome to the Inauguration.” We had a number of events throughout that five-day period. My team is amazing. And they carried the water on those events. I was able to focus on the swearing-in participants and the Celebrating America Concert.?

It seemed like a an incredibly difficult needle to thread as we faced the potential collapse of our republic amidst so much divisiveness and a deadly pandemic, how do you celebrate this? How do you even begin to approach the tenor and tone of something this important?
Number one, I want to give a lot of credit to Stephanie Cutter, who was one of the executive producers of the event. She oversaw creative for the convention and the inauguration. She knew that it was important to strike that balance, which is that we are obviously celebrating America and who we are as a country, but we also had to keep in mind with the fact that 400,000 Americans and counting had lost their lives to COVID. We couldn’t just have this overly jubilant celebration. We wanted to make sure people felt a sense of pride in their country and pride in who we are as a country, but we also had to acknowledge the fact that we have a lot of challenges ahead of us. So striking the balance was really important.

?From a musical perspective, we wanted to make sure that we, first of all, had diverse artists, that was important to us. We are Democrats, we are very diverse and diversity is very important to us in everything we do. That was a priority. Also making sure we had diversity in terms of genres.  

And finally we were very focused on making sure every song fit into the storytelling. We weren’t just going to artists and saying, “Hey, play whatever song you want to play. We just want you to be a part of this.” We were saying, “Hey, we really want you to be a part of this for a number of reasons. But also, we want to work with you on finding the right song. ?

What was the total number of artists and participants booked for the five-day period?
It was probably close to 100.

How big is your team
My team on the inaugural was five people.

That’s it?
Yeah, for the inaugural. Ricky Kirshner did all the production elements for the event. He obviously had quite a few people working on his team. But in the system that we incorporated I would go out and secure the talent and then I would turn that over to someone on his team to work through what the concept looked like.

Did you talk to agents, managers or promoters while doing this? I know C3 did the flags, did you have anybody else from the industry guide or helping you?

No, we did not. I mean we’ve gotten to know people like Scooter Braun, Ken Sunshine, Shawn Sachs, Steve Jensen with Katy (Perry), Jon Landau with Springsteen. We’ve gotten to know these people pretty well because they’ve been such great partners to us. They made it easy and they were huge assets to everything we were trying to do. It was also a collaborative effort in terms of making sure the artists we worked with, we preserved their voices and who they are as artists and what makes them so popular so they could be themselves while also contributing in a meaningful way to the program itself. And between their managers, their teams and producers it was a very collaborative effort.
Garth Brooks

U.N.I.T.Y. Country superstar Garth Brooks performing a beautiful a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” during the inauguration of President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Can you talk about getting Garth Brooks at the last minute for the swearing in and doing that unbelievable a cappella version of “Amazing Grace?” I think it was only announced Monday?
I’m not going to divulge the sausage-making, but what I can tell you is that when we announced on Monday, he made it very clear he had a conversation with Dr. Biden, and he felt that this was a very important sense of duty for him to do. I think he said something along the lines of, “When you’re called to serve, this is how you serve. And this is how I serve.” He made it clear that music is how he served this country and he felt like this was a very important moment. And, Garth, he was perfect because he’s not political. That’s just not what he does, but he is someone who is diversely beloved across the board. And we really wanted to have someone from the country music industry that could bring in additional participants into watching the swearing in ceremony and could really help us heal this country. It was really important to us that we had somebody like him.  It was a dream come true, frankly, because I’m from the South. I grew up in Arkansas. I grew up on country music. I grew up on Garth music.  I couldn’t imagine anyone better to fill that third-performer slot. And we were just so beyond honored when he said yes. It was amazing

And with Lady Gaga and J.Lo you picked a really great trio that really complemented each other and hit different audiences. I’d hate to say that Garth stole the show, but to me he kind of did.
Well, it’s funny. I’ve talked to quite a few people and sort of surveyed family and friends around the country, and that’s what a lot of people say. I mean, that moment with Garth just doing “Amazing Grace” and him taking off his hat and the trumpet, I mean, you just can’t get much better than that.

How involved were the President and Vice President in curating and approving?
Oh, very, very involved. Very involved. I think they trusted we would come to the table with viable options and strong recommendations. But again, this is a team that did the convention, Stephanie Cutter, Ricky Kirshner, and me and a few others. I think they put trust and faith in us to know that we would come up with strong recommendations. But I appreciated how involved they were in terms of making sure the artists that we worked with fit the moment because they knew that this was a very important moment. This was literally the first series of events the was doing as president, including his swearing-in. And we all know how swearing-in performers go down in history

inauguration capitol
(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Some of the 25,000 National Guard troops brought to Washington, D.C. to guard President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.

There was also the added pressure of politics swirling around, not just Democrat-Republican but the survival of our republic. Nothing less than that 25,000 troops and no audience, I can’t imagine a more pressurized environment. Where were you at that moment, what were you thinking and how much were you praying?
It was certainly more than prayers. We had to make sure that our talent, when they came to Washington, those who traveled here, had all the security they needed. And we wanted to make sure we had faith and confidence in our security partners, and we did. The Secret Service has been working on the inauguration for over a year regardless of who the President was going to be. So we had full faith and confidence that they were going to make sure, and they’re not protecting the talent, that’s not with Secret Service does but we had security for the talent, but we went above and beyond. And frankly, having the National Guard in D.C., it was comforting to know that they were here because we knew that they were protecting us, and they had our backs. That was important to us. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to name who, but we lost a couple of performers after the insurrection on January 6. And I can understand why they felt like it was not the right time to travel to Washington. I totally get that. So that was a crazy time and hopefully, something we’ll never have to experience again.

There was bravery to this and those who participated, guarded and performed going ahead with it despite the threats. There were some who thought it shouldn’t happen at all. But it was an important cultural-political moment.  When people think of political music it’s usually about protest, but this felt like a salve, bringing everyone together in such a really challenging time after feeling so beat up by everything.
When the insurrection happened at the capital, January 6th was a day we were in complete shock and couldn’t believe what we were seeing. I spent a decade working in the Capitol. Stephanie Cutter has worked there. It’s a building that is very meaningful to a lot of us who have been working in government and politics for a long time. And to see what happened just blew us away. But at the same time, once we were able to gather our thoughts on the 7th, it made us really realize the pressure was on to make January 20th even more of a moment of unity, where people can feel like, “This is a moment to heal and this is the moment to come together as a country and move forward in a more unified way.”  Like I said, we lost a few performers, and it created a level of uncertainty. But we also had a number of performers who said, “You know what? I don’t care. Tell me what I can do. I’m in and I’m coming. If you want me to come to Washington, I will.” They wanted this to be a moment where they can help that healing. And I think that the performers we worked with, I mean, Jon Bon Jovi doing “Here Comes the Sun,” Demi Lovato doing “Lovely Day,” Katy Perry, who is universally one of the most beloved artists in the world doing her hit song, Firework. I think that it created this level of reassurance. So interesting. You couldn’t ask for a better roster of talent. And we were so honored and so grateful.

Let’s talk about the fireworks display, I’m from D.C. and saw the Mall Fourth of July ones every year and lived in New York and saw the Macy’s Fourth of July ones and this was bigger and better than any of them, how did you do that?
That was all Ricky Kirshner, and he contracted out with (Strictly FX) and they basically had 30-minutes worth of fireworks to go off in four and a half minutes. I think they decided, “You know what? We’re just going to go for it. We’ve got all these fireworks and we’ve got to use them during Katy’s song, and let’s just do it.” And that’s what they did.

In terms of the “Celebrate America” and opening with Bruce and the whole run of show, did you work on that?

That was Ricky and Stephanie who drove that process. But it was very collaborative internally. And there was a lot of going back and forth with the networks and making sure everyone would take a commercial break at the same time and then making sure we had content for all those watching the live stream so that when the networks were taking a commercial break we actually had content. And that’s when you saw Eva Longoria do a segment and Kerry Washington and the Black Pumas perform during a commercial break.

The Black Pumas are so good.
They’re so great. I’m a huge fan of theirs. That was a labor of love for me. Everybody made fun of me — or not made fun of me but everyone was like, “Adrienne’s going to try to get you to use the Black Pumas.” [laughter]

There’s a lot of huge stars on these, it’s nice to have a few artists who people haven’t heard of but who are indisputably great. So I want to know about your team.
Yes, I want to give a proper shout-out to my actual team who worked for me during the campaign and also worked with me on the inaugural, Michelle Kwan, who I’m sure you know, she’s a former Olympian.

Wow, what did she do?
She was one of our Deputy Talent Directors.

Talk about a multi-hyphenate.
Yep. She’s amazing. Melissa Piccoli and Alice Muglia– actually, it’s Alice Russo, she just got married—they were two of our Deputy Talent Directors who just made sure that once we walked in the artist, everything flowed right. How are we getting them to Washington, DC? If they’re traveling, how many people would be in their group. Making sure everyone got COVID tested in a proper manner, making sure that we had transportation at various points. They’re just outstanding. And they were working I would say probably even more than I was like 18, 19 hours a day.

Did you sleep at all in the weeks leading up to this?
No, I did not. I did not sleep very much at all. And I certainly didn’t sleep during the week of, it was just nonstop.

I don’t understand how it would be humanly possible to do this with five people.
Well, bear in mind that we only did the talent. We weren’t doing the production. We weren’t setting off the fireworks or manning the control room. But yes, I will say this. We did a lot with a small team.

So, favorite performances?
Oh, you can’t do that. You cannot ask me.

Lady Gaga and Joe Biden
(Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP Via Getty)

Star Spangled Gaga: Lady Gaga, who was booked by Adrienne Elrod, arrives at the U.S. Capitol to perform the National Anthem for the 59th Presidential Inauguration greeting President-elect Joe Biden (left) and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (Right) on Jan. 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Okay. How about the performers that made you cry the most?

I have to say– well, first of all, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth were just incredible. I think Lady Gaga. Just when she looked at the flag and our flag was still there and had that really dramatic moment, that gave me the chills, knowing that she was standing in the exact space, and so was the President, standing in the exact position where insurrectionists had entered the Capitol two weeks before. That was a chilling moment. And then, like you said, Garth doing “Amazing Grace.” I was thinking about my Republican family members who were watching, and thinking, “There’s no way that this can’t make them emotional.” And again, seeing Garth do that on the same platform where insurrectionists had gotten into the Capitol, it was just really meaningful.
In terms of the Celebrating America concert, I keep going back to Demi Lovato.  I just love that version of “Lovely Day,” and how she did it with all the healthcare workers. That was meaningful. And then, Katy Perry, as someone who was so closely associated with the 2016 election and Hillary and, for those of us who were part of that campaign, to see her now taking on that role for Joe Biden and helping to unify this country, again, is just very meaningful. Very emotional moment for a lot of us.

Did you hear from friends on the other side of the political spectrum?  

Absolutely. Some very well known Republicans reached out to me and said, “Thank you.” They said, “First of all, congratulations. That was amazing,” and then they said, “Thank you.” Like just, “Wow. This is important to us too.” I think a lot of Republicans, and again, these are people who probably voted for Trump, there’s a lot of Republicans, who voted for Biden, but a lot who voted for Trump. But even some of the people who voted for Trump reached out to me and said, “I really feel like this administration is going to work for me, and I feel like this moment today just meant a lot.” Because it was about who we are as Americans, what we stand for as a country, what we want our country to look like, in the spirit of America, and that’s what we really tried to translate. And who may not have voted for Joe Biden saw that. And Biden has always said, “I’m going to be a president for all Americans. No matter who voted for me, I’m going to fight for you.”

What did your Republican family members say?
They were blown away. [laughter] “Bravo. That was beautiful, Adrienne. Wow. You guys did such a great job. Never thought you’d be able to pull this off.” They were just blown away. It was perfect.

Do you think this administration will bring music back to the White House?
Joe Biden, The President, is a big fan of Irish music. He’s made it very clear, the Bidens and the Vice President and first husband, they understand the significance of music and how music can really help translate policy and bring the goals and priorities of an administration to light. They’re huge supporters of the arts.

Would you ever consider a second career in the live industry booking events?
What I’d like to do is continue to be the person in Democratic politics that helps marry the two worlds because I have a communications background. I used to be an MSNBC analyst. I worked on the Hill for 10 years. I’m a political communications strategist. That’s what I do.