Four years ago, the chair of Donald Trump’s inauguration committee promised an evening of “typically and traditionally American” entertainment at the “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” concert marking the arrival of the 45th US president. The bottom of the American barrel was duly scraped for a motley selection of performers. Gravitas skipped town as country veteran Toby Keith sang “Beer for My Horses”.
The feeble star wattage of 2016 was comprehensively outshone by the accession of the 46th president. Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony featured Lady Gaga belting out the national anthem and Jennifer Lopez singing a medley of “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful”. Another A-lister, Garth Brooks, performed “Amazing Grace”. The showbiz adage “sock it to ’em” — especially honoured by Gaga in her spirited turn — carried an unfortunate resonance for Trump, whose pride was bruised by Biden’s superior line-up of celebrities, according to the Washington Post.
More big names came out for the evening concert, “Celebrating America”. Broadcast live on television and the internet, it opened with a shot of the US Capitol building, stormed by Trump supporters only two weeks previously. Then came a close-up of Bruce Springsteen standing with a guitar on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “I want to offer this small prayer for our country,” he said. Behind him, Abraham Lincoln sat in his big chair, hands gripping its arm rests. The statue of 16th US president mimicked the posture of the audience watching at home. This was a Covid-era inaugural event, without anyone present to clap and cheer.
The absence of jubilant supporters left a telling silence. What is there to cheer about in a nation ravaged by death and political unrest? Springsteen’s response, playing his song “Land of Hope and Dreams”, was a well-judged mix of solemnity and optimism. The lonely jangle of his acoustic guitar against the backdrop of the Washington Monument gave the music a fragile quality. Yet his brawny vocal filled the empty space assertively, insisting on the supposed truth of the US as a place where “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded”. Lincoln stared down behind him, as though brooding over the endurability of the rhetoric.
There was a lot more of it to come. Presenter Tom Hanks, showing an imperfect grasp of both grammar and political actuality, spoke of “the hopes and dreams we all share for a more perfect union”. Country singers Tyler Hubbard and Tim McGraw sang “a message of unity and faith” called “Undivided” against a Nashville backdrop, capital city of a red state where a good portion of voters do not believe that Biden actually won the election.
Sunshine and dawn were recurrent images. Jon Bon Jovi appeared in pre-recorded film on a Miami pier at sunrise singing a rootsy version of The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”. His voice, pitched higher than usual, inadvertently made the sentiments sound forced. Demi Lovato was filmed singing Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” in a Los Angeles skyscraper as the sun came up; her warm vocal gave the sentiments substance.
Rappers were conspicuously absent; perhaps the Biden/Harris inauguration committee was sore at the support that Trump puzzlingly received from the likes of Lil Wayne and Ice Cube. Younger acts were also under-represented. Katy Perry provided a knockout finale with “Firework”, launching herself into the vocal stratosphere as Washington DC was lit up with real fireworks. But the song itself was a hit back in 2010, when Biden had just started out as vice-president. The most up-to-date number came from Luis Fonsi, filmed at home grooving in an armchair like an animated version of the Lincoln statue as he sang 2017’s “Despacito”.
Two performances stood out. Foo Fighters dedicated “Times Like These” to teachers and gave the song a raw, clattering emotional energy. Meanwhile, John Legend sang Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” at a grand piano by the Lincoln Memorial with an unseen big-band accompaniment. Here, amid the gushy rhetoric and sombre coronavirus tributes, was a moment of genuine celebration, sung with relish by Legend. He gave voice to a feeling suppressed elsewhere in “Celebrating America”: jubilation at the ending of the Trump era.