If you’re old enough in America, you know that Bruce Springsteen showing up to perform in a primetime special alongside some politicians means shit is serious.
The Boss turns up on TV when things have gotten real bad, when there is intense spiritual and patriotic rebuilding to do. And so he’ll kick off the rebuilding that needs to happen with a tune that manages to somehow exactly manifest the mood of a crisis time—no matter how many years, or decades, prior the song was written.
That’s just what he did Wednesday night to open Celebrating America, a 90-minute primetime special to honor the inauguration of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, pay tribute to the Americans working hard and risking their lives to keep the country running during unprecedented times, and, most importantly, calm an anxious nation that is eager to finally heal.
Springsteen was joined by the likes of Bon Jovi, Demi Lovato, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, and every firework in North America for the concert, a far cry from the cacophonous homage to anarchy and carnage on Inauguration Day four years ago, or from the closed-door pomp and circumstance of the balls and galas that typically occupy the new president’s evening after being sworn in.
Thanks to the pandemic, there was no in-person audience. There were no parties. Not only did Biden and Harris address the country again, so did a historic communing of former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, together preaching the value of a peaceful transfer of power—in other words a monumental subtweeting of Donald Trump, who blissfully went unmentioned the entire night.
The entire thing was staged around the Lincoln Memorial, with the National Mall, reflecting pool, and Washington Monument as its backdrop. The typically teeming tourist attraction was empty save for the handful of performers, all romantically lit in spare stagings that were, it must be said, absolutely stunning. Knowing that the starkness was owed to the circumstances of the nation’s trauma made it all rather haunting.
But the mission to preach renewal and the permission to start feeling good permeated all of the musical selections—John Legend literally sang “Feelin’ Good.” By the time Katy Perry in Evita drag performed “Firework” as the camera caught the Bidens gazing out from their White House balcony at the most aggressive pyrotechnics display I have ever seen, you’d rank as the most cold-hearted among us to not have gotten goosebumps or, more likely, shed a tear. It’s surprising how quickly something so seemingly cheesy can sneak up and affect you.
As much as the special was about entertainment, it was symbolic. Artists like the president again. Celebrities participating in concerts act like they are saving the world. Nature is healing.
If the theme of the day was “everything’s going to be OK,” then there was no one more fitting to host the Smile, the World Isn’t Ending Anymore concert than Tom Hanks, our national reassurance laureate.
He was the just-right amount of Hanks-ian, educating about the importance of Inauguration Day for “witnessing the permanence of the American ideal” and guiding the performances along. Doing that Tom Hanks signature soft shoe down the line between gravitas and everyman accessibility, he set the tone for the night—one of extreme, inescapable, long-overdue earnestness.
Specials like this are inherently hokey, but I don’t necessarily understand the impulse to be snarky about them, which seemed to infect some social media live-tweet reactions. All in all, Celebrating America was a pretty standard version of what these things are. And after all of the everything of these last years, that alone was kind of nice.
To steal a reaction from a reader on Twitter, I’ll take hokey over horrific any day. What a refreshing privilege to delight in corny uplift again. Indulging in some sincerity isn’t the vice so many people think it is. In fact, it might even be a necessary medicine to get over some of the poison we’ve all been sickened with.
It’s been a big 24 hours for a lot of Americans, the first time they’ve been allowed to mourn, grieve, and embark on any sort of journey other than incessant pain, horror, and frustration.
That’s not to say that anyone is deluded into thinking that an uplifting inaugural ceremony and cutesy concert means everything is suddenly fixed, or that the crushing blights on humanity that have threatened us this last year—and much of the last four years—are suddenly going to evaporate. But finally, there’s a chance to breathe. An opportunity for catharsis. Those things feel lighter. It’s a lot to feel, especially in such a short period of time.
Music is an appropriate outlet for those huge, swirling, maybe even unmanageable feelings. A poignant performance of a meaningful song is something to tether to. The melody can wrangle the chaos of those extreme emotions. It’s why we turn to things like this. It’s why there’s not the temptation to scoff at the desire to stage an event like this in the middle of a pandemic, the way that every self-serving Hollywood mounting in recent months has seemed ill-advised and tone-deaf.
“Music is an appropriate outlet for those huge, swirling, maybe even unmanageable feelings.”
It is the circumstances of a pandemic and the threat of violence in the nation’s capital that necessitated this concert, but I hope it’s a tradition that remains.
How many of us tuned into previous coverage of the inaugural balls? Those celebrations were about access, elitism, and the worst impulses of Beltway culture. This was for all of us. It was a TV special specifically for TV audiences, and it was a nice change of pace to be catered to in that way.
The Bruce Springsteen opener was perfect, as stirring a performance as you’d expect when it is Bruce Springsteen performing an acoustic version of “The Land of Hope and Dreams” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the evening a new president and the first Black, female, South Asian vice president were sworn in. But I was struck by how tailor-made the lyrics were to the moment, despite being written in 1999:
“I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past.”
It was followed up by Bon Jovi performing “Here Comes the Sun” from Miami, pre-shot at dawn so that the sun could come up as they sang. It was absolutely too on the nose, and I was absolutely on board.
Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons performed “Better Things” from Memphis. The running theme of the concert was hopefulness, and this is the rare occasion when the incessant display of that skirts the trap of being too grating. “Better Things” is a slight song, but even so it managed to be rousing. In these days of such bleakness, even a tiny fly offering prayer hands lands like the thunderclap of raised voices from a gospel choir.
Biden and Harris both spoke separately, delivering more platitudes of nothingness that did their job. We smiled.
The pre-taped conversation between Clinton, Bush, and Obama was so casual it was almost unmooring, considering how historic such moments are. Again, they talked about the peaceful transition of power and what is ahead for America, presumably blinking in Morse code, “Eat shit, Cheeto Demon” throughout the whole thing.
Listen, all these things are imperfect. When Clinton said “it’s an exciting time” for the country, I cringed so hard my eyes are now floating inside of my skull. But that’s a caveat to how just plain meaningful it was to see those three former presidents teaming up for this message.
I mean, is it insufferable to the point that my soul attempts to scratch its way out of my body like a cat clawing for freedom from its crate when Lin-Manuel Miranda performs a poem by Seamus Heaney in order to uplift America? Why, yes. Did I let out a banshee cry of disbelief when footage of Joe Biden was brought in to finish it with him? Indeed. But is it epically cool to follow that up with astronauts beaming in from the International Space Station just to help cheer us up about the future? Always.
“You grade specials like these on a curve. In this specific case, that curve is: “I do not even remember the last moment I felt joy so let me just appreciate this one thing.””
You grade specials like these on a curve. In this specific case, that curve is: “I do not even remember the last moment I felt joy so let me just appreciate this one thing.”
Demi Lovato is bopping around a Los Angeles soundstage and Justin Timberlake is goofily singing in the streets of Memphis to show that we are MOVING ON and MOVING UPWARD. It is all a show, of course—this is show business—but it doesn’t hurt to be performative about the steps we have to take in order to motivate the rest of us to start climbing them.
We’ve been conditioned to watch these very serious star-studded concerts in a state of desperation. We need to raise money! Raise awareness! Raise voter turnout! Find a solution, somehow, someway. But we were watching this one from the other side of the turning point. It really is a celebration. The cheesiness of it all? Well, like the best cheese, I found it provided a profound sense of comfort.
It is not the first time I sat on my couch alone crying while Katy Perry sing “Firework” as a grand finale to a historic event, and it will not be my last. But today is a big day, one in which I am—and we all are—finally in a place to feel good about it.