The sun cracked through the late-morning cloud cover gracing the hour-long ceremony in Washington, D.C., officially appointing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the 46th president and vice-president of the United States, bathing the Capitol-building stage in soft, new light just as Lady Gaga closed a stately rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The moment signified a shift in a terrible chapter in American history, one where reality became fractured and disputable and where the very air we breathe became a danger to public health. It was cloying, too obvious. Everything is now. The storm of the Trump years passed as the outgoing 45th president departed for his Florida home after 11 harrowing weeks of speculation as to whether Trump would, or could, simply toss the votes that delivered the victory to his opponent in November and stay on as commander-in-chief, a struggle that came to a head exactly two weeks prior on the same Capitol steps in a bloody insurrection that left five dead and millions more afraid that the country had hit its breaking point. Inauguration Day is about new beginnings, but this one was about closure. You watched it to make sure it actually happened, saying to yourself, as Dr. Loomis did in John Carpenter’s Halloween, “He’s gone from here! The evil is gone.” (As in that film, there is worry that the villain will be back to terrorize us again one day.)
As the country ushers in a new regime, people are still suffering. Unemployment is high. Businesses are struggling. The inequalities fueling the protests that raged last spring and summer aren’t resolved. It’s important, following the Trump show, to reestablish peace and norms, to arouse positivity, to restore faith in the ability of our leaders to govern after months of institutional negligence bore grisly fruit in the deaths of 400,000 Americans. The conscientious, treacly optimism of the inauguration spectacle lingered in the evening as Celebrating America, a star-studded concert commemorating the day’s inauguration, reiterated the morning message of renewed hopefulness in song.
Sunlight signaled new beginnings at Celebrating America. Bruce Springsteen opened the night with “Land of Hope and Dreams.” (“Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams / Meet me in the land of hope and dreams.”) Jon Bon Jovi covered the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” from a beachside pier in Florida as clouds gave way to clear skies. John Legend sang Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” in front of the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. (“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.”) The Foo Fighters offered a rousing rendition of 1999’s “Times Like These.” (“I, I’m a new day rising / I’m a brand-new sky to hang the stars upon tonight.”) Later, Demi Lovato covered “Lovely Day” by the late Bill Withers. (“When I wake up in the morning, love / And the sunlight hurts my eyes …”) Celebrating America was similar in tone to the summer Democratic National Convention, which shared in the task of promising a fresh start. It was heavy-handed by necessity, a concerted effort at shaking the negativity that consumed us under a president who used social media for round-the-clock criticism of his enemies and promotion of far-fetched conspiracy theories. In and around Soulsville, the Memphis home of the venerable music label Stax Records, singers Ant Clemons and Justin Timberlake stole the show as their recent collaboration, “Better Days,” soared on a lush and moving choral arrangement featuring students from the Stax Music Academy. Say what you will about J.T., who is swinging loudly back to R&B after throwing people off with the quasi-country Man of the Woods, but “Better Days” is the perfect song for a moment like this; its resolve comes from pain. Its refrain — “Better days are coming” — is a wish and an acknowledgement that things aren’t great right now but that, if we stay the course, we’ll eventually outrun what’s haunting us.
Elsewhere, Celebrating America dipped into schlock. Broadway stars singing a medley of Rent’s “Seasons of Love” and Hair’s “Let the Sunshine In” carried the weather metaphor overboard. A “freestyle” segment offered watered-down versions of “Taki Taki” and “Despacito,” from Ozuna and Luis Fonsi. Country stars Tyler Hubbard, from Florida Georgia Line, and Tim McGraw sang their new duet, “Undivided,” a mawkish song about togetherness that doesn’t quite match similar efforts by the singers both together (see McGraw and FGL’s “May We All”) and apart (see “Humble and Kind,” which McGraw used to gently nudge his industry peers toward a more inclusive politics in 2017, or FGL’s conciliatory “People Are Different,” from 2019), though it’s important to note that it meant a lot for them to be there at all, as heavy hitters in a field where the audience is packed with conservatives. In November, fans discovered that Hubbard briefly unfollowed bandmate Brian Kelley, a Trump supporter, on Instagram, a row that Hubbard admitted was political. The pressure on country stars to espouse political neutrality is strong enough to have led Garth Brooks, who sang “Amazing Grace” on the Capitol dais in the morning and made a point to shake hands with Mike Pence and Kamala Harris afterward, to stress that the appearance “is not a political statement.” Brooks faced criticism in 2017 for turning down an invitation to appear at the Trump inauguration ceremony, and insinuations that playing the 2009 Obama ceremony and the 2021 Biden one gave him away as a secret Democrat inspired Fox News to pick over subtle political statements he has made over the past decade.
Brooks’s choices highlight the subversive messaging of the Inauguration Day in music, which is that, finally, the White House is no longer occupied by a leader who, if he didn’t quite literally hate music, was publicly despised by enough musicians to have made the past four years of ceremonies and rallies grate as much for taste as for ideology. Trump closed his final speech to the public as president yesterday with the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” a(n ostensible) gay sex anthem he overused on last year’s campaign trail to balance out hate and demagoguery through whimsical dance. When he tried to embrace American music, he got sued, clowned for his choices, or both. His use of classic-rock gems like Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” at his events repeated the Reagan-era faux pas of mistaking a song about how hard it is to live in America with a simple statement of patriotism and earned the same blowback his predecessor got for misappropriation of Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
After all that contention, the veritable Joechella worth of talent blessing Biden’s first day in office was an extra nail in the coffin. Four years ago, the inauguration-talent spread was Jackie Evancho, whom you may remember from losing America’s Got Talent in 2010, the Radio City Rockettes, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, literally anyone who was willing to show up. Now, we have Lady Gaga, J.Lo, and Katy Perry bathing the Washington Monument in fireworks that could be heard miles away. We have rockers, pop stars, R&B singers, country folks, Latin trap heroes. We have Yo-Yo Ma. We have the Boss and Jon Bon Jovi. (Notably, we didn’t have rappers, a glaring miss after Trump buttered up hip-hop heads, issuing pardons to Lil Wayne, Kodak Black, and Death Row Records co-founder Michael “Harry-O” Harris.) As much as Inauguration Day hinted at the apparent end of a painful era, Celebrating America also seemed to say, “People like us!” One hopes the new regime can reap prosperity out of its boundless hopefulness.