There are two songs that are completely guaranteed to be played over the PA at any 4th of July celebration in America: Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Since Greenwood allowed himself to become the closest thing Donald J. Trump had for a house band, there wasn’t much suspense over what artist would get to soundtrack the pyrotechnics display over the Washington Mall that climaxed a day of festivities honoring the swearing in of Trump’s sworn antagonist, President Joe Biden.
All that was missing was the part where Perry would get to “make ’em go, ‘Oh, oh, oh,’” because there were few humans between Perry, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and Joe and Dr, Jill, stepping out onto their new house’s balcony across the city at 9:55 ET to ooh and aah. Lit up bin-between by the bombs bursting in air, tens of thousands of flags standing in for the human participants who, thanks to the rioters, can no longer have even socially distanced nice things, except on television.
The fact that the inaugural festivities were all made-for-TV events, like the Democratic convention produced by the same folks six months ago. The biggest benefit was the opportunity to involve hordes of average Americans as fleeting cameo players int he festivities — at least throughout Wednesday afternoon’s “this is what America really looks like” virtual parade, and in certain segments of the “Celebrating America” special that concluded the evening. The downside was necessarily having to use so much pre-recorded material throughout the day that there was little chance for much to break through and match the galvanizing power of an Aretha Franklin, Beyonce or even Bob Dylan performing live in inaugurations past.
Leave it to Bruce Springsteen to crystallize the moment, at least when the moment involves, for a preponderance of the most invested viewers, a chance to literally save the world, or at least come close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. Springsteen began the 90-minute “Celebrating America” telecast as just one of a handful of live and on-site performers there at the memorial to share great moments with Mr. Lincoln, there to sing arguably the most stirring song he ever wrote (at least the one that is most stirring about America and heaven, not motorcycles), “Land of Hope and Dream.” It would have been grander if the E Street Band had been there on Lincoln Circle, so that viewers could get the full gospel-rock rapture of the nine-and-a-half-minute band version, instead of the wistfulness of the three-and-a-half-minute solo version. But on the ultimate New Start day, it’s hard to ask for much more than the guy who might be the greatest singer-songwriter of our lifetime, giving even a muted version of one of his most stirring classics.
(There has been so much talk over the years of ditching “The Star Spangled Banner” for “America the Beautiful.” The nation is unlikely to ever really take up considering a swap, but if it did, would it be too much to throw “Land of Hope of Dreams” into the mix? For some of us, it already is the anthem.)
The musical performances also had to necessarily adhere to inspiration, which meant that the darker songs that were able to creep into last summer’s Democratic convention, like Leon Bridges’ racial-injustice protest song “Sweeter,” were necessarily out of contention for this day of celebration. Performances steered toward the good side of the middle of the road with refreshed oldies: John Legend, also personally on-site in D.C., singing the Anthony Newley show tune popularized and soul-idified by Nina Simon, “Feeling Good,” against a massive backing track. And Demi Lovato, rocking a new look, rocking an old R&B-pop classic, Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” on an L.A. soundstage. Jon Bon Jovi, who felt like an odd choice to be flattening a song as rich as the Beatles’ “Here Comes to the Sun” into unremarkability.
Dozens of Broadway actors sang a line each of an intergenerational “Seasons of Love”/”Let the Sunshine In” medley. Noting wrong there, except that, damn it, sometimes you just want to hear a vivacious singer-actor like Mandy Gonzalez belt it for three or four minutes by herself, instead of playing a theater-geek game of “who was that? — oops, too late.” (If only the show could have hosted the Gregory Brothers’ recent hilarious Trump satire that was set to “Seasons of Love,” “11,780 Votes,” but we have to wait a day or two to revert to partisanship — fine.) Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contribution to the program was spoken-word, so “Hamilton” fans did not get their shot to have that brilliant show overtly tied to current events.
Filmed alongside the Cumberland River in Nashville, the Tim McGraw/Tyler Hubbard country-unity anthem “Undivided” was so desperate to be inoffensive in its declaration that there is nothing whatsoever worth fighting over that it most likely united most viewers on one side — the meh side. Moving from central to western Tennessee, a more fruitful pairing had Justin Timberlake hooking up with Ant Clemons for their very recent co-write, “Better Days,” joined by a choir of students from the nearby Stax music school. The performance did make that empty Memphis intersection sound suspiciously like the inside of a top-notch recording studio, but the combination of a plug for music education, the sight of that Stax neon, and a not-too-bad update on the old-school R&B inspiration tradition adds up to something hard to resist.
The virtual parade in the afternoon, seen by far fewer viewers, was bigger on fun, if mostly for marching bands getting to do stuff for the cameras that they never could have in a quick Pennsylvania Ave. march-by. The reunion of New Radicals after a more than 20-year absence for a one-off of one of the most celebrated one-hits of all time, “You Get What You Give,” was a treat, even if it felt like it deserved even more pomp and circumstance than a sandwiching between college drum corps. DJ Cassidy did his part to serve America by reuniting Kathy Sledge and Nile Rodgers, with a side of EWF’s always welcome Philip Bailey and Verdine White. Andra Day added gravity among the afternoon levity with a rooftop version of her partly BLM-themed “Rise Up,” set atop no less a riser than Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel.
In the end, most of the day’s music ended up feeling at least modestly heart-warming… without ever taking a swing for the fences with any kind of bold choice or powerhouse performance that would be remembered as spine-chilling. But the earlier performances, from Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, got much closer to that moving mark.
The COVID-19 memorial at dusk on Tuesday felt so powering, even close to shattering in its way, that it was almost as if music only risked ruining the moment. There’s no danger of ruination, though, when it’s Yolanda Adams that’s coming on to capture the feeling in song. If only there’d been something besides Leonard Cohen’s deeply secular and deeply overworked “Hallelujah” for the gospel great to sing — the solemn setting certainly required severely shearing the number of its more irreverent verses — but if there is anyone who can make you feel that it’s fine to keep “Hallelujah” out of retirement for just a few minutes longer, it’s Adams, who briefly convinced us that Cohen did intend the song as a Christian hymn.
As for the trio of performances at the a.m. swearing-in? These can be summed up in a phrase: Nailed it. Not everyone is going to agree: Haters are gonna hate when J.Lo is doing W.Guth, and Garth Brooks’ pick of “Amazing Grace” didn’t win any more points for originality than the previous night’s “Hallelujah” choruses. But in their solemnly-swear contexts, they worked, as did Lady Gaga’s almost universally unassailed “Star Spangled Banner.”
Gaga’s national anthem is road-tested, having been pulled off without a hitch five Super Bowls ago, and she brought it again. There are so many ways to toy with that may or may not work, but the most workable approach after a couple of hundred years seems to be finding a midway point between earnest church and showy, show-biz pizzazz, and Gaga certainly knows how to go there without ever letting you worry she might go off-Key.
Jennifer Lopez is never going to be any hardcore Woody Guthrie buff’s first choice to sing “This Land Is Your Land,” but there was a winning chutzpah to her rendition — first, of course, just in the act of letting a Latinx performer at one of the most subversive songs ever written questioning a pre-progressive America, and then the extra spins she put on it beyond that represented additional doses of pure nerve. Throwing in “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” — in Spanish? Genius, or something like it. Then screaming “Let’s get loud!,” briefly throwing it back to one of her signature hits before getting back to Guthrie? This was either one of the best things of the day, or the worst — let’s spin the dial and give it a thumbs-up, just for nerves of brass.
Speaking of chutzpah, though, you need even more of it to sing a cappella, at length, in front of a live viewing audience of tens of millions. After a brief brass opening, Brooks went it alone, really alone, with his “Amazing Grace,” before asking the audience at home to sing along. Here, unlike anyone else on any of the inaugural bills (except maybe for McGraw and Hubbard), was someone with something to lose. He may need an extra measure of grace, because the QAnon and QAnon-adjacent crowds have been out in force the last couple of days, calling for a Brooks boycott for the sin of trying to be politically ecumenical in showing up for Biden, like he has for all other living presidents at some point or another. He’s too good at playing the middle to really get “Dixie Chick-ed,” and we might have suspected a hint of damage control when Brooks ran up the stairs after his performance rather than stick around and work the crowd like Gaga and Lopez. But political fear isn’t really something that affects Brooks any more than the a cappella jitters.
Brooks comes by his centrism honestly, even if it makes the left suspicious on top of making the far right deeply enraged. In some of the non-musical moments that followed his performance — like the new vice president and first gentleman accompanying Mike Pence down the steps and then sweetly waving at his departing motorcade; or Obama, Carter and W hanging out together on the evening special, like ex-presidents who’d want to have a beer with one another — you felt the grace he talked about lingering, even after he’d run up the stairs.
Amid all these musical considerations, there is no ignoring the real rock star in the room… the junior-poet-laureate elephant in the room: Amanda Gorman. But that’s another story.