While President Joe Biden’s inauguration was unlike any other, his messaging repeatedly spoke to a familiar theme: a return to normalcy.
And in a music special Wednesday night, he stressed it even more — with performances from Bon Jovi, John Legend, and Demi Lovato, which called for people to come together for a more hopeful future.
The event capped off a packed day — including executive actions and press briefings — for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who are moving swiftly ahead on their agenda as they retake the White House. Led by a somber Tom Hanks at the Lincoln Memorial, it also celebrated the labor of essential workers across the country, and featured a cameo from three former presidents.
Faced with daunting public health and economic crises, Republican opposition in Congress, and a significant segment of the electorate who still has questions about the president’s victory, Biden’s administration has a lot of challenges to tackle as it gets underway.
Wednesday’s event attempted to set an optimistic tone for how they plan to go about doing it.
“This is a great nation. We’re good people,” Biden said in his evening remarks. “And [to] overcome the challenges in front of us … requires us to come together in common love that defines us as Americans.”
We pulled together the evening’s most notable moments.
When celebrities came back to the White House
It’s hard to remember this, post-Trump, but it was once possible for a celebrity to present a performance at the White House as a politically neutral act. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he entered amid the lingering controversy of Bush v. Gore, but Destiny’s Child played a concert for his inauguration weekend without backlash. “I wanna hear you say Bush!” called Beyoncé at one point.
That era reached a pointed end in 2017, when Donald Trump took office. A-list celebrities, who had overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, boycotted the inauguration, with one celeb after another announcing that they would refuse to perform for Trump.
But now Trump is out of Washington. And in this brave new Biden era, Hollywood has reembraced the White House.
Biden’s star-studded inaugural concert is a case in point of our new cultural landscape. Right now, the most powerful figures in popular culture are willing to ally with the most powerful figures in politics. It’s a mingling of soft power and hard power that sees both sides lending each other their cultural capital in service of a common aesthetic — and that aesthetic is, both traditionally and very much so today, one of a slight cornball sentimentality.
It’s flag pins on your lapel. It’s Bruce Springsteen gently crooning above an acoustic guitar on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s Jon Bon Jovi singing directly into the camera in front of a seascape at sunrise. It’s the Foo Fighters solemnly instructing us to learn to love again. It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Joe Biden reciting Seamus Heaney together, in unison. It’s Katy Perry singing “Firework” as actual fireworks go off in the background.
That sentimentality can be a powerful force. For many, it’s profoundly welcome after the four years of intermittent rage and despair so many people experienced during the Trump administration. A bunch of powerful people who might have their flaws but would also like to champion some sort of basic decency and kindness is something we can surely all get behind. Who doesn’t like sunrises and beaches and Bruce Springsteen? Who doesn’t like calls for kindness?
At its very best, this sentimentality can create a moment of catharsis like Tuesday night’s national mourning for those lost to Covid-19, which featured Yolanda Adams singing “Hallelujah” and was our first nationwide public acknowledgment of the human cost of the pandemic. We need sentiment in moments like that, to acknowledge the terrible grief we are all experiencing. Or it can create a moment of pure ecstatic release, like John Legend channeling Nina Simone to sing “Feeling Good” on the National Mall on Wednesday night.
But the sentimentality that Hollywood and the White House create together can also be anesthetizing. It is a sentiment of a return to status quo that, after four years of concerted destructive effort by the Trump administration, feels increasingly unsustainable.
“Corniness is comforting, and decent, and old-fashioned,” wrote Rachel Tashjian at GQ after Wednesday’s inauguration. “It can be effective, and on Wednesday, it nearly was, but for many of us, it will be a long time before coordinated purple suits and Garth Brooks trying to unify America in song will make us feel anything but scared and exhausted. It is change, not normalcy, that many Americans seek.”
Power by its nature wants to protect itself, not to change the circumstances under which it flourishes. When Hollywood and the White House combine forces, they wield enormous social power. Tonight, they used that power to celebrate the idea of returning to normalcy after four years of chaos. It remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to apply the same power to get to something better than normal.
When Brayden Harrington channeled JFK
Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old boy from New Hampshire, stole the show at this summer’s Democratic National Convention when he appeared in a heart-stoppingly sweet video to talk about how Biden helped him with his stutter. “Without Joe Biden I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” Brayden said.
Brayden came back to share his voice during Celebrating America, reciting a portion of JFK’s inaugural address. He sounded great. Good job, Brayden!
The UPS guy and all the real people highlighted
“And now, I have a very special delivery for you from Miami … Jon Bon Jovi.” It was an introduction to the star delivered not by a politician or a fellow celebrity on Wednesday night, but instead by Anthony Gaskin, a UPS driver from Virginia. During a star-studded event, ordinary people also got top billing.
The primetime event featured 8-year-old Cavanaugh Bell from Maryland, who makes care packages for the elderly and started a food pantry in his community, and Sarah Fuller of Texas, a senior at Vanderbilt University who just become the first woman to play and score points for a Division I football team in the Power 5. It also highlighted 8-year-old Morgan Marsh-McGlone from Wisconsin, who started a virtual lemonade stand during the pandemic to help her fellow students who didn’t have enough to eat, and Sandra Lindsay from New York, who works at Northwell Health and was the first American to get a Covid-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial. Performances, appearances, and speeches from ordinary people were scattered throughout the virtual parade earlier in the day as well.
Biden seems to have learned from the success of including ordinary Americans in the virtual Democratic National Convention last summer, which featured a multitude of regular people talking about then-nominee Biden.
.@vucommodores Sarah Fuller introduces the new Vice President Kamala Harris in a taped message during tonight’s “Celebrating America” program as part of the Inauguration festivities.@WSMV pic.twitter.com/NWn7bhUvWl— Chris Harris (@ChrisHarrisWSMV) January 21, 2021
Trying to bring politics and policy to life through the lens of regular citizens is hardly a new phenomenon — politicians on the campaign trail often relay stories about voters to get across a certain point. But as much as the pandemic has taken away from the political process and so many facets of American life, one thing it has brought about in television formats like this is showing average people on screen and in real life. Politics can feel abstract, especially during a pandemic when it’s been months since people in America have been able to gather, and putting non-politicians and non-celebrities on screen grounds the moment in reality.
Sometimes, the real people stuff can feel corny and contrived — it’s not like these people were randomly plucked off the street. But of all the Covid-19-induced changes to the way Americans do political life, this is one that should stick.
Kamala Harris on “American aspiration”
A daughter of immigrants, and the first woman, Black person, and South Asian person to become vice president, Kamala Harris’s inauguration sends a new message about what’s possible in America — particularly to women of color. In her first national address as vice president, Harris leaned into this theme, focusing on the power of “American aspiration” and movements that have worked to address inequities throughout history.
“We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome, that we will rise up. This is American aspiration,” she said. “In the middle of the civil rights movement, Dr. King fought for racial justice and economic justice. American aspiration is what drove the women of this nation throughout history to demand equal rights and the authors of the Bill of Rights to claim freedoms that had rarely been written down before.”
Harris also spoke of “American aspiration” in the context of the pandemic — as parents strive to provide for and educate their children under challenging circumstances, and members of communities seek to care for one another amid devastating tragedy. Like Biden, Harris tried to convey a message of optimism in a deeply dark time, citing the potential to keep on growing as a nation.
Three former presidents on the peaceful transfer of power
Three former presidents gathered to put out a message that directly countered the misleading claims of the most recent commander-in-chief: In a casual video, former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton discussed the peaceful transfer of power that took place on Wednesday and emphasized the need for Americans to respect Biden’s presidency even if they disagree with him.
“Your success is our country’s success,” said Bush. “We’ve got to not just listen to folks we agree with but listen to folks we don’t,” echoed Obama.
Their messages sought, once again, to convey the need for bipartisan support of the democratic system, as the country remains bitterly divided over the last election. According to a recent Vox/DFP poll, more than 70 percent of Republicans questioned Biden’s election, and nearly half didn’t think he should be sworn in.
The former presidents stressed the commonality among Americans, as Biden faces the difficult task of trying to bring the country together. “We can have fierce disagreements and yet recognize each other’s common humanity and that as Americans we have more in common than what separates us,” Obama said.
American political life beyond Trump
Did Donald Trump watch Wednesday’s primetime show? It’s hard to say. But part of what marked the entire event was the former president’s absence.
Trump, whose path to the White House was paved by his own celebrity, could never quite get the country’s A-listers on board with his agenda. In fact, it was just the opposite: Awards shows over the Trump years were marked by various actors, singers, and directors speaking out against his policies and encouraging people to vote (not for him), and influential people rallied against him in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. He had a handful of famous fans, but not exactly the most recognizable ones: Joe Biden has Tom Hanks; Trump had Antonio Sabato Jr.
Of course, the Hollywood crowd leans left. They liked Barack Obama more than George W. Bush, too. But Trump has always wanted to be with the in-crowd, and he’s spent much of his life focused on being a famous guy. Wednesday’s spectacle likely irked him, and he couldn’t even tweet through it.
But beyond petty tensions, what was striking about the evening was its tone: one of celebration, but also of relief. Bruce Springsteen opened the show standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Jon Bon Jovi sang “Here Comes the Sun.” Tom Hanks, America’s dad whom culture seems to have identified as The Man Who Will Make You Feel Better, hosted. A video of Obama, Bush, and Bill Clinton chatting together earlier during Inauguration Day was shown — a video that conspicuously lacked Trump, who skipped the ceremony.
The show was nice, and after four years of turmoil, it’s nice to feel nice. And part of the reason the night felt nice was because there was no trace of Donald Trump.
We’ve been through a lot of trauma lately.
Donald Trump was a deceptively sinister president. He had no emotional range and no capacity for subtle or complex policymaking. As Quinta Jurecic writes, Trump “is a man without depths to plumb.” It all seemed so predictable.
Yet Trump had an endless capacity to surprise America with new assaults on liberal democratic values. An unconstitutional executive order might turn airports into epicenters of protest on any given Saturday. Or a hastily announced policy might leave hundreds of Americans fearful that they’d be trapped for months away from their homes. Even the January 6 attack on the Capitol, by a mob that Trump gleefully cheered on, was surprising. Yes, there was an enormous weight of intelligence that should have warned Capitol Police to prepare for an attack. But no enemy of American democracy had breached the Capitol since 1814.
For four years, many Americans spent every minute wondering what calamity would happen next. The curse of Trump’s terror wasn’t that America was constantly in a state of emergency, it was that many of us could never fully relax.
So there was something refreshingly innocent about Wednesday evening’s event. Hosted by America’s dad and featuring a stream of all-too-wholesome performers, the event climaxed with the most unapologetically guileless celebration of America possible: Katy Perry, dressed vaguely like the Statute of Liberty, singing the song “Firework,” as approximately 2 billion shit-tons of fireworks went off around her.
Seriously, it was a lot of fireworks.
There was nothing lurking beneath it. There were no surprises. It was as pure and as childlike as it could be. It was perfect.