10 best inauguration performances of all time, including Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé

Patrick Ryan and Gary Dinges, USA TODAY
·5 min read

The show must go on.

On Wednesday, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., exactly two weeks after the federal building was attacked by President Donald Trump’s supporters. But even with threats of violence and protests, the ceremony went off without a hitch, as Lady Gaga performed the national anthem, Garth Brooks sang "Amazing Grace," and Jennifer Lopez did a mashup of "This Land is Your Land" and "America the Beautiful."

The festivities continue Wednesday night with the Tom Hanks-hosted “Celebrating America” special on ABC (8:30 EST/PST), featuring musical guests including Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, Jon Bon Jovi, Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard.

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To mark the historic event, we take a look back at some of the best inauguration performances of the past four decades.

Aretha Franklin, 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' (2009)

Franklin performed at the inaugurations of three presidents: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. The singer, who died in 2018, shined at Obama's first inauguration, belting out a soulful rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." For many, Franklin's epic hat with an enormous bow was the piece that pushed this performance over the top.

Barbra Streisand, "God Bless America" (1993)

There's no such thing as a phoned-in performance from Streisand, who makes this patriotic classic divinely her own with every carefully enunciated word and soaring vocal riff. When she launches into a piercing belt for the showstopping final verse, the camera cuts to Bill Clinton, smiling and fist-pumping from his seat at his first inauguration concert. That's precisely our reaction, too, no matter how many times we watch.

Beyoncé, 'At Last' (2009)

Beyoncé is no stranger to fantastic presidential performances, having sung "America the Beautiful" at Obama's inauguration concert in 2009 and the national anthem when he was sworn in for a second term in 2013. But our favorite moment was when she serenaded the president and first lady Michelle Obama with "At Last," made famous by Etta James, at the 2009 inaugural ball. The way the Obamas look at each other, and then at a beaming Queen B from across the room, is swoon-worthy. And the weight of history – the election of our country's first Black president – makes the scene that much more beautiful, with a cutaway to actress Kerry Washington crying in the audience.

Bob Dylan, 'Chimes of Freedom' (1993)

Dylan has written some of the best protest songs in history, but the iconic folk singer has an on-again, off-again relationship with politics. One of his most memorable "on" moments came in 1993 when he performed for Clinton's inauguration. "Chimes of Freedom" was the song he selected, delivered with his trademark raspy voice. A grinning Clinton can be seen at one point offering a thumbs-up.

Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, 'This Land is Your Land' (2009)

After four years of division, there is something profoundly moving about watching this joyful performance from Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, flanked by gospel singers in blue and red, Springsteen and Seeger, who died in 2014, lead the massive crowd in a simple yet heartwarming rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” It reminds us of the values of freedom and equality that make this country so great, and never fails to bring tears to our eyes.

Fleetwood Mac, 'Don't Stop' (1993)

A thoroughly delightful performance of Fleetwood Mac's 1977 crowd-pleaser, which closed out Clinton's first-term inaugural concert with a message of hope and optimism ("It'll be better than before / Yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone"). Stick around until the end to see Michael Jackson join the band for the final chorus, dancing side by side with Stevie Nicks and a tambourine-playing Bill. First lady Hillary Clinton and then-teenage daughter Chelsea also get in on the fun, clapping and swaying onstage with a gospel choir.

Kelly Clarkson, 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' (2013)

Clarkson is no stranger to performing in front of crowds, under pressure. She did get her start on "American Idol" after all. And yet she looks incredibly nervous here. Starstruck, too, as she shakes hands with then-Vice President Joe Biden. But once she gets started, it's the Kelly Clarkson we know and love delivering a poignant rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

Lady Gaga, 'The Star-Spangled Banner'

The national anthem is a frequently solemn affair, with many artists too afraid of flubbing that final "free" to really let loose or even crack a smile. Lady Gaga, meanwhile, struck the perfect balance of reverent and relaxed, dramatic and high camp at President Joe Biden's inauguration: her voice soaring as she channeled Patti LuPone in "Evita," arms outstretched and eyes gazing skyward. It was an exuberant moment, made even more memorable by the pop star's delightfully lavish ensemble, which was seemingly plucked from the costume trailer of a "Hunger Games" movie.

Ray Charles, 'America the Beautiful' (1985)

Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys topped the bill of Ronald Reagan's second inaugural gala. But the high point of the evening was undoubtedly Charles, who has performed his now-definitive version of "America the Beautiful" everywhere from Lincoln Center to the World Series. Soulful and stirring, it's hard not to get emotional as the audience joins him for the song's final verse.

Ricky Martin, 'Cup of Life' (2001)

Martin brought tremendous energy as the final performer at George W. Bush's first inauguration. Performing "Cup of Life" while spinning and shaking his hips, he led the crowd in a call-and-response of "Do you really want it? Yeah!" We're still singing "Ale, ale, ale!"

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Inauguration performances: The 10 best ever, including Lady Gaga