Of all the brave moves Joe Biden made during his inauguration ceremony, having any music at all was among the boldest; there was a strong chance any singers would be drowned out by the global sigh of relief. Yet out of the Capitol – itself a damaged but defiant diva of a building – they strode. Lady Gaga clutching a golden microphone through which to turn “The Star-Spangled Banner” into a tonsil-torturing show tune. Jennifer Lopez slickly mashing up “This Land is Your Land”, “America the Beautiful” and a burst of the pledge of allegiance in Spanish. An attempt to unite the country and ensure peace forevermore with an acapella country-gospel rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Garth Brooks, going for his Hasselhoff-on-the-Berlin Wall moment.
It was certainly a day to play everything safe, but it was also clear that Biden wasn’t about to sign any executive orders to drastically overhaul America’s musical constitution. The virtual Parade Across America that followed scared no horses on its way past either, with its many betassled marching bands and dance troupes, its emotive R&B take on “Rise Up” from Andra Day and its ebullient disco medley from Nile Rodgers, Sister Sledge and Earth, Wind & Fire. Even the much-touted reunion of Nineties bucket-hat rockers New Radicals (America’s World Party, basically) found them excising all of the lines about violent youth rebellion and wealth inequality from their only hit “You Get What You Give”. If anything, Trump musically mic-dropped Biden simply by pardoning a couple of rappers on his way out.
Once democracy had survived until dinnertime, though, America could afford itself a reassuring self-hug. As Tom Hanks’s 90-minute TV special Celebrating America began, Bruce Springsteen appeared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial playing a solo acoustic “Land of Hope and Dreams”, one of his vast corn-store of haunted blue-collar ballads about downtrodden everymen dreaming of a better future. Only this time when he sang “tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past” and “meet me in a land of hope and dreams”, it was with the faraway nobility of a man finally seeing his personal utopia swim into view and feeling the political sun on his cheek.
And there the tone was struck: relief, rehabilitation, a dignified hope, but also a wariness that, after four years of political savagery and sown divisions, there’s a lot of healing to be done, and fast. Much of the show resembled a public health warning about fascism – Hanks’s austere monologues and speeches from presidents past and present stressed messages of unity, understanding and America’s proud history of democracy, highlighting by their very inclusion just how fragile those ideals had become beneath Trump’s fraudulent thumbs. Against this sombre backdrop, it was up to the acts to provide all the bright tomorrows.
Which they increasingly did, in spades. Jon Bon Jovi beamed his way through “Here Comes the Sun” on a beachside boardwalk, backed by the world’s most Pro Tooled busker band. Back in Lincoln’s shadow, John Legend revelled in the sultry strut of “Feeling Good”, all Bond horns and new-day optimism. Demi Lovato led a video choir of doctors and nurses in a celebratory “Lovely Day” from a virtual sky-pod above LA. And Foo Fighters repurposed “Times Like These” as a moving, misty organ ballad that could have been written for the day. “It’s times like these we learn to love again,” Dave Grohl lamented, before the band kicked into a powerhouse final chorus that sounded like America pulling itself together and realising, actually, it was pretty great in the first place.
It was a safe, soothing and unadventurous affair, but necessarily so, and what fresh material did emerge was solidly on-message. In one of the night’s most inspirational moments, Ant Clemons and Justin Timberlake took last year’s lockdown collaboration “Better Days" into a street full of R&B gospel singers, while, in Nashville, Tyler Hubbard and Tim McGraw debuted a slick pop-country tune called “Undivided” that would’ve been trite in the extreme if it hadn’t been so important: “It’s time to come together,” they sang to Trump’s heartland, “we’ve been hateful long enough.” As the show wrapped up with Katy Perry’s most rousing ever “Firework” and images of Joe and Jill enjoying a million-dollar pyrotechnic display for two from the White House balcony, the mundanity of Celebrating America’s music paled beneath the show’s new-dawn significance and Springsteen’s land of hope and dreams began to look a distinct possibility. Although, one suspects, Parler would have been spitting fire.