It wasn’t an inaugural ball, but it was a spectacular celebration.
Shaped by unprecedented public health and security concerns, the inauguration of President Joe Biden was unlike any American president’s before his. A small crowd gathered on Capitol Hill for the swearing-in ceremony, a parade was mostly a virtual event and instead of traditional balls, Biden’s team put together a special with performances, poetry and former presidents to ring in the new administration.
“Celebrating America,” which was simulcast on a handful of networks including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, PBS and others, danced the line between awkward telethon and music video, but at its best moments it was earnest and moving, a celebration of the diversity of the nation scored by superb musical performances and emceed by the always cool and collected Tom Hanks.
Like the Emmys or New Year’s Rockin’ Eve or any other televised event of the COVID-19 era, “Celebrating America” was more a collection of segments than one cohesive event. It moved from one segment to the next quickly: a Bruce Springsteen performance, then a Tom Hanks missive, then Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons, then Biden at the Lincoln Memorial, and so on.
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Biden and his team have experience with this, having participated in last year’s virtual Democratic National Convention (the Republican National Convention was also mostly remote). The DNC was a bit bumpy, but after a few nights the programmers started to understand what made a virtual spectacle work, including keeping things intimate for speeches and Zooming in people from all over the country, highlighting the breadth, diversity and ultimately unity of the nation.
“Celebrating America” took notes from the DNC, particularly the structure of jumping between everyday people, politicians and celebrity performers. The ordinary citizens who joined in even shared a visual aesthetic with those at the DNC, sometimes appearing with a few people (six feet or more) behind them holding posters with inspiring or patriotic messages.
The music performances served to replace the inaugural ball performances we would have seen in a normal year. They spanned genres and physical locations, and included Springsteen in front of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line in Nashville, the Foo Fighters in Seattle and Demi Lovato backed up virtually by healthcare workers and people across the country.
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The low-tech, actually live musical acts made the biggest impact, such as Springsteen’s acoustic version of “Land of Hope and Dreams” with the Lincoln Memorial behind him or Luis Fonsi gleefully and remotely singing “Despacito” with an AirPod in his ear. While Timberlake and Clemons had a stirring rendition of their song “Better Days,” it felt more like a music video than a concert. Similarly, Bon Jovi’s and the Foo Fighters’ songs were overproduced. Their aesthetics putting distance between them and an audience already forced to be socially distant from the Inauguration.
The non-musical moments were clunkier, as is expected. There was no audience to applaud for Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton offering well wishes to Biden, or Lin Manuel Miranda reciting a Seamus Heaney poem. But when Biden himself or Vice President Kamala Harris took over the mic for short remarks, things went smoother.
The night ended with a truly breathtaking fireworks display accompanying Katy Perry singing none other than her chart-topper “Firework,” while the Biden family watched on from a small celebration in the Oval Office and Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff watched from the reflecting pool. It was shamelessly cheesy and sentimental, but it worked. It’s hard not to get swept up in a light display that magnificent to behold.
As a way to commemorate the arrival of a new president, “Celebrating America” was very different. But as a way to connect and celebrate during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was actually familiar.