Live music has been a significant part of every Presidential Inauguration since 1789, when George Washington journeyed on horseback from Mount Vernon to New York City, and was fêted en route by various composers, including the German-American violinist Philip Phile, who used the occasion to début a new piece, “The President’s March.” (Washington was tense during his voyage, writing in his diary that he was “oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express,” and admitting that he felt increasingly uncertain about bidding adieu “to private life, and to domestic felicity.”) The Inauguration ceremony has only grown more elaborate and campy in subsequent decades, and, in the modern era, it usually involves one or two or three extravagantly dressed and jittery pop stars. This year, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks performed during the event, which is scheduled to be followed, on Wednesday evening, by a prime-time special titled “Celebrating America,” featuring Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, John Legend, the Foo Fighters, Demi Lovato, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Justin Timberlake, among others. It’s a formidable lineup by any measure, and a reminder of just how vehemently and publicly the Trump Administration was disavowed by nearly every artist of consequence, with just a handful of notable exceptions, some predictable (Kid Rock and Toby Keith), some initially confounding (Kanye West and Lil Wayne, who on Tuesday received a Presidential pardon in exchange for his fealty).
It somehow felt fitting that, on Wednesday morning, one of the last songs that Donald Trump played during his Presidential tenure was “Y.M.C.A.,” a disco-era novelty that began as a frisky paean to gay cruising and later became extremely popular at children’s birthday parties. Trump uses it all the time. (Though Victor Willis, the song’s co-author, has no real legal recourse, he has repeatedly requested that Trump stop dancing to it.) At the close of Trump’s final speech as President, and just before “Y.M.C.A.” started blaring, he yelled to his supporters, “Have a good life!” Where I come from, that’s the sort of thing you scream when you are almost certainly never going to speak to a person again—and hope, in fact, that they have a terrible life, full of mysterious rashes and Wi-Fi problems.
A few hours later, at the Capitol, Lady Gaga descended an intimidating staircase to sing the national anthem into a gold microphone. I’ve written before about how truly difficult it is to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but Gaga is preternaturally expert and unflappable in high-drama, high-tension moments such as this, and she nailed it. I teared up a bit (well, full-on cried) when she arrived at the lyric “Gave proof through the night / That our flag was still there”—the phrase felt, in that moment, like a welcome and necessary affirmation that America, in fact, remains. Her voice never cracked, but I like to think that she felt the unexpected weight of the moment, too.
Next, Jennifer Lopez, aglow in an all-white ensemble and accompanied by the United States Marine Band, descended the staircase to perform a medley of “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful.” The arrangement was soft and jazzy; the bulk of her performance was understated, direct, and elegant. But, toward the end of the medley, after shouting the closing lines of the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, itself an important and emotional moment, Lopez paused, threw her head back, shut her eyes, and bellowed “Let’s get loooooooooud!”—an earnest and truly unforeseeable reference to her 1999 dance single. Is it appropriate to insert the chorus to one’s own hit song into a humble and iconic folk tune? I don’t know, but I found the moment apt and oddly delightful. Lopez, after all, is a pop star—her work is to rouse, inspire, and gladden large crowds by encouraging them to revel in a moment of fleeting, collective joy. Besides, by now, “This Land Is Your Land” is so famously and thoroughly divorced from Woody Guthrie and his radical intentions (and also his original verses), so aggressively reclaimed and reimagined by the culture, that perhaps the song simply means whatever people believe it means. It is, at least, unquestionably true that self-promotion is a beloved American pastime, and “Let’s get loooooooooud!” was, incidentally or not, the moment in the performance in which Lopez’s voice sounded the richest and most striking.
Finally, Garth Brooks ambled onstage in bluejeans and a black Stetson to sing an unaccompanied rendition of “Amazing Grace,” an eighteenth-century hymn about redemption and transfiguration. On Monday, Brooks described his appearance as an act of service, telling reporters, “This is not a political statement—this is a statement of unity.” It’s not uncommon, of course, for older celebrities to claim a kind of anodyne impartiality, though these days even supposedly neutral ground doesn’t feel very steady. Nevertheless, Brooks’s performance was heartfelt, tender, and poignant. Halfway through, he paused to invite everyone in attendance or watching from home to join him in song. (My favorite part was when he was finished and briefly held up the proceedings to greet and hug various attendees—if given the opportunity, I, too, would handily disregard a tight schedule to once again feel the thrill of human contact.)
On Wednesday night, in lieu of an Inaugural Ball, President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris will appear as part of “Celebrating America,” a special hosted by Tom Hanks with help from Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria. The musical lineup is extensive, but perhaps the most politically compelling booking is a duet between the country-music icon (and Biden supporter) Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard, half of the ghastly bro-country outfit Florida Georgia Line. Hubbard’s musical partner, Brian Kelley (the Florida part of Florida Georgia Line), has hinted that he is a Trump supporter. (When someone on Instagram suggested that Kelley had voted for Biden, he replied “think again bub.”) Rolling Stone has also reported that Kelley’s wife, Brittany, had amplified a truly demented conspiracy theory concerning the online furniture store Wayfair and the trafficking of children. Hubbard’s exact politics are less clear, though for a brief period following the November election he committed the most potent social rebuke presently known to mankind: he unfollowed Kelley on Instagram. “We’ve had moments where we want to kill each other, but a lot of it’s out of love,” Hubbard later said, in an interview with the SiriusXM host Storme Warren.
Hubbard and McGraw will be performing a new collaboration called “Undivided,” a generous and jovial prayer for magnanimous healing. “We’ve been hateful long enough,” they sing. Many Americans have found it frustrating to hear certain politicians insist on unity and healing after four years of those same politicians deliberately and repeatedly stoking a dangerous partisan rage. Music is sometimes presented as a kind of impartial panacea—a bridge between enemies. That’s a lot to ask of art. But it’s still a nice fantasy to indulge, even if just for a night.