Wednesday night’s inauguration special Celebrating America hit every corny, cliché, overwrought note I could imagine. And I loved every minute of it. The past four years have been difficult, to say the least, and it often feels like the Trump era sparked a collective attitude of sardonic disillusionment as a matter of self-preservation. After the colossal letdown of the 2016 election, and the ensuing years, general distrust and cynicism just felt safer.
Then, Joe Biden won the 2020 election. And when he took the oath of office on January 20, 2021, I felt like I could finally (finally!) unclench and just let it out. Which, of course, opened the floodgates for all the feels.
Even before the events of today’s inauguration, this election cycle was rife with emotion. Biden’s son Beau, for example, who died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46, was referenced often on the campaign trail. Kamala Harris was fighting to make history as the first female, the first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent to be elected vice president. And there is also the simple fact of what it took to overcome the Trump presidency: activism, struggle, motivation, and tragedy. When Harris’s post-election phone call to Biden (“We did it, Joe!”) became a meme, it felt like people who have learned better than to trust good news were instinctively retreating to sarcasm.
But, after a while, cold detachment becomes exhausting, and letting down the emotional walls feels good. Biden’s inauguration, which went forward without controversy or violence, was permission to let those walls down. When you’re looking at a nation in mourning, a little cheesiness can be truly healing.
The inauguration programming made no effort to avoid clichés, fully leaning into the most hackneyed pop culture touchstones possible. We heard Jon Bon Jovi sing “Here Comes the Sun,” Yo-Yo Ma performed this election cycle’s 900th rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and then came the celebrity mashup of Rent’s “Seasons of Love.” The whole thing was MC’d by America’s designated dad, Tom Hanks. It’s the kind of schmaltz that used to make me cringe and now I want to bathe in it.
The unbridled corniness was not limited to the artistic performances either. We also got a recitation of poignant phrases from inaugural addresses of presidents past, including one from Braydon Harrington, the 13-year-old who previously connected with Biden over their speech impediments. We were treated to homages of essential workers like delivery drivers, teachers, and healthcare workers, homing in on some of the harshest realities of how the pandemic has impacted all of us. We even saw a short video of former presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton showing a return to bipartisanship. If the architect of this program was trying to make people cry, they could not have gone about it in a more obvious way. And yet, it worked.
Cheesiness is irritating because it usually feels insincere, like a very cheap attempt to manipulate our feelings. But this didn’t feel insincere. These were genuinely good songs! People do genuinely feel this happy and hopeful! The communal feelings exhibited in this special were of real relief and connectivity and celebration.
This feeling is also not unlike the feeling of sharing a so-called guilty pleasure with a friend. It’s not “cool” to enjoy, but you enjoy it anyway. For instance, I have never before been brave enough to admit that Katy Perry’s “Firework” has always made me cry. But watching her sing it while President Biden and Vice President Harris watched fireworks over the Washington Monument? I’m not ashamed to share that I was an absolute mess.
It’s also the kind of feeling you usually get from tradition. Like the meal your family always cooks on holidays, the card you send your best friend on her birthday every year, or when the Bidens spend Thanksgiving together on Nantucket. The inauguration ceremony, and, indeed, a president we can respect, is an important experience in American tradition we haven’t gotten in quite some time.
Sincere feelings were notably absent from the Trump administration, whose policies were defined by their cruelty and shameless mendacity. It feels only right, therefore, to fully indulge in sentimentality, no matter how melodramatic, with the advent of the Biden administration.
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