It goes without saying that Wednesday’s smooth, benignly star-studded inauguration for President Joe Biden was a startling change of pace for Washington – the stark, horrifying images of teargas and Maga rioters storming the nation’s Capitol two weeks ago replaced with masked celebrities, odes to American diversity, and earnest, if likely unreciprocated, calls for healing. Capping this secure (thanks to nearly 25,000 national guardsmen), surprisingly smooth event was the 90-minute celebrity extravaganza known as Celebrating America, a collection of musical performances, tributes to America’s essential workers, and nods to better days ahead that played like a technically competent, mostly seamless Zoom telethon for unity.
The special benefitted from perhaps the perfect choice as host: Tom Hanks, the beloved everyman actor and one of the few cultural figures on whom most Americans can agree (and also the celebrity whose coronavirus diagnosis on 11 March 2020 was, for many, the moment the direness of the pandemic really sank in). In front of the Lincoln Memorial, the actor most associated with bone-deep decency and ordinary heroism held together a staccato and still-surreal pandemic mix of socially distanced live footage and desktop webcam aesthetics.
The evening was ostensibly, in title and structure, intended to honor such Hanksian heroism on the national stage; the zippy 90 minutes was delineated by category of American hero – those who, as title cards spelled out, “feed us” (food pantry workers, farmers), care for us (nurses and medical professionals), teach us (teachers), supply us (delivery workers), among others – represented by single private citizens from around the country.
Ordinary heroism quickly bowed to celebrity culture, however, as each hero introduced musical performances, some live and some pre-taped, that cut across generation and genre: Bruce Springsteen, a cringeworthy rendition of Here Comes the Sun by Bon Jovi in Miami, the Foo Fighters coming for your throat with hope for the future, Justin Timberlake doing his Memphis thing with Better alongside Ant Clemons, Katy Perry closing the evening with Firework to some admittedly impressive fireworks over DC. The more successful performances leaned into the heady emotions of the day: anticipation (John Legend’s beautiful take on Feelin’ Good), grief (Yolanda Adams’s performance of Hallelujah, soundtracking a recap of nationwide memorials to the 400,000 Americans now lost to the coronavirus), joyful silliness (Broadway singers hamming it up in a virtual collaboration with the energy of your cousin jumping into the Zoom call two mimosas deep).
Still, the cumulative effect of several bland to outright cringingly hollow performances (specifically, Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard’s duet on the colorblind country dud Undivided) gave the evening the feel of a come-down from a previous high. Celebrity tributes to American resilience from Eva Longoria and Lin-Manuel Miranda, brief addresses from Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris that hit all the requisite notes, and an almost endearingly awkward riff on peaceful transfers of power from Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama (standing 6ft apart) peppered the evening with gestures of lost stability and hope. But Celebrating America felt less like a party than a denouement from the day’s earlier celebrations, especially the youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s unassailable performance – a parade of good intentions back to the ordinariness of performing American optimism, albeit with social distancing protocols and celebrity webcams.
But if I come across as a grouch about this show, it’s only because I’m thrilled to have a bar for national celebrations and observance of presidential power that is not below the ground. After four years of a presidency that ignored basic science, elevated white supremacy and plunged the turbo-charged news cycle to ridiculous depths of stupidity, to suffer blandness feels like a blessing. To begrudge a little corniness, celebrity, or a slightly awkward performance? A luxury. The stakes in Celebrating America felt soothingly low, at worst annoying, sometimes silly, never sinister – not perfect, but beyond welcome.