Biden’s soundtrack was best when it escaped the Ceremonial


By Jon Caramanica


It would be practically impossible to display a narrower or less imaginative take on American musical achievement than the performances that were offered around the last presidential inauguration, in 2017. The night before Donald Trump took office, the “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” told a story about a cloistered nation largely (and perhaps only) interested in tales about the heartland, told by white performers.


That meant the bar was low for the musical celebrations planned for the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Simply embracing pop music as it actually is — culturally and sonically diverse — would count as deeply progressive by comparison.


On that count, the day’s events — the performances during the swearing-in ceremony, the afternoon “Parade Across America” and the concluding event, the “Celebrate America” televised prime time concert — were a mixed success. Although the day’s various singers spanned generations and backgrounds, they largely emphasized tradition, focused on folk and classic soul, as if organizers were fearful of jolting the country too far into the present.


“Celebrate America” opened with Bruce Springsteen’s embracing his inheritance as American folk hero, and most of the show emphasized benign throwback soul, including performances from Demi Lovato, John Legend, Black Pumas, and the pairing of Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons. These were formally reverent affairs, even when the songs themselves were new — boomer-soother moments.


Occasionally, the affair leaned into pomp, sometimes to the point of parody, as with Katy Perry’s melodramatic “Firework” in front of, you know, actual fireworks. That said, the night’s overreaches didn’t hold a candle to the overtly theatrical performances during the morning ceremony: Lady Gaga’s potent and somewhat vocally rowdy national anthem, and Jennifer Lopez intercutting gleaming renditions of “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful” with a frisky and unexpected injection of her dance hit “Let’s Get Loud.”


There were obvious omissions. Conspicuously, there were no hip-hop performers, and some megastars who had publicly backed Biden — Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Cardi B — did not participate. The Biden celebration, like the Biden campaign, was durable and free of glitz.


Which made the moments where the ceremony broke free of the ceremonial — as when reggaeton star Ozuna bopped along while singing “Taki Taki,” looking thrilled — all the more appealing. Most of those moments came during the afternoon, a virtual gathering that had a winningly ragtag feel. The Las Vegas High School mariachi band was regal; there was some Fleetwood Mac-soundtracked skateboarding with TikTok sensation Doggface208; and New Radicals reunited after two-plus decades to sing “You Get What You Give,” a wry anti-capitalist anthem from a one-hit wonder act that proved that novelty can be durable, too.