Every four years, thousands throng to Washington for a whirl of Inauguration Day balls and concerts. But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to force most big-ticket national events to scale down, President Joe Biden’s inaugural committee decided to take the festivities to TV screens.
“Celebrating America,” a 90-minute special that aired across several networks Wednesday night, brought together a mix of A-list talent — Justin Timberlake, John Legend, Demi Lovato — and average Americans from all walks of life, including teachers and nurses on the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis.
The special, which moved swiftly (more or less) between genre-spanning live performances and recorded video segments, was as much a celebration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ ascent to the White House as it was a reflection of the new president’s political persona.
The musical selections frequently returned to themes of hope in the face of darkness and better days ahead. In an echo of Biden’s rhetoric about the pandemic, many of the featured songs emphasized the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s times like these you learn to love again,” Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl sang, later adding: “I’m a new day rising.” Broadway stars joined via videoconferencing for a performance of “Let the Sunshine In” from the musical “Hair.” Jon Bon Jovi covered The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”
Biden’s personal touch was especially evident in a brief segment about halfway through the event: “Hamilton” maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda recited “The Cure at Troy” by Biden’s favorite Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.
The entertainment spectacle was capped by a spectacular fireworks display that lit up the nation’s capital. Here’s a look at other key moments:
Springsteen sings in front of the Lincoln Memorial
Bruce Springsteen kicked off the special with a soulful rendition of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a track suffused with equal parts melancholy and optimism.
“Leave behind your sorrows / Let this day be the last / Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine / And all this darkness past,” Springsteen sang, strumming on his guitar and standing alone in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The lyrics were a fitting thematic setup for the night.
Springsteen, who publicly supported Biden’s presidential bid, narrated and provided the soundtrack for a 60-second campaign advertisement titled “Hometown,” which spotlighted Biden’s native Scranton, Pennsylvania. The commercial featured the song “My Hometown” from his album “Born in the U.S.A.”
“Land of Hope and Dreams,” written in 1999, has previously been used in other political contexts. John Kerry used the song as introductory music during his 2004 presidential campaign. President Barack Obama played the track after his farewell address in 2017.
Tom Hanks speaks to intense national divisions
Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks hosted the special, introducing guests and segments in a no-frills style. He formally started the night with some earnest thoughts about the social friction across the U.S., however.
“The last few weeks and the last few years, we’ve witnessed deep divisions and a troubling rancor in our land,” Hanks said, referring to the violence at the U.S. Capitol and, presumably, the Trump era as a whole. “But tonight we ponder the United States of America.
“The practice of our democracy, the foundations of our republic, the integrity of our Constitution, the hopes and dreams we all share for a more perfect union,” Hanks added.
Hanks and his wife, fellow actor Rita Wilson, were the first major Hollywood celebrities to announce that they had tested positive for Covid-19 in March.
Teen who spoke at DNC reads part of JFK speech
Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old boy who on the final night of the Democratic National Convention shared his story about how Biden helped him with his stutter, appeared in a video segment and read an excerpt from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.
Brayden, clad in a gingham bow tie and a dark suit jacket, was widely celebrated on Twitter, where political commentators praised him for his poise and bravery.
Biden, who has struggled with his stutter for many years, met Brayden in New Hampshire last year. He appeared during the DNC and urged viewers to vote for Biden — even though he is not old enough to register to vote.
Three former presidents come together
Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appeared in a recorded video to extol the virtues of American democracy and the peaceful transition of presidential power.
“The fact that the three of us are standing here talking about a peaceful transfer of power speaks to the institutional integrity of our country,” Bush said, implicitly nodding to Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the election and the riot at the Capitol he helped inspire.
Clinton called on people of all ideological stripes to unite in a spirit of cooperation: “It’s a new beginning. Everybody needs to get off their high horse and reach out to their friends and neighbors and try to make it possible.”
Obama offered a personal message to his former vice president: “Joe, I’m proud of you.”
Daniel Arkin is a reporter for NBC News.