It began with a solitary Bruce Springsteen strumming "Land of Hope and Dreams" in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It ended with Katy Perry's ebullient "Firework" with massive pyrotechnics exploding behind her at the Washington Monument.
In between on "Celebrating America," Wednesday night's nationally televised inaugural special, Yo-Yo Ma offered "Amazing Grace" on cello, John Legend soared on "Feelin' Good" on grand piano and country stars Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard teamed up on "Undivided" against a Nashville skyline. Plus, there were short speeches by presidents, current and former, and a poem read by Lin-Manuel Miranda. And lots of salutes to everyday people.
Despite its title, the 90-minute show felt more aspirational than celebrative, something of a PSA for President Joe Biden's vision of America. The tone was surprisingly subdued, with host Tom Hanks tentatively delivering his lines at the chilly Lincoln Memorial.
The songs oozed optimism, whether it was Demi Lovato interpreting Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" in Los Angeles, Foo Fighters rocking "Times Like These" in Seattle or Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons duetting on the new "Better Days" in Memphis. Some performances were live, some recorded.
The emphasis was on hope and unity, themes sounded earlier on Wednesday at Biden's inauguration where the combination of Lady Gaga, Garth Brooks and Jennifer Lopez — with an eye-opening coming out by the national youth poet laureate — was a safe and savvy portrait of the new president's message. Gaga is the patron saint of misfits and misunderstoods. Brooks is the populist king of red states, white suburbia and blue collars. And J.Lo is a multicultural icon of glam, fitness and fun.
Gaga's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was both reverent and Gaga-esque at the same time. This was a star turn. A gold microphone to match her oversized brooch of a dove of peace. The "Hunger Games"-evoking poofy red dress and fitted navy jacket. The stratospheric Streisand notes. The Broadway-ish bravado. And those grand arm gestures.
For a taste of patriotism and diversity, Lopez, in an all-white Chanel outfit, mashed up "This Land Is Your Land" and "America the Beautiful" with the final line of the Pledge Allegiance in Spanish and then self-indulgently inserted the refrain of her 1999 hit "Let's Get Loud." After Biden's speech, Brooks, in bluejeans, cowboy boots and a sport coat, removed his black cowboy hat and essayed "Amazing Grace" a cappella, asking the masked crowd in person — and those at home — to sing along on the final chorus.
The most unforgettable moment of the Biden inauguration belonged to Amanda Gorman, the first national youth poet laureate, reciting her "The Hill We Climb." Equal parts poet Maya Angelou, rapper Common and preacher Jesse Jackson, the 22-year-old Black activist was poised, powerful and on point. She wants to run for president in 2036. Talk about aspirational.