The songs and titles weren’t subtle. From Nashville, Tyler Hubbard (a member of Florida Georgia Line) and Tim McGraw sang “Undivided,” which insists, “I’m tired of looking left or right/So I’m just looking up.” Jon Bon Jovi scratchily sang the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” with a band on a pier in Miami. Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons predicted “Better Days” with a band inside the Stax Museum in Memphis; then they joined a gospel choir singing on the street with a bluesy train whistle cutting through — a glimpse of a particular American locality.
Dozens of Broadway singers — including Chita Rivera, Laura Benanti, Vanessa Williams, Anthony Rapp, Betty Buckley, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Audra McDonald and Rosie Perez — contributed home-recorded vocals to a virtual medley of “Seasons of Love” (from “Rent”) and “Let the Sunshine In” (from “Hair”). John Legend revived Nina Simone’s arrangement of “Feeling Good,” declaring, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day.” And for the finale, Katy Perry sang her positive-thinking pep talk, “Firework,” before fireworks lit up the Washington skies.
During the inaugural events, there were multiple renditions of “Amazing Grace,” the English hymn that became a Black spiritual in the United States. It’s a song about finding redemption and salvation; it’s also a staple at funerals. Garth Brooks sang it at Mr. Biden’s swearing-in, inviting home audiences to sing along. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma played it (in a solo medley of hymns with “Goin’ Home” and “Simple Gifts”) on “Celebrating America.” And Lori Marie Key, a nurse from Michigan who sang the song at a hospital in a popular online video, sang it again devoutly and exultantly on Tuesday at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, in a ceremony recognizing the 400,000 U.S. deaths from Covid-19.
The newest and sultriest songs on the Biden inaugural stages weren’t sung in English. DJ Cassidy, who had performed at both of Mr. Obama’s inaugurations, brought his “Pass the Mic” video format to both the virtual parade and “Celebrating America,” presenting performers singing along to their recorded hits. During the virtual parade, he had members of Earth, Wind & Fire singing and playing “Sing a Song,” and Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge, along with the songwriter and producer Nile Rodgers and three remote choirs, performing “We Are Family” — declarations of solidarity.
Later, in prime time, he was joined by Puerto Rican hitmakers. Ozuna sang “Taki Taki”; Luis Fonsi delivered his global smash “Despacito.” Both songs are cheerful, amorous flirtations — lighthearted exceptions to all the sober declarations of purpose. But for the most part, the Biden inaugurals were soothingly wholesome, unhip and affirmative — family entertainment hoping to reunite a fractious American family.