It’s the 2021 hype-up conundrum: How do you get people excited to party when you’re the people who have been explicitly telling them not to party and also no one can go party because it is a pandemic? The Biden Inaugural Committee’s kick-off celebration to the week of swearing-in events was, then, about as awkward and as confusing as you might expect.
A dogged effort to stage something uplifting and fun, Sunday night’s We the People concert and fundraiser (a small donation garnered Biden/Harris supporters access to the virtual event) was kind of silly, kind of sad, incredibly random, woefully low-energy, scrappy, admirable, and in the end, maybe actually sorta nice?
The lineup wasn’t just the normal hilariously eclectic bookings that telegraph “we know that the guest of honor has no idea who most of these people are but we were determined to hire at least one act to tick off every demographic to prove we’re inclusive” that these political events are notorious for.
Maybe it’s because the big guns are being reserved for Wednesday’s primetime inauguration concert or maybe they just couldn’t justify the effort to appear on a virtual livestream event lacking any of the spirit of a live concert, but We the People featured whiplash-inducing turns from A-list performer to, not quite Z-list, but maybe P-list? Q-list?
Keegan-Michael Key and Debra Messing, of the iconic “I’m for Joe” meme, served as co-hosts, and were perfectly cheery and happy to be there, so good for them. But even as they over-enthusiastically introduced the night’s lineup, it was tempting to snicker at its diminishing returns: “Cher!” “And Fall Out Boy!” “And [pause] Kal Penn…”
The president-elect and Dr. Jill Biden spoke, as did Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff. “Even though our inauguration traditions look a little different this year,” cautioned Biden, “we’re all still together across all of America.”
And so it’s perhaps required to enjoy these things for what they are in these extreme circumstances: the best anyone can do. You have to feel for that.
Between pandemic restrictions and continued threats of insurrection, it’s the worst time to try to trumpet excitement for a new administration, and they’re doing their damnedest to do what they’re able and what’s appropriate. It’s an impossible situation, like if someone gave you a few twenties, a keg of Busch Light, the keys to the party room at the Ponderosa Steakhouse, and said, “Turn this into a presidential event.”
There are many minds to be had about it. It’s exhausting that there’s always an insistence to do this sort of thing, days of celebrations and ultimately uninteresting concerts as part of some civic pomp and circumstance, and especially now when we’re in a pandemic. Yet it’s time to start feeling good about things—or at least believe it’s possible to one day feel good about things again.
To that end, it’s inspiring and nice to have the opportunity to gather with people who are excited to champion and support not just the new president-elect, but the promise of what the country could be under his leadership.
But then at the end of the day, how invigorated can you feel, sitting on your couch watching a glitchy livestream on your computer at 8 pm on a Sunday as Grace Adler and the guy who made out with Meryl Streep in The Prom are trying to gaslight you into thinking that Fall Out Boy’s upcoming performance is akin to watching Beyoncé close out Coachella?
Was the Inaugural Committee trying to elicit wistful memories of the Obama era with that seemingly-out-of-nowhere booking? Trying to reassociate Biden with times when Trump was but a blowhard reality-TV star, the only facemasks we saw were on the cast of Grey’s Anatomy on Thursday nights, and we were all going down, down in an earlier round, sugar, we’re going down swinging?
Until the oral history is released of how this event was cast—the first celebrity presenter was Michael Bivins, a former member of New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe...—we will have to be content with remaining politely confused about how the favorite rock band of my high school’s graduating Class of 2005 became a headliner. (Their performance of their 2014 single “Centuries” was… fine?)
There was no saving the awkwardness of everything.
A pop trio by the name of AJR, who were touted by Messing and Key for writing and producing songs from their own living room, performed “Bummerland,” as if the jokes weren’t already writing themselves.
Yes, they had booked Barbra Streisand, but for a voice-over only. She teased that she would be singing a song that she performed for three presidents, and was excited to make Biden the fourth, and then archival footage of her belting “Happy Days” at a concert years ago played. What was that about “Bummerland?”
Kal Penn joined to speak about the famous bagels from… New Jersey (?), and the similarities between the possibility America provides and being an actor. Will.i.am performed, which I can say with confidence that no one wanted.
Toward the end, we were blessed by the presence of Cher, who gave a delightfully rambling speech before lip-synching along to her ballad “I Hope You Find It” from different areas of her house, not too unlike a self-shot music video that 13-year-old me would make in my own living room lip-synching along to a Cher song.
The truth is, I think I was assigned this review to be snarky, which, admittedly, is easy to do, especially considering the random setlist and the dreariness of trying to pump people up over a Zoom video. Instead of applause, you have Deb and Keeg cooing and squealing about how good each performer was. There was no cheering or laughter, but there was that caustic glitch sound of video lags that we’re all so familiar with now.
But there was legitimately something pleasant, even uplifting, about it.
The first performer, for example, was Ben Harper, who sang the gorgeous song “With My Two Hands.” It has a beautiful, lilting cadence, with lyrics like: “I can make peace on Earth with my own two hands / I can clean up the earth with my own two hands / I can reach out to you with my own two hands.”
It’s a surreal message right now. It’s sorely needed, but can only be metaphorical. We can’t do anything with our own two hands—at least not without a bathtub of sanitizer and diligent COVID testing—but it’s appropriate messaging.
We’ve all received the loud-and-clear marching orders these last weeks that every single person who wants this current national nightmare to end is going to have to be active participants in digging ourselves out. That will only be possible if there is support: from the government, from the community. And it will only be possible if there’s empathy, a novel concept these days.
The ending chorus of the song changes the lyrics to “with our own two hands.” Maybe the inches of ice that have formed over my heart these last four years really is starting to thaw, because I found myself touched.
Carole King sat at a piano and performed “You’ve Got a Friend.” James Taylor strummed along as he crooned his own version of “America, the Beautiful.” There is no time in which watching either of those things isn’t the highlight of any day. They were lovely.
But just as we were being won over, the grand finale kicked in and made us exasperated all over again that we were even doing this. Just as they did following the remarkable, impressively produced Democratic National Convention—a triumph of ingenuity and democracy—this concert ended, inexplicably, with a DJ.
This time it was DJ Cassidy instead of Diplo, but it was just as strange to be staring at a person in a YouTube-sized screen blasting dance music as if we’re all together in an arena ready to party, and not sitting in the same spot on the couch where we’ve been for the last 11 months, half-paying attention while scrolling through Twitter.
I don’t know what we ever want from these celebrity-meets-politics events that come around every four years, and I definitely don’t know what we want from them in a pandemic.
Perhaps we can just say it was the ultimate opening act for Wednesday’s big show, which will enlist Lady Gaga, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake, and the ultimate headliner: rescuing the United States of America from its current fiery hell. It didn’t matter if you missed it, but watching sure got you more excited for the main event.