With or without last night's thunderclouds hovering over it, the Capitol is an imposing sight, probably enough to make any singer work that much harder to be a good citizen. Popular "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken, heartland sweethearts Vince Gill and Amy Grant and gospel singer Yolanda Adams could look out on hundreds of thousands of people crowding the rain-soaked West Lawn last night, and they probably had some idea of the 10 million viewers the "Capitol Fourth" concert typically draws each year on PBS. But surely the sight of the building itself, godhead of the American civic spirit, was the real muse to be reckoned with, demanding each performer to add that extra octave of civic duty to their remarkable vocal range.
Aiken, of course, was the main attraction and, judging from the girly screams and achingly desperate pleas that followed each of his introductions, a good headliner for the demographic coveted by the show's producers.
"I voted for him, and I don't vote for anybody," said perennial host Barry Bostwick backstage. "He didn't win, which shows you how much my vote counts."
Aiken opened the show by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," which instantly put the crowd in an awkward tizzy: There was a big flag on the Capitol, there was one on each of the giant TV screens on either side of the stage, a couple on top of the stage tent, and perhaps several thousand smaller ones in people's hands.
In many ways, it was Aiken's best performance of the evening. He sang the anthem beautifully and reverently, in the time-honored manner of an old civic prayer. And yet he also found a way to give the song a hip, vital shallowness that would normally be introduced by a spinning "American Idol" emblem, and he brought the ending home like a seasoned contestant.
But he sang "Measure of a Man," a title that's still as distracting as ever, without any spur-of-the-moment surprises. And although "God Bless the USA" brought the crowds and to its feet, he delivered the song like the vote-getter it is and not the moment of spiritual reflection it could become one day.
Indeed, the unattractive idea of vote-getting seemed to be the subtle complication of this year's "Capitol Fourth" celebration, so any song that tries to define America's values is fair game for interpretation by the right or the left. Grant, taking a break during Saturday's rehearsals, said the people can divide up in November; the Fourth is not the time.
"This is a unifying event and a time for celebration," she said. "There will be other times to analyze and question, but now is the time to be grateful for the high price for our freedom."
She and husband Gill sang a duet of "God Bless America" last night, and Adams gave a stirring rendition of "America" while photos of American soldiers stationed in the Middle East, showing good spirits and good-looking smiles, filled the giant TV screens.
"Even this salute to the troops can be interpreted either way," said Jerry Colbert, executive producer of the show, "depending on your viewpoint."
With so many musical moments up for partisan interpretation, it didn't take a cynic to recognize the show's most refreshing performance: a tribute to the disco era of the Bee Gees, featuring a performance by Robin Gibb.
With "Jive Talkin'," "How Deep Is Your Love?" and "Stayin' Alive," Gibb was the only performer whose songs were free of an inspirational agenda; they simply took people back to a good time in their lives. Another highlight of the evening was the National Symphony Orchestra's "Hollywood Blockbuster Medley," led by top-of-the-pops conductor Erich Kunzel. With movie clips accompanying the scores of "Ben-Hur" and "Star Wars" and songs including "Moon River" and "When You Wish Upon a Star," one thing came to mind while watching the crowds cheer for Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn and Mark Hamill -- if God and country fail to unite the people, bet on the movies.
But, as expected, the evening belonged to the late Ray Charles, whose tribute was introduced by actress Cicely Tyson. After Saturday's rehearsal, she was stopped in her tracks when she encountered Charles's vibrant 2000 "Capitol Fourth" performance of "America the Beautiful," which was being screened on the giant monitor.
"What I will miss most," she said afterward, "is his tremendous wit. I derive such great joy out of watching the way the music fought to leave his physical being, the way he flailed his arms and legs everywhere. That, to me, is irreplaceable."
"A Capitol Fourth" gave Charles both the sendoff and the homecoming he deserves; it was true elegance. As for Bostwick closing the night with "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and the evening's blaringly busy tribute to John Philip Sousa, they were good and loud, or at least loud.
"Well, I think it's a patriotic event," Colbert said. "We're trying to create something to unite the whole country, with all these different cultures and groups. We get thousands of e-mails and I read them all, and the people say they want fireworks, and they want Sousa marches, and they want patriotic songs. They're not looking for rap on the Fourth of July, and yet we are trying to appeal to different age groups."
Colbert paused for a moment. "You know, it's hard to unite America." Don't we know it.