An optimistic opening by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen kicked things off on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “I’m proud to be here in cold Washington, D.C., tonight,” the musician said — an accurate statement, as the temperatures were in the low 30s. “I want to offer this small prayer for our country.” He then launched into “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” and half an hour later, his Twitter account posted the most hopeful lyrics:
Host Tom Hanks
In a chaotic time, whom does America want to see? Well, there are probably a few answers, but actor Tom Hanks is one of the most obvious choices.
“For the last few weeks, and the last few years, we have witnessed deep divisions and a troubling rancor in our land. 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 hope and dreams we all share for a more perfect union,” he said at the top of the show, before beginning a segment in which NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, labor leader Dolores Huerta, Miami Marlins General Manager Kim Ng and student Brayden Harrington (a teenager who bonded with Biden over his stutter) read passages from past inaugural addresses.
President Biden’s speech
Biden spoke at the Lincoln Memorial, and he made another call for unity. “There are moments in our history when more is asked of us as Americans. We saw that in the Civil War. We saw that with Dr. King dreaming from these steps across the Mall. We are in one of those moments now,” he said. “The pandemic, economic crisis, racial injustice, a climate crisis and threats to our very democracy. And the question is: Are we up to it? Will we meet the moment like our forebears have? I believe we must, and I believe we will. You, the American people, are the reason why I’ve never been more optimistic about America than I am this very day.”
Vice President Harris’s speech
Harris spoke about similar ideas as she delivered a brief address about her hope for the country. “A great experiment takes great determination. The will to do the work, and then the wisdom to keep refining, keep tinkering, keep perfecting. The same determination is being realized in America today,” she said. “I see it in the scientists who are transforming the future. I see it in the parents who are nurturing generations to come. In the innovators and the educators. In everyone, everywhere who is building a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. This, too, is American aspiration.”
A very adorable baby
Biden and first lady Jill Biden, who had returned to the White House, were filmed watching more of the special — and in one scene that lit up Twitter, Biden held his baby grandson, Beau, in his arms as they took in Demi Lovato’s remote performance from Los Angeles, where she belted out a cover of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day.”
More cover songs
Lovato wasn’t the only one to go with a famed song by another artist: John Legend sat at a piano near the Lincoln Memorial as he performed “Feeling Good" (made popular by Nina Simone, written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse) while Jon Bon Jovi covered the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” from a very serene-looking location in Miami.
Clearly, a major theme of the special was “optimism,” and the Foo Fighters pulled through with “Times Like These.” Justin Timberlake and Ant Clemons sang their duet, “Better Days,” while country stars Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line gave a debut performance of their new collaboration “Undivided.” A group of Broadway actors — including Javier Muñoz and Leslie Uggams — delivered a virtual rendition of “Seasons of Love” from “Rent,” singing from different locations.
Even more celebrities
The show also featured plenty of tributes to everyday Americans: front-line workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, grocery store clerks and many more. Multiple stars from all over the country introduced segments and performances, including actresses Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria Bastón, actor-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and chef José Andrés.
Three past presidents, reunited
Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton got together to hang out and talk about how inaugurations have represented a peaceful transition of power for more than two centuries. (Everyone steadfastly ignored the Donald Trump factor.)
“I think 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 in a joint video from Arlington National Cemetery.
Clinton added that the country is “trying to come back to normalcy, deal with totally abnormal challenges, and do what we do best, which is try to make a more perfect union.”
“We’ve got to not just listen to folks we agree with, but listen to folks we don’t,” Obama said. “And one of my fondest memories of the inauguration was the grace and generosity that President Bush showed me and Laura Bush showed Michelle, and it was a reminder that we can have fierce disagreements and yet recognize each other’s common humanity. And that as Americans, we have more in common than what separates us.”
A firework-filled finale
Katy Perry closed out the night with a rendition of her hit “Firework,” which was taken very literally. It was accompanied by a truly astonishing number of fireworks that lit up the D.C. sky. Seriously, it may have set a record for the number of fireworks released at one time. (And if it wasn’t, it sounded like it.)