That Bruce Springsteen knows a lot of things. Among them: Patriotism is complicated.
That seemed to be what the Boss was telling us Tuesday night when he transformed “Born in the U.S.A.” into a neo-blues ballad that highlighted its lyrics, eloquently proving that being anti-war and pro-veteran aren’t mutually exclusive.
The song served as the moral anchor of the evening’s Concert for Valor on the Mall — a sleek, genre-jumping Veterans Day revue to honor American military families. Featuring Springsteen, Rihanna, Eminem and others, it was the biggest gathering of musical star power on the Mall since President Obama’s 2009 inauguration concert, drawing tens of thousands of fans as many more watched the live telecast at home.
The bill leaned toward rock but included dashes of country, R&B and hip-hop. That means Metallica fans had to head-bang alongside Rihanna fans, who had to sway alongside Carrie Underwood fans.
For a pop concert, that’s about as American as it gets.
And for the evening’s various hosts — including Jamie Foxx, Meryl Streep, John Oliver, George Lopez, Jack Black and Bryan Cranston — staying on message was easy. This was a concert designed to raise awareness of the difficulties that veterans face while making the transition to civilian life, and they urged viewers to volunteer their money and their time.
But the musicians up there had a much trickier job: How to balance reverence and uplift, salutation and celebration?
Zac Brown Band had a surprisingly nifty answer with “Chicken Fried,” a casually patriotic country ditty that felt more casual and patriotic than usual. Moments later, Brown was joined by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl and Springsteen for a serrated cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” (It was almost as fiery as John Fogerty’s rendition last week on the White House lawn.)
Grohl’s preceding solo set was a smidge more nuanced. “We got a lotta heroes here tonight, so we’re gonna sing for them,” he announced during an earnest and unplugged sing-along of “My Hero.”
Then there was the very plugged: Metallica easily delivered the night’s boldest and most bruising music. The pioneering heavy-metal quartet are particularly beloved by this generation of veterans, as evidenced by the many Metallica T-shirts in the crowd — men and women in a different uniform.
Others failed to tailor their performances to the event in any meaningful way, which meant that the Black Keys’ blues rock rang hollow, Jessie J’s candy pop felt flavorless, and Rihanna’s emotive ballads mysteriously evaporated into the autumn air.
But Eminem’s headlining set was the evening’s only egregious misstep, considering that it came less than 24 hours after he released a song in which he boasts that he will punch pop singer Lana Del Rey “in the face twice like Ray Rice.” Bad taste, bad timing, a bad booking — and, while we’re at it, he’s the most overrated rapper of all time.
His petulant rhymes weren’t the last sounds to jump from the speakers. The concert ended with that “Bwomm” sound that follows the credits of every HBO program.
But out on the crowded Mall, it never felt like a made-for-TV gathering. Veterans and their families spent three loud hours laughing, crying, cheering, dancing. This was no TV show. It was life.