Most of us experienced Joe Biden and Kamala Harris's oath virtually today, as we have with every other milestone of the last 10 months. With performances from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Garth Brooks, and HBCU marching bands, the inauguration programming reaffirms that music not only soundtracks our lives, it can be used to quiet discomfort, too. Even so, a strong message of unity from the incoming president and performances that represented a new beginning couldn't shake us of the trauma of the last four years.
Lady Gaga is no stranger to singing the national anthem at major public events, as she did at 2016's Super Bowl. Trading in her meat dress for a billowing gown on this bright, cold January day, she seemed nervous, yet prepared, for what it would mean to be the voice of this particular moment.
"Singing our National Anthem for the American People is my honor," she wrote on Twitter. "I will sing during a ceremony, a transition, a moment of change—between POTUS 45 and 46. For me, this has great meaning. My intention is to acknowledge our past, be healing for our present, and passionate for a future where we work together lovingly. I will sing to the hearts of all people who live on this land."
Gaga's remarks echoed Jennifer Lopez's performance of "This Land Is Your Land," a rendition that gave us a glimpse of Lopez as a singer first, rather than a dancer. And while the performance was drastically different than when she headlined last year's Super Bowl (which prompted over 1,300 complaints to the FCC), her message of inclusion couldn't be more similar. Although conservatives condemned the halftime performance for being too sexy, it was also a tribute to the Dreamers and immigrants who have been vilified during, and leading up to, the Trump administration.
Having one of the most visible Latinx singers in the country sing "This land is your land, this land is my land," doesn't just send a message about Lopez's politics, but also reiterates Biden's intention to revamp immigration laws as a part of his first roll out of executive orders. For a second, Lopez took us back to 1999 with On the 6's "Let's Get Loud," which seemed a little random until you realize that is also a nod to her halftime show where she fused the song with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." It was moments like this, along with her speaking briefly in Spanish, that show that in 2021, every American's identity deserves to be on display and that the definition of Americana still requires updating.
Even Harris walking out to Howard University's "Showtime" Marching Band, the drumline of her alma mater, was a very pointed decision. Beyoncé highlighted the band culture of historically black colleges and universities for her historic performance at Coachella in 2019, but today's inclusion of the Howard band goes deeper than its ability to revamp popular music. Black marching bands have military roots that date back to the discrimination of Black Americans in combat and as citizens. "A marching band—with its elaborate costumery, raucous noise, and pageantry—is the exact opposite: it's about being seen and heard," wrote Diana Budds for Curbed. "But in Jim Crow-era America, marching bands enabled African-Americans to gather in large groups and occupy space."
Today felt unlike other historic performances, like Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl, for one glaring reason: there were no spectators. While music has the supernatural ability to provide escapism, we're still living in the jarring reality of a pandemic and in the shambles of the Trump presidency. As enjoyable and deliberate as these performances were, it's too early to tell how they'll age when we look back at this moment. It's hard to sell a dream of unity when a pandemic and domestic terrorism has stripped us from experiencing the joy of optimism and hope in full. For some of us, the music served as a release to all of the emotions we'd been holding in for months, maybe years. For others, the grotesque parts of the Trump administration, like xenophobia, and racism, have always been there. A Trump presidency reminded us all that beliefs breed symbolism, and for four years a red hat with white text spoke a thousand words. It was confirmation of America's moral compass and there's no musical performance that can erase centuries of division.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.