Low-energy. That’s the only way to describe it. Donald Trump’s inauguration eve concert, also known as the Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration, finally happened and has now ceased happening, confiding itself to two and a half sullen hours Thursday afternoon at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Featured performers did indeed include country hooligan Toby Keith, butt-rock scowlers 3 Doors Down, and four disconcertingly chipper dudes who rhythmically whacked a piano’s innards whilst desecrating One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” Those guys are very popular on YouTube, allegedly. Let’s not find out.
It was grim, folks. There was an air of regret and confusion that was hard to source, even though this shindig had inspired weeks of joyously derisive internet content and was boycotted by virtually every popular musician or celebrity. If you hate Trump, this Pennsylvania Avenue freeze-out likely brings you great joy and schadenfreude-type satisfaction; if you’re pro-Trump, it probably just makes you hate all those snooty musicians and celebrities, and likewise hate those who would mock the brave and patriotic performers who did consent to attend and attempt to enliven this godforsaken thing.
Result: more polarization. Great. I flipped over to Fox News at one point — during the chorus to 3 Doors Down’s “Kryptonite,” to be precise — and it had the concert itself muted in tiny picture-in-picture, while a panel of commentators speculated as to how much derision this show would receive, exactly. “The left-wing mockery will be thicker than Michael Moore’s thighs,” some guy quipped. I flipped back to “Kryptonite.”
Let’s try to go high, here. Let us place before us an imaginary Condescension Jar, and throw in a couple bucks whenever we take too cheap of a shot.
These inauguration concerts are very weird, historically. The mood vacillates between triumphant, humiliating, and morose. George W. Bush very briefly and tastefully shook his bon-bon onstage with Ricky Martin back in 2001; at his own 1992 fête, Bill Clinton (and Hillary, too) nodded respectfully as a teary-eyed Michael Jackson dedicated “Gone Too Soon” to Ryan White, who’d become a flash point for the AIDS crisis after dying of the disease at 18 years old. The gold standard, naturally, will likely forever remain Barack Obama’s ludicrously star-studded We Are One blowout at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009, bookended by Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé, with roughly 6,000 heavy hitters squeezed in between.
Trump was, naturally, the biggest celebrity at his own celebratory event, and capably set the grim/confusing/discomfiting tone by making his entrance to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone.” Here is the first verse of that song:
The show was supposed to kick off at 4 p.m. and did not; the CNN talking-head pregame was not terribly enlightening. Four words: “Give him a chance.” Six words: “A distinctly Republican lineup of entertainers.” Ten words: “We just had to get him out of Trump Tower.” One word: “Humility.” A military band revved up at about 4:15, and did the national anthem shortly thereafter; a Mohawked gentleman named RaviDrums followed, standing and pounding on a wraparound drum kit, dressed in a black leather vest and a black peace sign T-shirt. Meanwhile, the JumboTrons reeled off the names of all the states, in alphabetical order. His drum solo climaxed around Wyoming. He showed up a few times thereafter; most stations muted the hell out of him.
And then, our first and, actually, last celebrity speaker, “esteemed Academy Award–winning actor Jon Voight.” Looking triumphant, naturally. “This is some day,” he began. And then he said this: “We have all been witness to a very grueling year and a half for the president-elect. We have been witness to a barrage of propaganda that left us all breathless with anticipation, not knowing if God could reverse all the negative lies against Mr. Trump, whose only desire was to make America great again.”
Jon threw it to soul legend Sam Moore, who had clarified to Rolling Stone that he agreed to this gig in the hope that he could lobby Trump to do something about royalty rates for musicians. Good luck to you, Sam. He did “America the Beautiful” with a small choir and very large suit lapels. (One dollar in the Condescension Jar.) The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps took over for a long medley; Trump’s Rolling Stones–abetted entrance followed.
“Different,” someone noted on CNN, with regard to “Heart of Stone.”
Next, the Frontmen of Country, a trio of established heartland hitmakers backed by a violinist with a man bun, with harmonies occasionally so wayward that they oughta rename themselves Rascal Sharps. (Five dollars.) Lonestar’s Richie McDonald delivered the shakiest performance of the night on, unfortunately, his best song, “I’m Already There,” which despite these events is still quite the jam.
Throughout all this, most channels split their screens between the musicians onstage and a fairly static shot of Trump in profile, slouching in his chair, deigning to smile and sing along only when the Frontmen of Country brought out Lee Greenwood and plowed through “God Bless the U.S.A.” Everyone stood as though it were the national anthem, which in fact it might be now. Trump rose and huddled with the guys afterward, at least appearing to be legitimately starstruck by Greenwood, as the crowd launched into a “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chant.
Time for 3 Doors Down, one of those wildly disrespected early-2000s rock bands that sold way more records and had way more hits than you think, which only brought them (and Trump) in for greater ridicule the first time their name came up in this highly polarized context. They looked younger than might be expected, given that their first (and best-selling) album came out in 2000; their touring rider probably requests hair dye by the barrel. (Ten dollars.) They kicked off with “The Broken”: “Stand up and take back your world today,” the chorus concluded. Very clean, very mopey. “When I’m Gone” is their best song, crunchy and grouchy; “Kryptonite” was the gnarliest fit for this particular occasion, and inspired the most common Twitter joke.
Elsewhere on the feed, this was the single most popular mid-show tweet, though this one deserved just as much love.
Twenty dollars in the Condescension Jar on that gentleman’s behalf. Bless him, though, for distracting us from the Piano Guys, the YouTube-famous One Direction cover artistés, who literally tried to start a crowd sing-along of “It’s gonna be OK” that nobody in the crowd was having any part of. Make of that what you will.
So, Toby Keith. This gets complicated. As country superstars go, he may legitimately have the best pure singing voice, bellowing and soulful, his touch at least occasionally far more thoughtful and nuanced than his fratboy-yutz persona might indicate. Toby is responsible for “Red Solo Cup,” one of the strangest and most relentlessly delightful country hits of the past decade; had he pulled it out for this occasion, he would’ve saved the day, if not quite the country.
Four of Keith’s top 10 songs on Spotify have “America” or “American” in the title, and he rattled off most of ’em here, from “American Soldier” (“Freedom don’t come free”) to “Made in America” (“He’s ain’t prejudiced / He’s just Made in America”). That one’s pretty good, actually. “Thanks to Barack Obama for your service,” Keith noted at one point, magnanimously, amid several boisterous shout-outs to the military. “And thanks to the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump.” His one non-America(n) song was the rowdy “Beer for My Horses,” which includes the following verse:
Notably, in the studio version, that verse is sung by Willie Nelson, who was most definitely nowhere in sight. And then Keith closed out with “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American),” his post-9/11 call for shock and awe: “We’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.” A profoundly ugly and nuance-free sentiment you might’ve hoped Keith, and our country at large, might’ve moved past. But it turns out that making America great again largely involved making it way angrier.
To close us out, we got Trump himself, the president-elect for only hours more. He gave a brief and blessedly vitriol-free speech, and yet: “We’re gonna build up our great military. We’re gonna build it up. We’re gonna strengthen our borders. We’re going to do things that haven’t been done for our country for many, many decades. It’s going to change. I promise you. It’s going to change.” Fireworks. “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And out.
My favorite performance at Obama’s inauguration concert wasn’t Beyoncé, or the Boss, or Shakira trilling “Higher Ground” alongside Stevie Wonder and Usher, or John Mellencamp doing “Pink Houses,” or U2, or Mary J. Blige. No, I’m sticking with Garth Brooks, who walks onstage crooning “American Pie,” backed by a gospel choir, radiating his alluringly bizarre energy, putting way too much emphasis on the die in “This’ll be the day that I die,” getting way too worked up long before he moves on to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout!” and starts flirting with ladies in the choir.
He concludes with his own “We Shall Be Free”: “When the last thing we notice is the color of skin / And the first thing we look for is the beauty within.” All told, it’s an incredibly disjointed sequence, held together by nothing but Brooks’s daffy exuberance and exemplifying America not so much at its most diverse, but at its most delightfully random. At one point the camera cuts to Obama, pleased if a little disoriented, his spotlight totally stolen by the conked-out kid behind him.
That’s the type of moment you wanted during this Trump thing, unexpected and bipartisan in its weirdo jubilation. Even if Obama’s election left you crestfallen, the sight of seemingly hundreds of megastars riling up seemingly millions of elated spectators at least gave the sense that someone was super-psyched about this. But not even Trump appeared to be enjoying himself, “God Bless the U.S.A.” throwdown excepted. What we got instead was dour and workmanlike, avoiding any outright pratfalls or provocations, but entirely failing to rouse or surprise. The haters will say it sucked. The haters of those haters will say, “No, you suck.” So much for a unifying gesture. Nothing to do but plunge your hand in the Condescension Jar, grab a fistful of bills, and go buy more beer for your horses, and also for you.