"Joseph R. Biden Jr. was not necessarily the star of the ceremony that marked his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States of America, but that was probably by design," Judy Berman says of the 90-minute special last night that aired on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and other outlets. "In an address delivered at the Capitol—an edifice that gained new symbolic importance after the far-right insurrection of Jan. 6—that aired on every major network and cable news channel, as well as on various streaming platforms and social media sites, Biden did not talk much about himself. His emphasis was on this nation as a collective. When he said 'we,' as he did dozens of times, he meant not just his administration or his Party or his voters but all 331 million or so Americans. Although the new President had plenty of reasons to be furious at all his predecessor and that leader’s enablers had wrought, there was no trace of anger in his speech. In place of the 'American carnage' that was so jarringly invoked in 2017, Biden offered his own inaugural theme: 'America United.' It was, as television at least, a little bit dull. ('Bored Flags Already Filtering Out of Inauguration Halfway Through Biden Speech,' the Onion proclaimed.) But hey, maybe an address that had us checking our watches every other minute was the perfect way to shake off the curse of living in interesting times. By the end of Biden’s remarks, one sentiment had become so common on Twitter that it almost qualified as a meme: what a relief to be bored by the President!"
As an entertainment show, Celebrating America kept its aesthetic, like its politics, basic and broad: "The roster of stars wasn’t exactly apolitical: the fact that Mr. Trump was never able to assemble a Hollywood roster like this was no accident," says James Poniewozik. "But the cast and the art was aggressively normie and mainstream, and the performances stuck to a theme: hope in a dark time...The subtext of Celebrating America was inevitably political: politics gets countries into big problems, and public action is often the only way out of them. (In pandemic America, even having members of a country band wear face masks on stage inevitably and sadly feels like a political statement.) But the content was more the entertainment-politics equivalent of a chain restaurant with a big menu: it wasn’t going to be anyone’s favorite, but everyone could find something on the menu for them. And what the country was hungriest for right now, Celebrating America guessed, was to believe, with Jon Bon Jovi, that the long, cold, lonely winter would end, and the sun would come."
Celebrating America perfectly encapsulated Joe Biden: "Depending on who you are and where you’re coming from, your mileage will almost certainly vary," says Caroline Framke. "If you’re a stalwart Biden supporter, this special might have been the equivalent of a sigh of relief. If you’re a disappointed Republican, you might have watched this event purporting to unite the country and wondered why the only Republicans represented were George W. Bush, in an awkward scene in which former presidents advocated for common sense, and the words of Ronald Reagan, bizarrely framed as inspirational for all Americans who would consider themselves patriotic. And if you’re someone who just wanted to see Bruce Springsteen perform an acoustic set on the Lincoln Memorial steps, well, you were in luck. For me, though, the most compelling moments of Celebrating America were the ones that didn’t celebrate America so much as try to eulogize the most recent version of it. The Springsteen performance that opened the night presented an immediately striking, restrained image of a man paying solemn tribute to a 'land of hope and glory' he hoped might still be possible."
Celebrating America was so cheesy and healing: "By the time Katy Perry in Evita drag performed 'Firework' as the camera caught the Bidens gazing out from their White House balcony at the most aggressive pyrotechnics display I have ever seen, you’d rank as the most cold-hearted among us to not have gotten goosebumps or, more likely, shed a tear," says Kevin Fallon. "It’s surprising how quickly something so seemingly cheesy can sneak up and affect you. As much as the special was about entertainment, it was symbolic. Artists like the president again. Celebrities participating in concerts act like they are saving the world. Nature is healing."
Celebrating America was just another Joe Biden ad: "On his Inauguration Day, President Biden was able to wedge in one last campaign ad," says Johnny Oleksinski. "In place of the usual inaugural ball coverage — you know, a nice ballad from Beyoncé while the president and first lady slow dance — we got a celeb-stuffed, sober concert called Celebrating America that aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and MSNBC in primetime. Hoping that Rachel Maddow would sing 'You’re A Grand Old Flag' while twirling flaming batons, I was disappointed by the less exciting, but just as transparent 90-minute program. The evening was little more than a self-righteous PR opportunity for the new administration."