All the president's stars: how pomp and pageantry has marked 200 years of US inaugurations

Music, celebrities and galas have always been part of the celebrations

epa03549171 US singer Jennifer Hudson finishes singing for the President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as they dance at the Inaugural Ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC,  USA, 21 January 2013. Obama was ceremonially sworn in for a second term as the 44th President of the United States in Washington, D.C. Obama defeated Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Election Day 06 November 2012 to be re-elected for a second term.  EPA/PETE MAROVICH *** Local Caption ***  03549171.jpg
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Even though it will be held online, President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration promises to be a giant presidential party.

Performing the national anthem for the swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday is Lady Gaga, while the headliners for the Celebrate America event, to be broadcast on US television and streamed on social media channels, reads like a festival promoters' dream, with every age group catered for.

For the millennials, you have the likes of Demi Lovato and Jennifer Lopez. The Noughties crowd should appreciate the pop sounds of Justin Timberlake and John Legend. Gig-goers from the 1980s, meanwhile, will be happy to hear flannel rock acts Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen wheel out the hits once again.

And if you fancy a bit of country twang, well, Stetson-hatted hero Garth Brooks will be on hand, too.

With the shindig hosted by Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, the epic affair serves as a nexus of pop culture. This is the Grammys meets the Oscars, streaming meets vinyl, and Born in the USA meets Born this Way.

When the line-up dropped last week, it didn't take long for Biden supporters to gloat about how their winner's event will eclipse President Donald Trump's celebrations in 2017.

On the surface, they do have a point.

The outgoing leader’s affair was renowned more for artists refusing to perform than the ones who signed on.

Eventually settling on a line-up with as much firepower as a Tiki torch, the concert featured the likes of rockers Three Doors Down, the US Marine Band and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

While it was staid and relatively dour, was Trump’s big day out an aberration and Biden’s star-studded extravaganza a return to normal celebrations?

The answer is a bit of both.

The early years

Historically speaking, US inaugural events range from the opulent to the solemn. Some were bombastic, while others more low-key to reflect the times and persona of the candidate.

Trump’s event, whether by design or last-minute manoeuvring, was more of a re-tread to previous generations of inaugurations where artists were never the main event.

While music and a dash of celebrity often underscored these affairs, it normally served as a respectful coda to proceedings.

Fresh from being crowned the first President of the United States in 1789, historians noted founding father George Washington dancing a minuet to an orchestra.

Inauguration performances, unlike campaign songs, also went on to celebrate the majesty of the state as opposed to the candidate.

This meant US military ensembles playing a large role in proceedings.

Take, for instance, the United States Marine Band. Created in 1798, they have played at nearly every ceremony since Thomas Jefferson's in 1801. They were also on stage to perform for Trump's inauguration.

It was President Franklin D Roosevelt (1933 - 1945) who was really the first to bring some glitz to the inauguration.

The night before swearing in for his second term in 1937, a swanky gala concert was held in Washington, DC's Constitution Hall, featuring pop stars of the day Ethel Barrymore, Irving Berlin and Raymond Massey.

Meanwhile, President Eisenhower’s celebration for his 1953 victory was a thorough reflection of the military man. The former general was content leading a parade of 62 bands and 26,000 participants, while shunning a series of related social events in the proceeding days.

JFK setting the bar

President John F Kennedy was the first to harness the power of the media.

While television was showing snippets of inaugurations from as far back as President Truman's in 1949, Kennedy’s 1961 iteration was the first to receive full coverage.

And he provided a soulful spectacle that mixed glamour and idealism. Poet Robert Frost recited The Gift Outright for the swearing-in ceremony, while the ensuing gala event featured performances by actors and singers Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Sidney Poitier.

For a while, future presidents found it hard to top that.

The proceeding three decades were largely made up of nondescript ceremonies and galas, some featuring many of the same names.

By the time Sinatra came on stage to perform at George H W Bush's big bash in 1989, he was viewed as the go-to guy for such affairs, now with three inauguration performances to his name.

Picking up the pace again, however, was President Clinton, with a 1993 ceremony and ball mixing art and entertainment.

In a stirring ceremony featuring a poetry reading from Maya Angelou and singer Bob Dylan performing at the Lincoln Memorial, the gala event was a more euphoric affair. It also featured a performance by Fleetwood Mac, who got back together for the occasion.

That quality was lacking again when it was George W Bush's turn in 2001, as his inauguration starred a largely forgettable line-up of Ricky Martin, Jessica Simpson and boy band 98 Degrees.

Barack Obama takes it to the next level

The fact no one really remembers that event any more is because President Obama ushered in a game-changing campaign fit for the historic occasion.

His first 2009 arrival was celebrated with the Super Bowl of inaugurations.

Aretha Franklin sang My Country during the ceremony, while nearby, an epic outdoor concert was held featuring Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, Jamie Foxx, Bruce Springsteen and appearances by actors Tom Hanks, Steve Carell and Samuel L Jackson.

Obama continued in that pop music direction for his second inauguration in 2013, with Beyonce returning to sing the national anthem, Katy Perry and Usher performing a show for military families, and an evening ball featuring an eclectic line-up including soul singers Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys, hip-hop crew The Far East Movement and grunge rockers Soundgarden.

With expectations raised, coupled with Trump’s divisive election campaign, it was no wonder his 2017 celebration fell flat.

It is now up to Biden to pick up the baton and make inaugurations great again.

EDITOR'S PICKS
MORE FROM THE NATIONAL