The Audacity of ‘Dreams’: Biden’s Inauguration Week and the Triumph of American Musical Weirdness

It really did all come down to that Fleetwood Mac TikTok video, didn’t it? There it was, right in the middle of an inauguration week that was emotionally messy and culturally turbulent on such historic levels: a montage of American idiots, from sea to shining sea, doing their thing to the bass line of “Dreams.” Idaho skater Nathan Apodaca was there, riding his board, sipping his cranberry juice, doing his viral TikTok-star turn, while Stevie Nicks sings about walking through the wreckage of her broken heart and moving on.

We all knew “Dreams” was coming. It would have been all wrong to leave it out of a national ritual like this in 2021. But as soon as it leaped out of President Joe Biden’s inaugural festivities — part of the Virtual Parade Across America — it was more than a golden oldie. It summed up everything that was going on, in a moment when America changed and we could feel it, and it was agonizing and also jubilant, like thunder bringing on the storm. Nicks didn’t lie: When the rain washes you clean, you know.

The whole inauguration week was one of the weirdest, heaviest American spectacles we’ll see in our lifetimes, a moment when the old ceremonies and rituals were forced to mean something new, and music was right there at the heart of it. As Biden and Kamala Harris took office, at a time of national crisis, pop music was not a soundtrack to the events, or a side attraction. Biden, a politician who’s never tried playing the hipness card, put the music at the center of each ritual, because he knew only music was up to the job. If it feels like a new day, that’s because it is, and America’s music is not just part of it, but leading the way.

Many of us were hooked on watching the whole pageant all week long, from the former president’s exit (Another damn “Y.M.C.A.”? Really?) to Lady Gaga belting her historic National Anthem, to Garth Brooks and J. Lo and Bruce Springsteen and Nile Rodgers and Dave Grohl and the New Radicals. The entire Virtual Parade. (That mariachi band from Vegas! Cloggers from Carolina! The college marching band doing the Beatles’ “Come Together!”) It was a celebration of American music as the heartbeat of our communal life — not necessarily expressing our rage and grief and pain, or even weird new sensations like joy, but just the fact of public existence.

On Wednesday night, Lin-Manuel Miranda recited lines from the president’s favorite modern Irish poet. (And a moment, please, just to savor the ineluctable weirdness of those words.) Reciting “The Cure at Troy,” by the late great Seamus Heaney, Miranda’s voice linked up with Biden’s, proof he can bring out the theater kid in anyone. The poem warns, “History says, ‘Don’t hope/On this side of the grave.’” But it also describes a rare moment when “hope and history rhyme.” That was how this whole week felt — a moment when pop music made it all rhyme.

This week wasn’t about brilliant knockout performances — it was about getting on with the job and passing the mic. If Bernie Sanders can wear mittens made out of recycled bottles, if the New Radicals guy can finally admit he likes Hanson, if Jon Bon Jovi can celebrate U.S. democracy with a George Harrison song about hanging out with your best pal Eric Clapton without realizing he’s about to trash your marriage, if Jennifer Lopez can turn “Let’s Get Loud” into a Woody Guthrie song, if Gaga doing Anthem honors at a freaking inauguration doesn’t even compute as one of the week’s top thousand craziest concepts — that’s all a tribute to the triumphant weirdness of American music. Always remember us this way.

The former president, one Donald Trump, fled the White House barely noticed, boarding his getaway plane to the same disco hits he tried so absurdly to steal in his failed campaign. Yes, this clown is still trying to claim “Y.M.C.A.” as his theme song, and, no, it still doesn’t work, though he’s about to learn a lot more about where a down-and-out man can go when he’s short on his dough.

Biden’s music-themed arrival makes a glaring contrast with Trump, whose greatest hit was getting Scott Baio on the phone in time for his GOP convention. But for his 2017 inaugural festivities, the big stars were Toby Keith, Tony Orlando, the Lord of the Dance guy, and a special appearance by Nope, Not Even Scott Baio. No president has tried so miserably hard to master the power of pop music and failed so spectacularly. Jimmy Carter had his Allman Brothers, JFK his Sinatra, Obama his Beyoncé, but Trump couldn’t get even get into Meat Loaf’s Cracker Jack box.

Biden never tried to compete with Obama as a music fan — how could he? Obama’s the first president in history who annually drops his “cool stuff I got into this year” lists to let us know he has a favorite Waxahatchee song. Biden is different. Back in November, the night that the election was finally called, he and Harris watched the fireworks to an awesome loop of Eighties hits from Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” to Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams.” (Plus the 2012 Springsteen deep cut “We Take Care of Our Own.”)

But Biden made music central to the transition, which is a long tradition. It was exactly 20 years after George W. Bush’s takeover, which involved a fateful dip with Ricky Martin at the Lincoln Memorial. People forget how gung-ho Destiny’s Child were at the 2001 inaugural bash (“When I say George, you say Bush!”), and you know what? Let’s keep right on forgetting that.

Fall Out Boy kicked it off at the January 17th “We the People” concert, also starring Cher, Carole King, James Taylor, and Michael Bivins. (The oft-neglected Biv between Bell and DeVoe — never trust a big butt, a Republican budget, and/or a smile?) There was the African American-themed “We Are One” concert (the O’Jays), the Latino Inaugural (Rita Moreno, Emilio Estefan, Shaggy), the MLK Day “United We Serve” festivities.

But the main events were geared for Wednesday. Lady Gaga looked and sounded presidential, her voice full of the rockets’ red glare, making history like Aretha Franklin did. Garth Brooks remembered to remove his hat right in time for a daringly eccentric “Amazing Grace,” flexing into Chris Gaines mode for the high notes. J. Lo tricked up “This Land Is Your Land” with the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish — yet another peak for the finest year of her music career. After Biden’s deeply emotional and powerful speech, he stood with Dr. Jill Biden, Harris, and our first-ever second gentleman. They watched a fife-and-drum corps in redcoat drag play “Yankee Doodle,” a moment so opulently camp it’s hard not to suspect Gaga was involved. Watching the Secret Service guys pick up the three-corner hats and wigs they dropped behind them was a moment to treasure.

The Virtual Parade Across America was a hypnotic montage of local heroes across the map, from Hawaii to Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands to New Hampshire. We got Chinese American lion and dragon dancers, sassy seniors calling themselves the Red Hot Mamas, and a wheelchair basketball crew shooting hoops with Grant Hill and Chris Paul, who said, “Let’s get united, America!” DJ Cassidy hosted a Zoom singalong starring Earth, Wind, and Fire, doing “Sing a Song,” with Philip Bailey looking spiffy years after his “Easy Lover” days with Phil Collins. The god Nile Rodgers busted out his guitar to join Kathy Sledge (of Sister Sledge) for “We Are Family,” which hit deep indeed.

It was a week when the great performances seemed to come from the same zone as the terrible ones, with nobody really sweating the difference. At Wednesday night’s concert, Springsteen sang a soulful acoustic “Land of Hope and Dreams.” If you’ve listened to his excellent (and weirdly underrated) new album, Letter to You, you already know how painfully this guy misses live shows. Watching him leap at a chance to play, not even trying to hide how many times he’s rehearsed it in the mirror lately, was so poignant: one of those post-traumatic scenes where you re-experience a once-familiar sensation you’re not sure it’s safe to even recognize, much less act on.

Tyler Hubbard and Tim McGraw teamed up for the brand-new country anthem “Undivided.” I was digging “Undivided” even before I recognized Hubbard as the Florida Georgia Line guy. But it felt like he was looking America in the eye and saying, “Baby, you a song. This Constitution and Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it,” and who could argue? It made me like “Undivided” even more since one of my last real-life karaoke epiphanies — nearly a year ago — was a room full of my Rolling Stone colleagues screaming “Baby, you a song!” and believe you me, we all rolled our windows down and cruuuuuised.

Crazy me, I figured Jon Bon Jovi would do a Bon Jovi song, and I was in a mood for “Wild in the Streets,” though my bitchy side craved “You Give Love a Bad Name” (especially with his intro monologue from the Slippery When Wet tour). But instead, he did “Here Comes the Sun” on a Miami pier, and I’m not even going to claim I was mad at it. Dave Grohl gave a touching dedication to his teacher mom, then led the Foo Fighters through a bang-up bash at “Times Like These.” It was one of those occasional moments when Pat Smear triggers the feeling of “Yes, it actually is weird to be hearing from one of the Germs right about now.”

The Tom Hanks-hosted concert also had an evidently unscripted chat between three ex-presidents: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. They stood in Arlington Cemetary, waiting for Biden to get there and lay a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (Biden crossed himself when he did so, a typically unshowy reminder that he’s the first Catholic president since JFK.) The three exes shivered in their winter coats, awkwardly distanced, giving off a strange Beastie Boys vibe. Bush said as little as possible, rocking anxiously from side to side, well aware his transition into a harmlessly doddering elder statesdork is not going to happen in his lifetime.

Ant Clemons sang in Memphis’ Stax Museum, trying to act surprised when Justin Timberlake barged in unmasked, giving a new meaning to “dirty pop.” John Legend did the Nina Simone classic “Feeling Good.” The evening also had Demi Lovato, Luis Fonsi, Ozuna, Timberlake, Clemons, Yo-Yo Ma, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar reciting Lincoln’s Inaugural Address. It all ended with Katy Perry — four years past her Election Night 2016 gig at Hillary Clinton’s victory celebration, which didn’t happen. She sang “Firework” while the Bidens watched actual fireworks from their balcony — the least threatening explosions we’ve heard in a minute.

The country is a totally different place after 1/6, the January 6th Capitol Riot, and this week was just an early cultural experiment in how different it will be. Biden’s constant appeals to “unity” were refreshingly free of bipartisan bullshit — not even a conciliator like Biden would claim it’s time to woo the hearts and minds of Republicans, two weeks after their failed coup attempt in D.C. That was their Plan A; it cannot be pretended that serving the republic and its Constitution as the loyal opposition is their Plan B, C, or Z. If they were up to getting their house in order, they would have started by now. They’re not, they can’t, and the rest of us have work to do.

But a key theme of the week was that music is part of that work, not an escape or vacation from it. That’s why the glorious Bernie-chair meme became part of the celebration, with his unshakably grumpy fortitude for the  tough times ahead. (The best one I saw, via @pappademas: Bernie sitting next to the chestnuts cart on the cover of Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, with the caption: “I am once again asking you not to lose that number.”)

If the week had a music highlight, it would have to be the surprise reunion for the New Radicals, doing the 1998 hit “You Get What You Give”: a quintessential Nineties one-hit wonder that’s never vanished from the airwaves, or faded into the background. Gregg Alexander was not lip-synching, not hiding how he and his voice have changed, just putting on the old-school bucket hat and yelping, “I feel the music in youuuu!” He strained valiantly for his old high notes — “You’re tops! Give it to me now!” — knowing he wouldn’t reach but giving it a go anyway, with a dedication to the president’s late war-hero son, Beau Biden. He also left out the beatdown threats against Hanson (who were literally children at the time!), Beck, Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson, explaining to Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene that he really likes Hanson.

Since the New Radicals always proudly embraced their one-hit-wonder glory — it was a clever touch to break up before releasing their second single — the comeback was a touching surprise. And hearing Alexander wig out on the line “What’s real can’t diiiiie” blew out my tear ducts.” A case study in never recovering from the dreamer’s disease.

As Seamus Heaney’s favorite Irish poet William Butler Yeats said, writing about the endlessly fucked-over island where they were born (as were Biden’s and Obama’s ancestors), too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. (Typical Eighties kid, I first learned that line when Bananarama quoted it on one of their album covers.) So just feeling strange pangs of hope and joy and even pride — if that feels like a reason to celebrate this week, that’s because it is. Not a moment when the job is done, obviously — just a moment when the work can begin. The moments of relief, laughter, optimism, exhilaration? Those were real. Any grown-up could tell you how those moments end in tears, but could also tell you that without them, the work is harder to do, harder to even see. This was a week for the thunder to roll and the rain to cleanse. And when the rain washes us clean? We’ll know.