January 21, 2021 12:10 AM EST

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. 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!

Even if you disagreed, was this—an inauguration that MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt described as being marked by “radical normalcy”—not the quintessential expression of a campaign premised on neither a cult of personality nor a vision for sweeping systemic change, but on getting America back to normal? Donald Trump’s presidency was, after all, defined for those who never bought into the MAGA agenda as a four-year battle against the so-called normalization of policies and behaviors that had previously been considered beyond the pale for a U.S. President. And an emphasis on embracing what is normal for the country and rejecting what isn’t has long been a preoccupation of the executive branch. (It’s probably no coincidence that Warren G. Harding popularized the word normalcy, whose sibilance gives it a softer sound than normality, during the post-World War I election of 1920, when he championed “normal times and a return to normalcy.”) If only the spectacle this inaugural programming made of normalcy felt more like an effective, or even convincing, message to send a nation still threatened by domestic terrorists, struggling amid mass unemployment and dying of COVID-19 by the hundreds of thousands.

Read more: Photographs From the Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

In fairness, there was plenty to praise in Biden’s presentation of a new American normal liberated from the narcissistic whims of a single reactionary, attention-gobbling white guy. Women and people of color—but particularly women of color—played prominent roles in the ceremony, with Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga performing patriotic anthems alongside Garth Brooks, Amy Klobuchar acting as the inauguration’s emcee and the President’s longtime friend Rev. Silvester Beaman, of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, delivering the benediction. Biden spent more time acknowledging the historic nature of Harris’ vice presidency than he did talking up his own achievement. By far the most memorable words of the day came from Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old poet whose new work “The Hill We Climb” captured the anxious, ambivalent spirit of this transitional moment. “Somehow,” Gorman declaimed, “we’ve weathered and witnessed/ A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman delivered a stirring performance during Biden's inauguration
Getty Images—2021 Getty Images

In the days leading up to the Inauguration, the Biden-Harris team had live-streamed a series of themed programs that interspersed speeches from politicians, scholars and activists with appearances and musical performances by an extensive cast of Democrat-friendly celebrities. To their credit, the organizers made room for some substance, hosting a celebration of public service tied to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that featured members of King’s family. The COVID memorial service broadcast on Tuesday from the National Mall underscored how very abnormal it was that the Trump administration’s pandemic denialism had until then denied us the catharsis of collective mourning. A performance of “Amazing Grace” by Michigan nurse Lori Key, in particular, broke through the political pageantry in a moving amplification of our grief.

But the fluffiest, most star-studded spectacles felt equally representative of the Biden camp’s message to America. (Is anything more normal than the mutual-admiration society of Democrats and celebrities?) The mood of Sunday’s “We Are One” concert was downright giddy, with hosts Keegan-Michael Key and Debra Messing cooing over divas like Cher and Barbra Streisand as well as younger acts ranging from Dem standby will.i.am to Fall Out Boy, whose bassist Pete Wentz had a personal connection to Biden. Carole King dispensed aural Xanax in the form of “You’ve Got a Friend.” A performance of “America the Beautiful” by James Taylor, who strummed his acoustic guitar in what looked to be a log cabin, was all-American liberal kitsch.

Read more: Inauguration Musical Performances Are Tricky. But Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks Did Exactly What We Needed Them to Do

The soothing semi-tedium persisted in a prime-time telecast Wednesday night. If women predominated at the inauguration itself, then the aftershow set a more paternal (though thankfully not quite paternalistic) tone. Staged at the Lincoln Memorial, with Tom Hanks—cinema’s avatar for common decency, the Joe Biden of Hollywood—hosting, the concert featured an opening performance by Bruce Springsteen. The 90-minute festival of normalcy peaked with a video of former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton chatting about the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another, as though every political schism short of sedition could be chalked up to small differences of opinion among friends. They might as well have been soon-to-be-divorced parents assuring their children: “Republicans and Democrats may say some ugly words to each other, but they will always love you, American democracy. Don’t you ever worry about that ever again.”

Former presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush chit-chat about the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power
Biden Inaugural Committee via Ge—2021 Biden Inaugural Committee

While it’s true that we could sorely use some gentleness amid so much misery, rejoicing over a return to politics as usual feels premature at best. “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy,” Biden declared in his address. Yet all around him, extreme security measures enacted in the wake of the Jan. 6 uprising had closed off much of Washington, D.C.—a majority-minority city recently under siege by white supremacists. A fence topped with razor wire, which was visible in footage of the inauguration despite the cameras’ focus on a smattering of masked dignitaries, surrounded the Capitol. The military presence was enormous. Yes, Biden acknowledges both the catastrophic death toll of the pandemic and the urgency of the work that awaits him in expediting America’s return to pre-COVID normalcy. Yet even as the new President, VP and their many surrogates warned us, vaguely but repeatedly, that this year’s remote or socially distanced festivities would be “a little different,” comforting words like unity and its cousin community, healing, celebration and variations on the phrase restoring the soul of America suffused dozens of speeches between Jan. 16 and 20.

Even if normal were possible at this time, would it be some grand ideal for us all to aspire to? So many fundamental injustices predated Trump; some, like white supremacy, predated the first President of the United States. Democrats haven’t always been on the right side of history, either. And it’s not just the guys in MAGA hats and QAnon T-shirts for whom “back to normal” might not sound so enticing. (In a choice that was perhaps symbolic of conversations the Biden administration isn’t ready to have, New Radicals’ much-anticipated performance of their 1998 hit “You Get What You Give,” as part of Tuesday’s virtual Parade Across America, omitted a section containing the lyrics: “Health insurance, rip off, lying/FDA, big bankers buying.”)

It is crucial for a leader to telegraph empathy and humility—and for a white man in power to understand that the privilege he enjoys constitutes an obligation to the hundreds of millions who have less of it. A President who knows he’s not the messiah should also realize that all-star concerts are not a panacea, that redemption requires more than regime change. Before Americans can join hands (or bump elbows) around some proverbial campfire of unity, we have to do the work of scaling the mountain. We can’t just fetishize normalcy. We have to achieve a version of it that feels precisely as comforting in every home as it looks on the TV screen.

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