There’s been a lot of grumbling about how Barack Obama’s inauguration has become a pop culture event, more an entertainment spectacle than a political transition. Some of this has manifest itself in the form of pretending that the tab for the event is unprecedentedly costly compared to previous inaugurals. (Eric Boehlert makes mincemeat of such claims at Media Matters.) Truth is, it’s no more extravagant or star-studded than previous swearing-ins, but the Obama team has certainly done a cannier job of turning it into a camera-ready, easily accessible spectacle. Again, no reason to complain about this after Reagan and W. spent two terms each practicing government-by-photo-op, though I predict more scrutiny on Obama than on past presidents to see whether he can back up the visuals with actual results. Meantime, the production values of the celebrity-sphere prevail for the moment, and why not? Americans love celebrities (which is why it was so foolish for the McCain campaign to attack Obama last summer for being one), and most seem to be proud (whether or not they voted for him) of the milestone his assumption of the presidency represents. So a little celebration is in order this week.
One thing I don’t recall from previous inaugurals is their own HBO concert special. The one from last night is available to all (not just premium cable subscribers), streaming online at HBO. One unforgettable moment: Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” including the radical populist lyrics left out when they teach it to you in school. I bet not even Seeger, in all his 89 years, after all the blacklisting and censorship, imagined that one day he’d be standing on the Lincoln Memorial steps, the site of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and singing the full “This Land Is Your Land” to America’s first black president. Watching that gave me shivers; see it below.