Last night I watched two Fourth of July tribute programs, one on PBS — the 35th anniversary of the annual A Capitol Fourth concert on the National Mall in front of the Capitol — and one on NBC, which fused a huge fireworks display on Hunters’ Point with musical performances beamed in from all over the country (including one with Brad Paisley going on at the SleepTrain arena in San Diego). Though the PBS show was an hour and a half without commercials, and the NBC show an hour with commercials (all front-loaded into the first half of the program so they could do the big fireworks display without interruption — which meant that they had to end each musical segment so quickly they couldn’t hold on to the artists until they finished their songs; as they were winding down we got a voice-over, a quick fade-out and then the commercials!), the shows were probably more alike than they were different. The PBS program features the National Symphony Orchestra — that’s what the D.C. symphony is called instead of the “Washington Philharmonic” or some such — conducted by Jack Everly, who took over as their light-music conductor after the concerts’ founder, Erich Kunzel, died — and the musical guests were a veritable who’s-who of the over-the-hill brigade: Barry Manilow, K. C. and the Sunshine Band (though the rest of the Sunshiners looked so young I was sure K. C. himself — a middle-aged man hunched over an electronic keyboard as he chanted the words to “Shake Your Booty” and the band’s other ultra-sophisticated, lyrically complex hits — was the only original member) and Alabama.
There were some younger performers there, including Hunter Hayes (who did a good job on the 2014 Grammy Awards with an anti-bullying song called “Invisible” — this was the same Grammy show that featured Macklemore and Lewis doing a rap song for marriage equality and a mass wedding of same-sex couples just to make sure we got the point that the record business “cares” — and who, whatever his real-life sexual orientation, certainly looks Gay, or at least the sort of boyish “twink” all too many Gay men my age make fools of themselves for drooling over) doing a song called “21” that was nice enough but hardly in the same league as “Invisible.” Also among the younger set were Meghan Lindsay, a blonde white girl who took on Aretha Franklin’s early-1980’s hit “Freeway of Love” — she did O.K. but nowhere near Aretha’s league (and note she was savvy enough not to take on “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Chain of Fools” or “A Natural Woman”!); Nicole Sherzan, who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “If I Loved You,” Robert Davi — who presented his act as a tribute to Frank Sinatra and everything went well enough until he opened his mouth and did a hatchet job on “Theme from New York, New York” — I rather grimly joked this is what Sinatra would sound like now if he were still alive — and a man named Dr. Ronan Tynan, a high-pitched tenor who was apparently inspired by the 9/11 attacks to become an emergency room surgeon as well as to pursue a singing career as an avocation: his voice is odd and not at all “good” in the usual sense, but it’s hauntingly moving and given his backstory, the song’s rarely heard verse (about the “storm clouds raging” overseas both in 1939, when Irving Berlin wrote it, and today) sounded especially moving. Also on the program was superstar classical pianist Lang Lang (or “Bang Bang,” as one American Record Guide critic almost inevitably called him), doing a wretchedly truncated version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that seemed to have been chopped up in a meat grinder. It’s true, as Leonard Bernstein once said, that Rhapsody in Blue is so sloppily structured a composition that you can take out just about any piece of it and not affect it much except to make it shorter, but the edits were infuriating — especially since the performance was compelling enough (with Everly playing the original jazz-band orchestration instead of the later symphonic one, but at the same time playing it more slowly and lyrically than Paul Whiteman did) I’d have wanted to hear it complete.
The worst parts of the show were Manilow’s God-awfully pretentious medleys — he had two spots on the show and in both he combined a traditional patriotic song with a ridiculous, overblown piece of pseudo-patriotic cheese of his own that was so repulsive as to be virtually unlistenable (Manilow’s constructive contribution to music began and ended with his musical directorship of the first Bette Midler album; his own stuff was devastatingly parodied by Ray Stevens in his song, “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow” — “No one knows how to suffer quite like you,” Stevens sang in perfect imitation of the Manilow bathos)— and the best was a surprise: Everly conducting the National Symphony in Richard Rodgers’ “The Carousel Waltz.” Though the best version of this ever is by Alfred Newman on the soundtrack to the 1956 movie of Carousel — other conductors, including Kevyn Littau on the original-cast album from 1945 and Rodgers himself, just plodded through it but Newman gave it a manic intensity that fitted the musical’s plot, and though Everly didn’t make it sound quite as demented as Newman did, he came awfully close. The concert ended as it always does — with a fireworks display above the Washington Monument and the orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (in a version similarly truncated to the Rhapsody in Blue, though somehow that bothers me less, and with a chorus and a bunch of cannons all going off during the final pages) and a medley of marches, including George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band” as well as “Stars and Stripes Forever” and other bits off the Sousa log. The NBC program was a bit different — it featured only five musical guests, and aside from Gloria Estefan (who sang a new song called “America” during the big medley over which they set off their fireworks display), all of them were current hitmakers in the country-pop vein: Dierks Bentley (who led off with his current hit, “Drunk on a Plane” — I couldn’t help but joke, “Nothing says the Fourth of July more than a song about getting plastered in mid-air because your girlfriend just jilted you”), Kelly Clarkson (doing something called “The Heartbeat Song” which, though hardly in the same league as Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat,” is still engaging), Ed Sheeran (doing an O.K. song called “Thinking Out Loud”), and Brad Paisley in his SleepTrain San Diego appearance in an engaging piece of material called “Laughing All the Way to the River Bank.” Alas, as I mentioned before, all these singers were cut off for commercial breaks during the closing bars of their songs!
Then came the big fireworks display — TV tends to reduce the experience of fireworks to something rather tame but they were still fun and considerably more elaborate than the ones on the Capitol Mall we’d just seen on PBS, featuring the United States Air Force band and various permutations of it, including a vocal group called the “Singing Sergeants” and a swing unit called the “Airmen of Note” which played Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” — appropriately enough since Miller himself was leading their predecessor band (though then the U.S. Air Force was still known as the Army Air Corps!) when he died. The USAF Singing Sergeants also did a musical setting of the Pledge of Allegiance (well, if the Fifth Dimension could sing the Declaration of Independence … ) in which I felt particularly rankled that they repeated the loathsome phrase “Under God” three times — I remember going to grade school and getting the message even that early that since I don’t believe in God (or at least in the Abrahamic monotheist “sky god”) I’m a second-class citizen at best and can’t be a true American (and I felt vindicated when I learned later that “under God” wasn’t in the original draft of the Pledge and was added in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, when our enemy was defined not merely as “Communism” but as “Godless Communism”) and a version of “God Bless America” that didn’t have the manic etherealism of Dr. Ronan Tynan on the PBS program but still managed to communicate the message. I’ll never forget the time I was listening to a Right-wing radio talk show and one of the callers got particularly incensed about a recent performance of “God Bless America” at a baseball game. “What gives an immigrant the idea that he has the right to sing ‘God Bless America’?” this guy asked in high dudgeon — to which the answer that immediately came to my head was, “Well, for one thing, an immigrant wrote it … ”