On the warm evening of America’s birthday, as the light faded over the Charles River and a waxing moon appeared in the sky, 20-year-old Amanda Gorman took the stage of the Hatch Shell.
Standing tall, the youth poet laureate of the United States recited her original poem, “Believer’s Hymn for the Republic.” Behind her, the Boston Pops played a slow, soft rendition of the classic “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” its stately, staccato notes drifting over the Esplanade.
“In the declaration’s pages, we write a new order for the ages,” she said, facing a crowd of thousands.
“Where out of many, we are one,/Bright as sun, and bold as an eagle/ A nation of all people, by all people, for all people,” she continued, emphasis on the all. As she finished, she raised her arms high over her head. Audience members, waving American flags and sitting on picnic blankets and tarps, jumped to their feet.
It was one of a few sparkling moments in Thursday’s Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, which aimed to “rejoice in both our shared and differing identities,” Pops conductor Keith Lockhart wrote in the concert program.
Gorman’s performance was a firecracker. Others were duds: In their four songs, the US Navy Band Sea Chanters Chorus maintained the stilted stage presence of a newly minted a cappella group. The Texas Tenors’ “God Bless America,” the opening song of the night, felt similarly schmaltzy, despite the vocalists’ obvious talents.
Headliner Queen Latifah breathed new life into the crowd with “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” and audience members were on their feet for the entirety of her pro-woman anthem against domestic abuse and misogyny, “U.N.I.T.Y.” She crooned a cover of “California Dreamin’ ” — “California dreamin’, on such a winter’s day,” she sang. Although — “Wait, hold up,” she said, and the music paused. Then she altered the lyrics: “Boston, Massachusetts drea-a-ming,” she sang, to laughs and cheers.
Amanda Mena, the 16-year-old “America’s Got Talent” breakout star from Lynn, elicited gasps with her performance of “What About Us,” sung in Spanish and English. Mena, who spent a part of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, bounced around the stage and had audience members swaying and dancing along, all while demonstrating her deep range.
Yet even as Mena belted out her last heart-stopping lyric, the rotating door of the program began to turn: the Bloomberg TV hosts, Alix Steel and Carol Massar, walked out on stage to usher in the next act. Constant commericial breaks and other frustrating realities of televised performances — the swoop of large video cameras on cranes over the audience — gave the performances an uncanny feel, like a series of YouTube videos rather than a coherent event.
As the show lurched from one act to another, it jumped from commemorative cannon fire to spoken word poetry, tributes to the armed forces interspersed with pop anthems and the folk classic “This Land Is Your Land.” What resulted was a grab-bag celebration of America: chaotic, at times poignant, cheesy, and of course ending in confetti.
Throughout, the program celebrated the obvious trappings of American pride and at times touched on something deeper: discontent with the status quo, and the kind of American rebellion embodied in the writings of Frederick Douglass and others. A white-haired Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody, strummed his guitar and commemorated 50 years since Woodstock, the most iconic of counterculture festivals.
And earlier that day, Gorman posted on her Instagram to announce her performance and voiced her tempered optimism for the future of the nation. As the “descendant of slaves,” she acknowledged a dark national history: “suffering, bondage, and genocide.”
And yet, “I choose not to see the US, and the world at large, as broken,” she wrote. “But rather, unfinished.”
BOSTON POPS FIREWORKS SPECTACULAR
At the Hatch Shell, ThursdayNora McGreevy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org