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"People were a little nervous — and not just because they would be singing in front of the world — but the mood was also very positive," a source says

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Virginia Chamlee
January 26, 2021 08:01 PM
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Before the pomp and the circumstance of last week's inaugural festivities at the U.S. Capitol — attended by lawmakers and celebrities alike — a moving musical moment played out for the lucky few passing through the building's hallways.

Both Lady Gaga and Garth Brooks, who would soon perform for tens of millions at home, were rehearsing just off-camera, so to speak.

"One of Lady Gaga's rituals is that she wants to make sure she's rehearsing exactly one hour in advance of taking the stage," an inauguration official tells PEOPLE. "And so you could hear her amazing voice with the national anthem, and then Garth was in another random hallway [in the Capitol] singing 'Amazing Grace.' It was like the most exclusive free concert."

The scene helps paint a portrait of the preparations for President Joe Biden's inauguration, held in an unprecedented time in U.S. history: amid a deadly global pandemic and in the shadow of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

US President-elect Joe Biden (R) and incoming US First Lady Jill Biden arrive for his inauguration as the 46th US President, on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington
Center, from left: Joe and Jill Biden arrive at his inauguration on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol.
| Credit: CHANG W. LEE/POOL/AFP via Getty

While the inaugural crowd was drastically slimmed down as a health precaution, the attendees did include a few star performers: Gaga, who sang the national anthem (with her boyfriend, Michael Polansky, watching nearby) as well as Brooks and Jennifer Lopez, who sang "This Land Is Your Land" and "America the Beautiful" and who was joined by fiancé Alex Rodriguez.

The celebs were cognizant of their role in the historic moment but also a bit "jittery," given everything, according to the inauguration official.

"People were a little nervous — and not just because they would be singing in front of the world — but the mood was also very positive," the source says. "After what happened at the Capitol just two weeks before, the performers were jittery."

Of the layers of security each attendee passed through, the source adds: "All the performers were very kind and very gracious to all the Capitol Police, making a point to look officers in the eye and say 'thank you.' "

Garth Brooks performs at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021
Garth Brooks
| Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty
Lady Gaga performs the National Anthem during the inauguration of Joe Biden as US President in Washington, DC, USA, 20 January 2021
Lady Gaga
| Credit: Greg Nash/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The occasion wasn't a somber one, though, with the stars on site working together to ensure the event moved seamlessly.

Before Brooks, 58, hit the stage in front of the Capitol to sing an a capella rendition of "Amazing Grace," he asked around for help with his stage makeup, the source tells PEOPLE.

Gaga, 34, quickly stepped in, loaning Brooks her own makeup artist prior to his performance (the country star thanked the pop superstar's hairstylist, Frederic Aspiras, and makeup artist, Sarah Tanno, in a tweet after the event).

Gaga, Brooks, and Lopez originally made their way to the Capitol last Wednesday in a police-escorted "talent motorcade," and waited, just like everyone else, to go through security, the inauguration official says.

"Everyone patiently stood in line to go through the magnetometers for security," the official says. "No one complained."

Once inside, the stars readied themselves for their performances, with Gaga bringing along a member of her team whose role was dedicated to shepherding her outfit: a silk ballgown skirt in contrasting red to a Schiaparelli navy structured jacket adorned with a gold chest brooch of a dove holding an olive branch.

(Gaga shared details of her ensemble with fellow attendees, explaining "how the gold bird on her jacket held an olive branch and it was a really important thing for her — to show that symbol of unity and peace," the source says.)

Meanwhile the singer's boyfriend kept a low profile but wasn't too far away.

"He was not front and center. To the few people she encountered backstage, inside the Capitol, she introduced him — she'd say, 'This is my boyfriend,' " the source says of Polansky, a tech investor. "But he blended in. He's not a celebrity. He was content to hang in the background."

Former U.S. President George W. Bush, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), former U.S. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrive at the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden
From left: George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack and Michelle Obama at Wednesday's presidential inauguration at the U.S. Capitol
| Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty

The source says Gaga made the rounds after her performance, greeting the Bidens, Obamas, Clintons and Bushes, all of whom had gathered for the occasion.

"Lady Gaga and Joe Biden have a very special bond and it's really sweet — almost like a father-daughter thing, so much mutual respect and shared mutual admiration," the source says, noting that Biden introduced Gaga ahead of her 2016 Academy Awards performance. The two also worked together on the Violence Against Women Act.

"They have this really beautiful bond," the source says. "They just get each other."

Once the ceremony ended, Gaga and Brooks came back inside the Capitol where they could be seen speaking to one another in a hallway.

"She talked about what a big fan she is and she thanked him," the inauguration official says. "She told him he was the right person to be there for this moment and how important it was to her as an American to have his voice be such a special part of that moment."

Jennifer Lopez sing during the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Jennifer Lopez
| Credit: Rob Carr/Getty

Alex Rodriguez, on hand to watch Lopez perform, had some fans of his own.

"With Alex Rodriguez, all the male politicians were coming up [to him]," the source says. "It was a macho love fest there."

The source says the unusual nature of the ceremony – and the enormity of what it meant to gather in a hallmark of democracy that had been under attack just weeks earlier — did not go unnoticed by those in attendance; and it was front-and-center during a stirring reading by young poet Amanda Gorman.

"For a lot of insurrectionists, she is exactly what they feel threatened by: young, smart people of color. And yet Amanda was so strong, almost defiant," the source says. "It was emotional to think about what happened in those same hallways just two weeks before and then, on Wednesday, to have all these diverse performers who speak to different audiences."

The celebration continued after the swearing-in at the Capitol, with a star-studded primetime TV special hosted by Tom Hanks that night in lieu of the traditional balls.

Though the inauguration official concurs that Hanks was — as many viewers watching at home wondered — "freezing" during his hosting duties ("We would have been fine with him wearing a wool coat!"), the event went off largely without a hitch.

It culminated in a final performance by Katy Perry, who sang a slower version of her 2010 smash-hit "Firework" during a suitably sky-filling fireworks display above the Washington Monument.

celebrating america
Katy Perry
| Credit: CNN

"Katy worked on getting the song just right, so that it was still her song but not the standard version. Instead, she reworked it where it opens pretty pensively and crescendos into being upbeat," the source says of Perry's performance, delivered in a white ensemble (a nod to both the women's suffrage movement and to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton).

"It was a beautiful moment," says the source. "She got it. She was very cognizant about hitting the right note with that moment and it was perfect."

Indeed, the source explains that organizers were focused on making all of the TV special performances ring with meaning.

"Artists weren't invited to just sing whatever they wanted to sing ... For Demi Lovato, that meant getting into the studio and learning [the song, 'Lovely Day'], putting her own spin on it," the source says, adding that producers also wanted the song "Here Comes the Sun" to be included in the program.

"Jon Bon Jovi volunteered," says the source. "He happened to be in Miami, and it was his idea to sing it on a pier at sun-up."

By night's end, the ongoing pandemic meant any plans for an after-party had to be off the docket — or delayed, as the source puts it, until a safer future.

"Everyone was asking, 'Is there anything we should stay for? Any party at the White House?' " the source says. "But that night at the White House was just for the Biden family because of COVID. It was: 'No party. Wait until we get vaccinated.' "