WASHINGTON, D.C. — Abraham Lincoln was staring at me.
OK, it was just his statue. But as I stood in the back recesses of the stage during the rehearsals for the “We Are One” inaugural celebration Saturday while on assignment for Rolling Stone, sandwiched between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, I was sure that if I took a step any direction, someone — a guard, a policeman, even Abe himself — would sound the alarm bells and send me packing. In front of me, dozens of gospel singers were humming and oohing the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” Over the sea of their shoulders I could see the Boss himself, standing at the edge of the stage facing them, teaching them his lyrics.
My objective was to get as close as an average person (i.e. one without official clearance) could possibly get to the rehearsals. As I wandered closer and closer to the stage, I realized no one was stopping me. Offstage, James Taylor and John Legend were strumming, Shakira, Will.I.Am and Stevie Wonder were loosely jamming, but I was drawn to the memorial’s steps by the swelling choir sounds and Bruce’s husky voice.
Hesitantly, I put a toe on the first step to the stage. I was immediately spotted.
“Sarah!” yelled Ken Patterson, a cameraman I’d met earlier. Uh-oh, I was busted. But he grinned, “Come up!” I did. There in the wings, the sound was booming. A bald eagle shook its feathers nearby. (No kidding, a real, trained bald eagle named Challenger will be soaring over the crowd during the show.) My heart ached with the swelling music. Ken grabbed my arm. “You need to have this moment,” he said, dragging me onto the stage and planting me amid the choir.
For the rest of the rehearsal, I was part of the choir, hiding in plain sight while some of music’s brightest lights — Bruce, Bono, Garth Brooks and more — laughed with stagehands and the local choirs.
How did that magical, once-in-a-lifetime moment happen? Why didn’t I get booted out, like I have so many times in my journalism career? For the same reasons that, throughout the bone-chillingly cold day, I heard not a single complaint from any of the furiously toiling crew, many of whom had come from far across the nation, just to work at the show.
Because there’s a sense that this is much more than a concert — it’s a shining moment in history that we’re blessed to be experiencing. And who could be heartless enough to take that away from anyone? It was why James Taylor laughed as the musicians basically played their instruments with one hand while snapping photos of him with the other. And why Bono shook his head in awed disbelief every time he paused mid-song during rehearsal.
And it was why the awkward-looking girl in the choir — me — could only think, “If everyone could be here next to me …”
“Be the Change: Live From the Inaugural” will air live on MTV on Tuesday, January 20, at 10 p.m. ET/PT. MTV News will have wall-to-wall coverage of the event and of the scenes in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Kenya in the days leading up to the event and in the days that follow.