A Tale of Two Fireworks Dramas

The national character can be glimpsed even in squabbles over Independence Day authenticity in Washington, D.C. and Boston.

Michael Dwyer / AP

Even Fourth of July fireworks, it seems, are not exempt from the culture wars.

In Washington, D.C., clouds and rain led PBS to broadcast archival footage of fireworks during its telecast on Monday night. Responding to criticism that it had put on “the Milli Vanilli of fireworks,” this morning the network tweeted, “We are very proud of the 2016 Capitol Fourth celebration. Because this year’s fireworks were difficult to see due to the weather, we made the decision to intercut fireworks footage from previous A Capitol Fourth concerts for the best possible viewing experience. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.”

The replies to that tweet indicates that not everyone gracefully accepted the apology. Here’s a sample outraged reply: “Just like everything else in this country, from Hillary to Obama ... Spoke and Mirrors. Shameful we are not idiots! TRUMP 2016.”

Meanwhile, in Boston, a different kind of backlash arose. For 87 years, the Boston Pops orchestra has performed a free concert on the Charles River Esplanade for Independence Day. But the fireworks that Boston and CBS viewers nationally saw last night was accompanied by recordings of modern hits like Adele’s “Hello,” Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Beyonce’s “Freedom,” and Carrie Underwood’s “Church Bells,” plus Celine Dion’s take on “God Bless America” and a closer of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” The classical and march material from the Boston Pops happened earlier in the night, amid performances from Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, and Little Big Town.

A scroll through the #BostonPops twitter hashtag reveals some sharp consternation at the trendy tunes. The word “abomination” was used. One local with 13.5k followers tweeted this: “For first time in 40 years #BostonPops doesn't play 1812 Overture, opting instead for crass top-40 dreck. Pathetic sellout.” (The Overture had been played earlier in the night but not as the traditional lead-in to the fireworks, and in previous years, shows appear to have also featured pop songs.)

It’s tempting to read political allegory into these brouhahas over what's supposed to be a grand and uncontroversial celebration of Americanness: In these times, the country can’t even agree on shimmering smiley-faces in the sky! No wonder so many people think America needs to be made Great Again—the media/government are screwing with the tradition of fireworks now!

But in a way, it’s possible to look at these mini-controversies with a strange American pride. It’s a capitalist imperative—to put on a show that the largest number of people want to watch—that, presumably, led to both the phony PBS fireworks broadcast and the Top-40-fied CBS one. Boston’s show in particular is one where financial concerns must be front of mind: A few years ago, low ratings led CBS to end its (now renewed) tradition of airing the fireworks, and this year’s Boston Pops Fourth event is the last one to be bankrolled by a local businessman—which puts the future viability of the show in doubt.

It’s also a sign of diversity, as well as of some of the fundamental conflicts in the national character, that there are multiple interpretations for the “correct” way to put on these shows. Spectacle with high stakes, respectability ceding itself to the commercial, and the unwinnable argument over what is the most authentically American anything are all, yes, as American as the Fourth of July.