Saturday Night Live breaks its format only rarely. The cold open sketch, which addresses one of the week’s big news stories, is one of its immovable objects. But from time to time, they do change the structure — perhaps most famously when the show returned after September 11, when Paul Simon opened it singing “The Boxer” surrounded by New York City firefighters and police, as well as then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
This Saturday night, SNL broke format again. The show opened on Jason Aldean, who was on stage at the Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas on October 1 when the attack began that left 58 people dead and injured nearly 500. Aldean introduced himself and spoke about solidarity with everyone who was hurting in the wake of the shooting. “When America is at its best,” he said, “our bond and our spirit, it’s unbreakable.” He then performed “I Won’t Back Down,” from Tom Petty’s huge 1989 album Full Moon Fever. Petty died Monday night, the day after the shooting, from cardiac arrest.
A song like “I Won’t Back Down,” actually not unlike “The Boxer,” delivers a general message of perseverance that will be read in a variety of ways by a variety of audiences. And in that way, it echoes the difficulty of responding to tragedies: It’s clear that there’s a challenge to persevere against, but it goes unstated what that challenge is.
But while Aldean didn’t address it, the show didn’t avoid the gun control debate that has raged since the shooting. Later, “Weekend Update” began with host Colin Jost saying, “The investigation into the tragedy in Las Vegas this week has sparked a larger debate in America between people who want common-sense gun control and people who are wrong.”