I am so far out of the dominant music scene. It’s pathetic. But I’ve never liked pop music since B96 or B97 or Bwhatever-it-was came on the scene in Chicago in the ’80s. I never listen to it, so watching the Grammys was like waking up from a long sleep. Or returning to a nightmare. While there were some high points, most pop music remains mediocre, with predictable structures and hooks, lyrics that make Cole Porter weep in his cold grave, and vocal acrobatics that any Baroque or Classical composer would have appreciated. I am not a fan of pop music. Or country music. Or most of what passes for the dominant music culture.
Watching these performances, I’m struck by how similar they are. Are these musicians afraid of the audience? Must every guitarist look at their guitar? Must every keyboardist look only at their bandmates? Must every freaking vocalist spend 90% of their stage time with their eyes closed? It’s a strange feeling, watching all this. It’s like you’re witnessing someone else’s music. You’re caught up in a light show and in the energy of the people around you, but you’re not inside the music. Whatever happened to the honored position of “the entertainer”?
I like to say that I was raised in the tradition of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, but that’s not completely true. I didn’t know Cab Calloway until college. And while I was familiar with Louis Armstrong, I didn’t see a lot of video footage of him until much later. So what was it? Shall we blame swing choir? Theatre? Something made me dedicate myself to connecting with the audience. It was never enough to just sing a song. Anyone can do that (well, almost anyone). But can you reach across that invisible fourth wall and welcome the audience into the common space you inhabit, where you’re both inside the music and the energy you are all creating?
I was surprised to see Justin Timberlake inhabiting that kind of space [I’m trying to link to him but YouTube has pulled all his Grammy vids due to copyright violations]. I don’t know much about him but dismissed him as a pretty-boy pop star. But his performance leapt out of the TV. Very tight and crisp and dynamic. And Mavis Staples was totally in command of the stage, even among the 10 or so other musicians grouped on stage with her as they got through that old wheezer, Take a Load Off, Fanny. Is that what I’m looking for? Maybe that’s it: Performers who take command of the stage. They are a cut above a “singer” or “pop star” or “guitarist” or whatever. It’s by taking command of the stage that you break the fourth wall and create the safe space for your audience.
I keep looking for people I recognize but I’m twenty years out of date. Sting and Elton John are in command of their craft but I keep flashing to the famous photo of Bono at Red Rocks in Colorado. Right out there as far as he can get into the crowd, belting out Sunday Bloody Sunday. Prince appeared briefly and upstaged the people who won the Grammy he was presenting. I mean, how do you stand up there and say you’re in the same league as Prince?
And, a random thought, why is everyone so tethered to a microphone on a stand? Maybe headset mics aren’t up to snuff yet, but do you really have to stand in one spot and twist all over the place to put your mouth next to a wireless mic? The rappers had it right when they took the mics off the stands and had the freedom of the stage.
I liked Jack White’s outfit. Not his performance, but my, he rocked those spangles.
Ah, they’re starting a new category next year for music educators. How cool is that? I would nominate “Miss G” (Pam Guenzler, later Pam DeBoer), probably the most influential teacher in my life. Hell, she’s one of the most influential people in my life. She was brought in at the start of my high school freshman year to take over (and liven up) the “lesser” choirs and direct the musicals. She was outstanding. I have so many memories of her classes and swing choir and theatre and laughing, laughing, laughing. She saw me for who I was. She told someone, “That’s how you know Carol [as I was then] loves you—she works for you.” I could barely bring myself to say the words aloud but I would work my tail off for anyone who meant a damn to me. And she, with hundreds of students to keep track of, saw that in me. She taught me a lot more than music. She taught me a lot about musicality, and she taught me a lot about life. She left at the end of my senior year to start a Christian radio station in the Caribbean with her husband and I’ve never seen her again. But I will never forget her, setting at the piano in the big choir room, looking over at someone and leading the laughs before making us want to soar higher, ever higher.
So that was it (I’ve been typing during commercial breaks). Aside from Justin Timberlake, there wasn’t one song or artist that made me say, “I want to hear more from them.” Is this the best we can do? All that money, all that time, all that training and touring and honing and creating, and this is it? I’m going to bed.