The 2013 Grammys

February 14, 2013

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 youโ€”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.

“Authentic” vs “organic” music

January 1, 2009

This excellent discussion over at banjomeetsworld brought up several points for me:

* I’m stunned that people paying for musical training would not be taught chords. It’s about as a basic as you get. Music is both linear (melodic) and horizontal (chordal). How in the world are you supposed to be able to speak its language if you only have knowledge in one area? You can certainly stumble onto things on your own, but if you’re paying for instruction, I think it’s imperative that you receive the same music fundamentals that every other musician gets. Sheesh!

* This whole issue of “ownership” and “authenticity” is evident everywhere, not just in Banjoland. For instance, I was recently scolded for crooning (gasp) a shape note tune instead of screeching it at the top of my lungs. “Traditional” shape note is not “supposed to be” shaped for performance. What, it’s off-limits, then? Of course traditional shape note wouldn’t be made for performance, because traditionally it was sung by a bunch of illiterate farm families who came from miles around and sang all day in a church as a function of spiritual worship. Even today’s “traditional” singers aren’t keeping up with some of those aspects. They can’t seem to recognize that music is constantly shifting and changing based on people’s circumstances.

* Addendum to item above: outside the music world entirely, I was once told that my religion wasn’t “legitimate” because I had come to it when I was 23. I was “supposed to” have been taught at my mother’s knee. Didn’t matter that my mother’s knee was Roman Catholic. All this to point out that “authenticity” and “ownership” are almost always about ego and fear and control.

* Related to above point: I do think there is some music that we should be mindful about “appropriating.” Certain First Nations songs come to mind. I generally think music belongs to the world, but when my ancestors have a history of stripping First Nations folk of everything else, I have an obligation to at least ask myself about the appropriateness of trying to make money off music from a particular tradition, especially if I know nothing about that tradition. Note how I said “ask myself” and “make money off of,” not “disallow myself from ever touching this music ever ever.” There may also be music from other sacred traditions that simply aren’t appropriate to take out and mash up with a beat box or sing in a jazz style. We’re influenced by the music we hear and that shapes what we invent and what we perform, but we should be mindful of the balance between influence and appropriation.

* I simply don’t understand people who think music is frozen in time — that there’s One Right True Way to play or sing it. It’s especially bizarre in the Old Time community, since we know that many OT tunes were “discovered” when some enterprising “song collector” went spelunking for tunes that were similar from one side of the Atlantic to the other. “Lady Margaret” is the most famous one, of course.

* I think there are “definitive” versions of some songs (Billie Holiday’s “Solitude,” Cab Calloway’s “St James Infirmary Blues,” Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble Of The World,” etc) but what’s “definitive” is just my personal preference. The rest of the world is listening to those definitive versions and coming up with their own, which may then surpass previous definitive versions, yadda yadda. As we watch that process over time, we see music shift and change, adding beats or dropping them, changing notes or modes, and generally doing what it’s always done as it travels through cultures. Music is a living tradition. It’s organic. It’s only frozen by technology and people’s (faulty) minds.

* And another thing! The earliest written music we can find in any quantity is Gregorian chant. The notation had no key or rhythm indicated. I think we can safely assume that a cloister in Paris would sing the chant differently from a cloister in Navarre. And somehow people survived such madness! People who want to lock everything down seem afraid they will be left behind, or perhaps (to be kinder) that their preferred style will get trumped. Their comfort zone gets challenged and perhaps some of them rightly fear losing their way. Of course, that still doesn’t make them right. ๐Ÿ™‚ It certainly would be easier in a jam session for jam leaders to say upfront, “This is how we do things in this jam. It may not be for everyone, but if you think you’ll like it, you’re welcome to stick around and have fun.” To pretend that there aren’t unwritten rules is silly.

* The whole question of a successful jam comes down to finding people who are at a similar level of expertise and who want the same things you do. Sounds simple, but it’s not. And it sucks to have to organize your own jams but if it gets you what you want, you know you’ll do it. I got very tired of waiting for someone to invite me into the B’ton music scene (& I got tired of (sometimes rudely) banging my head against the wall of The Establishment), so I ended up starting my own groups. Lo and behold, I found the local scene opening up to me as certain gracious, highly talented performers started inviting me in. It’s meant a lot more schedule-juggling but that’s definitely worth it.

* I had some other thoughts about “Style is about limitations” but I think it’s high time I shut up. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for a great post and discussion, Cathy!

It Ain’t What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It

November 22, 2008

SSA with drum. Up-tempo, upbeat, fun-to-sing and fun-to-hear song from 1939. Cab Calloway made it famous. This arrangement based on a Fun Boy Three arrangement from the ’80s. Lyrics are just what the title implies. Best performed this wearing chic sunglasses.