Presenters matter to televised award shows. Their immediate function is to hand out prizes. But they often reflect how an industry uses ceremony to perceive of itself at a particular historical moment, whether they’re a bright young thing, an emblem, a legend in their own time, or willing participants in corporate synergy. Sometimes they let you know who’s going to win, as when Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg welcomed Martin Scorsese to Mount Rushmore with a Best Director Oscar for The Departed. Sometimes, they fall on their sword and read bad jokes from a teleprompter to keep things moving. Other times, they kill. And sometimes, they signify the distance between the world and the future.
Like most award shows, the Grammys—which broadcast on Monday for the first time in its nearly 60-year history to accommodate Pacific Standard Time—are not always perceptive about the deeper significance of what awards presenters are assigned to distribute. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily; critics’ year-end lists suffer from presentism’s biases too. While the institutions responsible for the show—the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and CBS, respectively—may have longevity on its mind in other respects, an award show is ultimately a snapshot of an industry at a particular year, as determined by the compromises made while honoring constituents’ perceptions and advertisers’ immediate commercial directives.
Those two things can still tell us quite a bit of what the Grammys thinks it is in 2016. So it matters that Ariana Grande dorked out before the Weeknd’s live performance of “Can’t Feel My Face” and “In the Night,” singing puns as she introduced her duet partner on “Love Me Harder,” 2014’s filthiest house pastiche and a launch pad for the two shy nerds at its center. It matters that LL Cool J and James Corden set up a messy, ill-conceived Lionel Richie tribute in order to plug NCIS: Los Angeles and The Late Late Show while Stephen Colbert threw it to Hamilton on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s way to an EGOT. It matters that Ed Sheeran announced Lady Gaga’s David Bowie retrospective because NARAS rewards the British singer’s inoffensive blue-eyed soul but never nominated anything from the chameleon’s boundary-pushing 70s output, which Gaga and Nile Rodgers heavily showcased in their professional-grade “rock opera” eulogy. It matters that Rock Ambassador Dave Grohl honored Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister by introducing a bloated tribute from the Hollywood Vampires, which made a stronger case against white men grinding rock into obsolescence than both hours of Vinyl’s pilot. They made me long for an encore from the excellent Alabama Shakes, who immediately preceded them with a spacious, electrifying rendition of “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which won Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, along with Best Alternative Music Album (Sound and Color wasn’t nominated for Best Rock Album). It matters that Sam Smith handed out Best New Artist, that Meghan Trainor took her win very seriously, and that Courtney Barnett probably ducked out early. It matters that Beyoncé gave Record of the Year to Bruno Mars for “Uptown Funk” after they ran off with Maroon 5’s Coldplay’s Super Bowl half-time show, which broadcast a week and a day before on the same network.
And it certainly matters that three surviving members of 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipients’ Earth, Wind & Fire presented Album of the Year to Taylor Swift’s 1989 instead of to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
As Taylor Swift accepted her award, I wondered what Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson—bassist Verdine in the middle, honoring his brother Maurice’s legacy by looking like he jumped off That’s The Way of the World by way of Katt Williams’s mood board in a green velvet tuxedo jacket—made of this moment and their place in history as musicians and black men. As category front-runners, 1989 and To Pimp a Butterfly are both ostensibly about how artists are shaped by their current circumstances in relation to the music they listened to growing up. Those circumstances matter, and matter differently if you were born in 1989 as a white girl in an upper-middle-class family in a Pennsylvania borough or in 1987 as a black boy to parents endeavoring to raise their family in Compton.
The market is supposed to be the equalizer. Award shows puncture this myth. As a listener I struggle to give Swift the benefit of the doubt because her feminism often comes with an edge of entitled white girl vengeance that I distrust (yes Kanye West’s trolling on “Famous” is legit gross, but Yeezy is a post unto himself). But I appreciate 1989 as a well-crafted genre study. In particular the dazzling “Out of the Woods,” which opened the broadcast, fuses Swift’s Instagram poetry with Jack Antonoff’s fractured pop production to create the best song T’Pau never recorded. 1989 was favored to win because you don’t move that many units of any album at this moment in recording industry history without netting Album of the Year … unless you’re Beyoncé, I guess (Adele’s 25 will win next year when it’s eligible).1989 is also a testament to the album, and perhaps especially to the album on CD, which many record executives wish we still bought. It’s a streamlined, economical, blockbuster pop statement. Or, said differently, it sounds like an album that would win a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2016 and in 1989.
Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes (a length of time a CD can store, giving it the advantage over other formats for a time), To Pimp a Butterfly is a glorious mess. The kind of mess you go through to get to nuance. The kind of mess where intersectionality dwells, overlaps, and spills over. What I find most exhilarating about To Pimp a Butterfly is how Lamar and its impressive team of musicians and producers positioned his flow within black musical history, thus connecting his feelings of double consciousness to the radical streak that energized G-Funk, 70s soul, and avant-garde jazz. Lamar led with eleven nominations, and kicked off the broadcast after Swift’s performance and host LL Cool J’s opening monologue by collecting his award for Best Rap Album, which was presented to him by rapper Ice Cube and his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who recently played his father in a biopic about his former group N.W.A (see—presenters matter). Of the five Grammys he won, this was the only award Lamar collected during the broadcast and thus the only opportunity Lamar had to give a speech on live television.
Lamar was also rewarded for “Alright,” a song that has rightly come to represent the resilient ache of #blacklivesmatter in the ongoing, uphill struggle for racial equality and social justice. Though it lost Song of the Year to Sheeran’s wedding reception jam “Thinking Out Loud,” it won Best Rap Performance. Such an accolade is meaningful for a number of reasons, not least of which because it was the first category NARAS established—in 1989, no less—to recognize significant work in hip-hop vocal performance. However its first recipients, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, staged a boycott because the presentation would not be televised. The award for Best Rap Performance—which was reintroduced in 2012—was not broadcast last night either, and Will Smith is still opting out of industry award shows because of systemic inequality.
Which is why it was exhilarating to see Lamar’s medley in the middle of the ceremony. One thing the Grammys are valued for, especially as networks attempt to use televised award shows as an opportunity to capitalize upon social media and second-screen viewing practices, is live musical performances. Over the years, more categories are getting pushed out of the television broadcast and being distributed in other venues and forums to make room for them. Thus it is incumbent upon artists to turn the stage into a platform, and smart performers think about what they want to use that space to say.
Last year, Beyoncé closed the Grammys with a solemn performance of gospel standard “Take My Hand Oh Precious Lord.” It was written by Reverend Thomas Dorsey, beloved by Martin Luther King Jr., and thus claimed by the Civil Rights Movement. It has also been extensively recorded by various singers. One of them was R&B singer Ledisi for the soundtrack to Selma, Ava DuVernay’s historical film about the 1965 Voting Rights campaign that was underrepresented as a nominee for 2015’s Academy Awards. Beyoncé was flanked by a men’s chorus in white suits, barefoot with rolled pant legs meant to evoke slave auctions to make a critique about the devaluation of black people in the United States. My DVR cut off the performance. “Formation” may exist, in part, to correct this. You do not cut off Beyoncé.
As an astute musician who has come into his own as a very fine live TV performer (for me, the turning point was when he turned Imagine Dragons into his backing band during the 2014 ceremony), Lamar probably considered not only the importance of his message, but where it was placed in the broadcast (Grammy producer Ken Erlich spoke with Billboard about the segment prior to the ceremony). Introduced by actor Don Cheadle, whose Miles Davis biopic is scheduled for an April 2016 theatrical release with distribution from Sony Pictures Classics (presenters matter), Lamar chose to turn the Staples Center stage into a cell block, casting himself as a prisoner.
To stunned silence, Lamar wound his cuffed hands around the microphone and launched into “The Blacker the Berry.” He then turned the stage into a bonfire for “Alright” in order to expand the parameters of broadcast television by acknowledging the rich, joyous traditions of African dance, if only briefly. Lamar concluded with a unreleased new song—the closest the Grammys really got to acknowledging how digital distribution has bypassed traditional album releases beyond Drake’s nomination for If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—which he performed directly for the camera. The crew captured it with a series of frenetic medium close-up shots before zooming out to reveal Lamar standing in silhouette before a projected image of Africa with “Compton” written across it in Old English font. In that brief moment, to thunderous applause, Lamar showed us the distance between the world the recording industry lives in now and the future we have yet to realize.
This week, I’ll share two lists of musical works that resonated with me during 2015. This one highlights my favorite television music cues this year. Music’s mediation within visual storytelling has long fascinated me, along with the work that goes into it. Here, I reflect on a handful of sequences that effectively brought song and scene together (spoiler: 80s pop music is apparently a currency I share with today’s music supervisors). It’s not a comprehensive or ranked list, though I do kick things off with my favorite TV moment of the year.
Also, tune in later this week for a rundown of my favorite albums of 2015.
“Looking for the Promised Land”
(Sister Sledge, “Lost In Music”)
To paraphrase Raymond Williams, Looking is boring the way culture is ordinary. During its second season premiere, Looking’s main characters take a trip. Within the episode, they roll at an outdoor rave tucked in the redwoods. But since this lyrical dramedy about a Bay Area-based friend group used fate as an organizing principle to investigate gay shame, family, gentrification, and the spectre of AIDS in post-closet America, it makes sense that their dancing shapes the arc of Looking’s final season (HBO’s consolation prize TV movie will air in 2016). Patrick (Jonathan Groff) kisses a boy who looks like an amalgam of his romantic rivals and bottoms against a tree for Kevin (an award-worthy Russell Tovey), who represents the accomplished life he wants but cannot provide the love he needs (#teamrichie). Dom (Murray Bartlett) hooks up with a younger man in his partner’s cabin—a shrine to the lover he buried—and wants something more. Augustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) goes night-swimming with Eddie (Daniel Franzese) and lets the current take him some place new. And Doris (Lauren Weedman) gets abducted by lesbians, signposting that her path from childhood friend Dom will diverge. With Liza Richardson’s guidance, Looking perceptively considered how music weaves into everyday life and drew from pop’s past, modern rock’s queer entries, and DFA’s dance historiography to shorthand gay male subjectivity. On 1979’s We Are Family, “Lost in Music” details Sister Sledge’s origin story. On a dance floor bathed in twinkling lights and brimming with possibility (perhaps erotic, always spiritual), it gives way to experience.
Master of None
(Spandau Ballet, “True”)
Aziz Ansari and I were both born in 1983 when this New Romantic outfit’s biggest hit scaled the pop charts. I’m glad I’ve never known a world without this song, as I enjoy crooning “listening to Marvin [Gaye] all night long” late into the evening at a karaoke bar with a drink in my hand. But this song isn’t about me. And it’s not about Aziz either, or his character Dev. Gary Kemp’s lyrics suggest that it’s about turning to Gaye’s music and controlled substances to get through writer’s block in the middle of the night. But on Master of None, “True” serves as a referent for a bittersweet period when Dev’s father Ramesh (played by Ansari’s father Shoukath) came to the United States from India, dealt with displacement and racist microaggressions at work and elsewhere, and welcomed his son into the world. “Parents” has been rightly praised for its insights into the gulf between first-generation Asian-Americans and their immigrant parents and its efforts to bridge that chasm with gentle comedy. This song, which is ultimately a plea for connection, gracefully gestures to one man’s memory and in doing so nicely captures how time and culture can bond father and son.
Doll & Em
(Nu Shooz, “I Can’t Wait”)
In the season finale of this backstage meta-comedy, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells mount a play based on their own lives. After several missteps, disagreements, and Mortimer’s imaginary conversation with Virginia Woolf, they opt to tag out their American doppelgängers (Olivia Wilde and Evan Rachel Wood, in a meta-meta-turn that allows the show to reflect on how actresses internalize the aging process) and tread the boards as “themselves” (Doll dons a beard). It’s not a choice they fully commit to until a few minutes into their first scene, which dramatizes their first meeting at a club while tentatively dancing to this mid-80s single. What’s beautiful about this scene is how they help each other find the beat and in the process turn a song about the early flush of infatuation into an expression of women’s solidarity through a shared creative vision.
Picking a song from this crackerjack season is like finding a bin of mint-condition vinyl at a garage sale and being told “limit one per customer,” so I won’t. Fargo’s late-70s civil war between the Gerhardt clan, a Kansas City crime syndicate, and a pair of high school sweethearts boxed into an unfulfilling marriage looks like a faded Polaroid, tilts like a stack of Better Homes and Gardens, and races like a Cadillac with a body in the trunk (or through the windshield). In particular, it captures how America tussled with Vietnam’s ghost (all of the men have wounds and stories), racism’s steady hand (the African and Native American men in this story serve white men, until they don’t or can’t), and feminism’s contradictions (all of the women are saddled with expectations, with Kirsten Dunst thrashing against this circle of perfection like a bird bending steel) before voting for Reagan to displace thousands of veterans, level natural resources and urban environments, and undo policies meant to give women agency over their bodies and parity in the workplace. The period soundtrack, which boasts cuts from Cris Williamson, The Dramatics, and Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, completes the picture. In particular, “Fear and Trembling” makes great use of Devo’s perverse Americana to demonstrate the hazards of “Midwestern nice” as one career criminal initiates another at a donut shop and the penultimate episode ramps up the suspense of peak-performance Bokeem Woodbine’s drive to the Motor Motel to collect a body that won’t be there when he arrives to Cymande’s coiled, elegant funk.
You’re The Worst
(Still Corners, “Don’t Fall In Love” and “Beginning to Blue”)
Sorry, “New Phone, Who Dis?” You are a real song in You’re the Worst’s storyworld and an excellent vehicle for a sharp Odd Future parody and Kether Donohue’s boundless comedic talents (see you and Carly Rae on Grease Live, grrrl). But the songs that best capture the season’s tone are two reverb-heavy tracks from this British two-piece that wrap the big mid-season reveal in a fog evocative of a lead character’s mental state. Early in the season, scrappy music publicist Gretchen Cutler (in an award-worthy turn from Aya Cash) began sneaking out of her boyfriend Jimmy’s house shortly after they moved in together. It took a few episodes to reveal where she was going, which prompted speculation that she was cheating. My theory: Gretchen was hyperballading [v., etym. Björk, to perform a series of idiosyncratic and potentially self-destructive rituals in order to affirm your independence as part of a couple]. Here, Jimmy (Chris Geere) trails her and finds her sobbing in her car while playing Snake on her phone. In the next episode, Gretchen reveals her history with clinical depression and the rest of the season focused on her battle with care and grace. That it’s still a romantic comedy is impressive. That it manages to broaden romantic comedy’s parameters by investigating what it means to love or be loved through those circumstances is something even better.
Show Me a Hero
(Whitney Houston, “I Want to Dance With Somebody”)
I can wave away turf war criticism against using Freehold’s bard to score a historical drama about the fallout of Yonkers civil servants’ desegregation efforts at the turn of the 90s. Former Mayor Nick Wasicsko probably didn’t listen to that much Springsteen, but “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Brilliant Disguise” work as leitmotif. The issue with Hero’s soundtrack is balance. As Emily Nussbaum put it, “Springsteen dominates, while hip-hop leaks through doors.” That’s somewhat intentional. Hero’s biggest contribution to contemporary discourse is its attention to how black and Latin women incur the burden of racist misperceptions around crime and poverty as mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and widows who struggle to find safe homes for their families. This development comes to fruition in the last installment, but even the use of Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” privileges the perspective of a white Yonkers resident who originally opposed desegregation. So I’ll recognize a scene in episode two where Wasicsko, desperate for his white constituents’ approval, nurses a drink as Houston’s 1987 hit plays in the background. It offers atmospheric detail and a rare potential connection between a needy politician and the community he’s actually serving, if he could see past his ambition.
(Lady Gaga, “Edge of Glory”)
Anyone who’s ever lived through college (or camp, or childhood) knows that exhilarating moment when you finally have the entire apartment to yourself. This dance sequence also sets up Abbi as season two’s protagonist, with Ilana serving as her Tyler Durden.
“Sand Hill Shuffle”
(Run the Jewels, “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1”)
Credit music is kind of a cheat, but Run the Jewels are to Pied Piper’s crunch time what the Geto Boys were to Michael Bolton’s commute. And this song nicely sets the tone for the season’s central conflict. It fades in as Pied Piper founder Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) listens to Hooli CEO Gavin Belson’s eulogy for a colleague and overwhelms the diegesis as he reads over a letter notifying him that his start-up is being sued by the search engine giant for intellectual property theft. In the tech industry, you don’t DDT ‘em in mausoleums. You lawyer up.
Back in April, the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Nirvana, Linda Ronstadt, KISS, Hall & Oates, the E Street Band, Cat Stevens, and Peter Gabriel at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. In addition, managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham won the Ahmet Ertegun Award, a prize for music industry intermediaries that was renamed in 1987 when the Atlantic Records founder received the honor. The ceremony aired on HBO, a broadcasting decision that allowed musicians’ blue language and sprawling performances to remain intact and gave the channel an opportunity to implicitly remind viewers about their forthcoming Foo Fighters documentary series.
Musicians are eligible for induction 25 years after their first recording. This makes Nirvana the lone first-ballot selection of the 2014 class. Such developments are, at first blush, unremarkable. Industrial institutions—which are often conservative and populist by design—frequently play catch-up when they distribute awards. It’s widely understood that Al Pacino won Best Actor in 1992 less for his scenery-chewing turn in Scent of a Woman than for the body of work that preceded it. This is also often true for institutions that commemorate those efforts from a historical remove. Often, the Rock Hall will recognize one to three recording artists as soon as they reach that 25-year mark. A few peer acts may receive nominations before being filtered out and recycled for consideration on the next year’s ballot.
The remaining inductees suggest the slow evolution of the Rock Hall and raise a few questions for the institution and popular music history moving forward. First, what music is “worthy” of the mantle of cultural significance? In a recent conversation with Alex Pappademas and Wesley Morris about Saul Austerlitz’s indictment of poptimism in the New York Times, Grantland music critic Steven Hyden argued that the decision to induct hard rock enterprise KISS and blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates demonstrates criticism’s influence upon the music industry to revise and reappraise the merit of history’s bad objects, corporate artifacts, and hybrid outfits. Such sentiments were reflected in guitarist Tom Morello’s induction of KISS. He identified their status as critical poison while simultaneously claiming that their “real” position were as schoolyard heroes for generations of disaffected youth, many of whom went on (like Morello) to pick up guitars and form bands. The quartet reinforced these points in their acceptance speech.
Questions of worth reveal a lot about systems of power. Who bestows worth onto another? When is the beneficiary’s moment decided? These questions continue to plague the Rock Hall, which has a notoriously opaque nomination and voting process that is often legible as “whatever Jann Wenner likes.” A few inductees challenged the effectiveness of such deliberations. Daryl Hall noted that his group was the only “homegrown Philadelphia band” in the Rock Hall. “Now, I’m not saying that because I’m proud of that. I’m saying that ‘cuz that’s fucked up,” he continued before rattling off a list of artists that included Todd Rundgren, the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and Chubby Checker (!). Later in the ceremony, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic would offer a similar, albeit less polemical statement when he introduced Joan Jett during their finale as an artist who should be in the Rock Hall. I would add Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon before and after I saw her sing “Aneurysm” with the band, a moment which Courtney Love deemed “the punkest performance, the one that Kurt would’ve approved of the most” in a Pitchfork interview with Jenn Pelly.
Here’s a more basic question: what is rock music? This is a concern the Rock Hall has been struggling with for several years. It’s the question at the heart of rock’s existence as a genre. During our viewing, my mother-in-law asked if Linda Ronstadt qualified as rock. I don’t know. Where do the blues, R&B, and country end? How is a genre distinct and how is it reassembled to create “rock”? White privilege is one answer. The hegemony of electric guitar is another. But, as Hyden pointed out, the Rock Hall is one of the few institutions that stills treats “rock” as a catch-all term for “popular music,” an antiquated notion held over from its founding in 1983. Hyden predicts that less rock acts will get inducted in the future. First, there are now no longer as many rock bands that have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2’s mass appeal. Second, the Rock Hall historically ignores more obscure rock bands like Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, despite their influence. Third, since the 90s, rock stars’ industrial and cultural significance shifted to hip-hop, R&B, and pop artists. Kanye West is this generation’s Axl Rose.
What generic hybridity and historical revision suggest is that essentialist definitions of identity don’t hold and, for many, never did. In my more cynical moments, I often reduce Rock Hall inductions to “a lotta blonde wives.” But feminism requires us to care about blonde wives, regardless of whether one of them is Courtney Love. This raises another question: how does identity shape our historical understanding of popular music? At the very least, it makes us think about how rock music is a product of male vanity (Gene Simmons’ hair!). But when Michael Stipe gave a touching speech about Nirvana’s disidentification with the mainstream and their negotiated outsider status among “the fags, the fat girls, the broken toys, the shy nerds, and the goth kids from Tennessee and Kentucky” in and beyond the historical context of a citizenry “practically dismantled by Iran-Contra, by AIDS, by the Reagan/Bush Sr. administrations,” it put Art Garfunkel’s bloviation at Cat Stevens and the condescending sexism of “Wild World” into stark relief.
I’m creating a binary I don’t entirely agree with. Rock Hall ceremonies are studies in pomposity, in overlong jam sessions and acceptance speeches, in hagiographies, in hot-air meditations on popular music as capital-a “Art” instead of sweaty traces of lowercase-f “fun.” But they also serve as evidence of industrial and interpersonal conflict. What does music do to workers? Bands like Blondie, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin used the podium as a space to unearth past grievances around authorship and attribution. Members of groups like the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Nirvana accepted their awards amid absence. Musicians like Peter Gabriel reinforced that “In Your Eyes” is an example of profound songwriting and an important collaboration, even though the singer lost his falsetto to age and work.
Since the Rock Hall represents music as labor, Bruce Springsteen inducting the E Street Band was especially poignant. In his speech, Springsteen reflected on negotiating his recording contract as a solo artist with his professional autonomy to hire “side men” who were collaborators with distinct skills, contributions, and artistic perspectives. He spoke with deep regret that organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons were not in attendance. Guitarist Patti Scialfa navigated being the musician who broke through the boy’s club, the subject of “Red-Headed Woman,” and a member of another family with Springsteen. He also recalled a tense conversation with guitarist Steven Van Zandt on the eve of his induction as a solo artist in 1999. Van Zandt wanted Springsteen to stand up for the band, claiming that Springsteen with E Street was the legend. But this issue remains unresolved, as the broadcast edited down the band’s acceptance speeches and played it as background noise during breaks in their “Kitty’s Back” performance. Side men and women still struggle for legibility, even as they’re being recognized by their industry.
This is my favorite question to ask of the Rock Hall: what artists are put in conversation with each other? I watch the ceremony for the pairings and the performances. Who gets to induct these musicians into the Rock Hall? Who gets to share the stage with them? I remember being disappointed when Anthony Kiedis inducted the Talking Heads in 2002. First, the Red Hot Chili Peppers front man couldn’t hang up his butt rock Lothario image for one night; he had to emphasize bassist Tina Weymouth’s hipster sex appeal over her contributions to the band’s omnivorous sound. Second, I’m not sure what the two groups share except for their (wildly divergent) relationships to funk. But even such facile connections interest me, because they allow us to consider popular music as an exchange, as well as what relationships the music industry values and what heritage really means. Who matters to music’s past and future?
The 2014 ceremony had several interesting pairings. Questlove’s Hall & Oates induction speech highlighted the duo’s regional influence on Philadelphia’s musical identity, the feedback loop between the white soul group and their predominantly black early fan base, and the Roots’ drummer’s amusing childhood associations with “She’s Gone” and its various musical and paratextual elements. Carrie Underwood sang alongside Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Stevie Nicks during a Linda Ronstadt medley that begged the question: “is this a VH1 Divas concert?” Underwood’s performance of “Different Drum” also underlined a productive tension between her “Country Barbie” image and the song’s commercial flirtation with Sexual Revolution-era proclamations like “It’s just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me.”
Much of the press coverage surrounding the ceremony focused on Nirvana’s grrrl germs performance. A friend made a perceptive comparison between it and the 2010 BET Awards’ all-female Prince tribute medley. In addition to opening up opportunities for female artists to reinterpret men’s musical contributions, both performances make tribute an intergenerational concern. Also, would Cobain have clung to Gordon’s silver wedges like Prince did after Patti LaBelle kicked off her heels while taking “Purple Rain” to church? Would he have a hand in the selection process, as Prince did when he requested that Janelle Monáe perform “Let’s Go Crazy”? Would he bristle at homage’s patriarchal implications?
It was great to see Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Pat Smear share the stage with Jett, Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde. I wish that there was more of interaction between the women during the medley, but I liked that Jett, Gordon, and Annie Clark accompanied Lorde on “All Apologies.” I was also moved by Love’s engagement with them as a spectator. On “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jett nailed the ellipses, vague mumbling, and weird cadences of the song’s self-conscious teen-speak. Originally, I thought Gordon should’ve done “Polly” or “Rape Me,” but “Aneurysm” allowed the group to acknowledge Incesticide’s legacy and avoid misrepresenting Gordon’s erotic menace as a vocalist. St. Vincent’s take on “Lithium” was strong, but it also demonstrated that Nirvana’s deceptively primitive songwriting can limit a musician as accomplished as Clark. The cryptic imagery and discordant bridge on “Heart-Shaped Box” would have given her more to play. Lorde—whose presence I anticipated after Ann Powers argued that Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s mainstream elaboration on “young female voices finding themselves within a forest of electronically generated sounds” made her “the Nirvana of now”—may be the only pop star of her generation who can convincingly sing “I wish I was like you/easily amused.” Lorde approached it as a put-down, but she may connect more with it later as an expression of need. It’s both.
Such collaborations allow us to consider what the Rock Hall has become and what it could still be. It was exciting to see four women reinterpret men’s work. But we still have yet to fully challenge rock’s hegemonic whiteness. What if Tamar-Kali was there to perform “On a Plain”? I thought about Mariah Carey’s Hole fandom and imagined how the organization could break down boundaries of gender and race by providing space for artists to celebrate each other across musical genres. It raises one last question: who will share the stage with Lorde if she gets inducted in 2038?
Close out 2013 by checking out my Antenna post on Beyoncé.
If I’ve learned anything from teaching undergraduates in a survey on contemporary media this semester, it’s that many of them like Lorde. A handful of students claimed “Royals” as their song of the summer during first-week introductions. Two weeks later, I had students select four movies, TV shows, songs, and video games for a scavenger hunt where they had to determine what media conglomerates “owned” the media properties in question. One student threw “Royals” on the board, to the enthusiasm of several classmates. Then, over the last two weeks, we’ve returned to the U.S. and international versions of the “Royals” music video to talk about form and ideology, respectively. They’ve had a lot to say about each version, and were particularly interested in talking about her work and image. For a semester that began amid the backlash of Miley Cyrus’s divisive VMA performance (more on that later; I have thoughts), the New Zealand prodigy is as much a recurring presence in class discussion as pop’s reigning wrecking ball.
I’ve guided students through analyses of both versions of the video eight times in the past two weeks. So “Royals” and I are familiar with one other. I’m especially fascinated by how Lorde (with director Joel Kefali) chooses to present herself in the medium. Simply put, she has a cavalier attitude toward lip syncing. She often fixes her gaze on the camera with her mouth closed as the track plays around her. She takes this to its logical extreme in the video to her follow-up single, “Tennis Court,” by only mouthing the word “yeah.”
What does this mean, exactly? A student pointed out that Lorde’s “non”-presentation shifted her expectations for how female pop stars represent themselves in music videos. It’s more commonplace for pop stars to objectify themselves for the purposes of promotion. In addition, the burden of self-objectification is uniquely bestowed upon women. The expectation of how women represent themselves in music video tends to rely upon sexualization. We expect a red-lipped Miley to lick a mallet. We anticipate Rihanna to sit on a throne in a diamond bra and barely-there denim hot pants. I don’t believe that those expectations result in straightforward analyses that “prove” that female pop stars are complicit in male-driven fantasies of women’s objectification. As Susan Elizabeth Shepard, Ayesha A. Siddiqi, and Sarah Nicole Prickett argue, the hypnotic video for “Pour It Up” has more to do with female narcissism, athleticism, and solidarity than such blunt-instrument interpretations usually allow. It also complicates cultural readings of black female bodies as decorous, intrinsically sexual accessories that recirculated—powerfully, by scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom—as a result of Cyrus’ VMA performance.
Of course, Lorde isn’t the only female pop star to stare at the camera. It’s traditionally used as a way to mark a singer’s vulnerability. In a tight close-up, we have access to her face as she fights back tears during emotional moments in her song. Sinead O’Connor famously shed a tear over the line “All the flowers that you planted, mama—in the back yard—all died when you went away” in “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Miley referenced O’Connor’s performance in “Wrecking Ball,” reportedly crying over the death of her dog and not the end of her relationship to Liam Hemsworth. Unfortunately, this homage resulted in an unfortunate exchange between the two singers that some note failed to engage meaningfully with intersectional concerns of pop music and appropriation.
Thus, it should be noted that Janelle Monáe also took up the indelible image of O’Connor’s tear-streaked face in the affecting video for “Cold War” a few years back. At certain points, Monáe is so caught up in the performance that she falls out of sync. When she gets to the line, “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me and it hurts my heart”, she lets the tears fall as the track breezes past her.
But Lorde doesn’t choose not to lip sync because she’s crying. In fact, her face deliberately obscures access to such emotions. My take on Lorde’s decision not to lip sync is that, in doing so, she is drawing attention to the artifice of music video as a popular form that often falls on women to perform. But, there’s something deeply calculated about Lorde’s self-presentation that is every bit as constructed as Miley’s tongue or Rihanna’s strip tease (or, for that matter, Katy Perry’s loin cloth in “Roar” and Britney Spears’ bottle of Fantasy perfume in “Work Bitch”).
One clear difference between the international and U.S. versions of the “Royals” video is Lorde’s presence. Lorde appears only a few times in the international version of the video—staring silently at the camera at the beginning and end of the video, and lip syncing part of the song’s bridge. In the U.S. version, there are more clips of her interspersed throughout. This is an important distinction to make. In New Zealand, she is more of a known figure. By now, it’s part of her lore that she was scouted by label representatives at junior high talent shows and signed a recording contract at 12. Until recently, she has also been rather protective of her image, only allowing a few pictures of herself to circulate. Lorde’s image is control. The tight, symmetrical framing and minimalist aesthetic of her videos illustrate this. Her lyrics—terse yet florid declarative statements about ambition, fame, and “authenticity”—reflect this too. Even her decision to record under the stage name Lorde—and not her given name, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—is one of control over people’s access to the “real” her. However, this reign on her image makes the integration of more footage of her in the U.S. version serve as evidence that Lorde is negotiating control over her image while attempting to enter the U.S. market on its terms.
But we must temper such readings about Lorde’s control over her image with her age and white female privilege. This is why I’m hesitant to sing her praises just yet. I don’t want to place undue emphasis on her age in a media culture that simultaneously gives precocious young white women such a wide margin of error and often exhausts their resources so quickly, an ideology of female success reinforced by the gendering of objectifying terms like “shelf life.” I want all female vocalists to have the room to stumble, record, and perform while accumulating life experience and gray hair. And obviously, whiteness has different cultural connotations in an international context. In New Zealand, whiteness must be interpreted alongside histories of colonialism. However, songs like “Royals” and “Tennis Court” directly confront issues like materialism, consumerism, and class privilege. With “Royals,” such commentary is inflected with—if not outright racism, as Verónica Bayetti Flores claims—a racialist edge that takes up hip-hop’s signifiers—gold teeth, Cristal, Cadillacs, bling, Queen Bs—in ways that are simultaneously “for everyone” in a post-racial context and embedded in distinctly black forms of cultural production.
As a white woman, Lorde gets to eschew these riches and strive for them at the same time. These are privileges that most teenage girls are not offered. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the mainstream incorporation of a video with a Māori sixteen-year-old girl stoically peering at a camera and choosing not to lip sync lyrics to her own song alongside images of her teenage male counterparts boxing each other. Thus, by not lip syncing, Lorde makes a principled decision to keep her mouth shut when so few young women are given the opportunity to open theirs at all. This is the privilege of cutting your teeth on wedding rings in defiance while reaching for the brass ring of mainstream success. My hope is that Lorde understands the weight of this and stares it straight in the face.