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.
Jennifer Kelly is my favorite writer at Dusted, my go-to music e-zine. Recently she conceded that this year in music had a lot of contenders, but no clear leader of the pack. She then went on to list ten albums she really liked regardless of music critics’ echo chamber. It’s a good list, and I recommend you check it out. I also think you should give some time to Wetdog, a British punk band I learned about from her list.
In many ways, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches. So many big-name artists released career-peak records and lots of up-and-comers made me excited to listen to music each week (day? half-day? quarter-day? how rapid is the cycle now?). On paper, it’s a banner year. Yet I can’t pick one album that defines it. But that’s probably a good thing.
If I were to draft a list, three albums would place at #2. Critical darling Janelle Monáe comes the closest to topping my list. She defied commercial expectations with a pop album called The ArchAndroid about a futuristic metropolis that fused Prince with Octavia Butler. Joanna Newsom channeled Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan to create the dusky reveries on the enveloping Have One on Me. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lifted synths straight out of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” while borrowing from Berlin-era Bowie for This Is Happening, which was book-ended by two of the man’s best songs.
The last two artists also managed to follow up and improve upon the albums that made them big tent attractions. Like most great pop music, they transcend their influences and ambitions. Yet each album is weighed down by at least one song. I always skip Happening‘s “You Wanted A Hit?,” which is too long and repetitive, even if it is aware of these things. I won’t fault Monáe and Newsom’s scope, but pruning a few tracks off for an EP or as b-sides might have been helpful. I think “Say You’ll Go” and “Kingfisher” don’t have the impact they could have elsewhere. If Newsom were referencing PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “Kingfisher” would be her “Horses in My Dreams,” but it’s buried here.
BTW, no one’s jostling for #3. It’s Flying Lotus’ elegantly trippy Cosmagramma all the way.
As with every year, there are albums that are overrated and underpraised. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect #11. It’s got fascinating angst and pathos that recalls another celebrity guilt rock record, Nirvana’s In Utero while squarely situating it as a black man’s experiences with fame. West’s bionic, prog-inflected production is the most potent it’s ever been. “All of the Lights” and “Monster” are among the year’s best songs, though credit goes solely to Nicki Minaj for the latter. But Jesus am I tired of reading ovations that cite the rapper’s Twitter feed. Yes, it provides insights into his process. And yes, it is noteworthy how West made so many tracks available to fans before the album was released (and maybe I’d bump it to #10 if “Chain Heavy” made the final cut). But it’s hardly album of the year or even a career best (in my opinion, he still hasn’t improved upon Late Registration).
Conversely, Spoon’s Transference is an ideal #9. People seem to hold one of America’s best rock bands in lower esteem this year for making an incomplete-sounding album. To my ears, this is an ingenious thing for a band so preoccupied with space and compositional austerity to do with a break-up record. I keep returning to tracks like “Is Love Forever” and “Nobody Gets Me,” yearning for a resolution I know I won’t find. I’d also mention that Marnie Stern‘s latest record (which would probably round out the top five) and Dessa‘s A Badly Broken Code (a peerless #4) were slept on. If they didn’t place higher, it’s only because they didn’t feel the need to announce their greatness and came on as slow burners. The same could be said of Seefeel‘s earthy dub on Faults (possibly #7) and Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had an incredibly prolific year that peaked with Kings Ballad (between #8-10). Psalm One’s Woman @ Work series on Bandcamp has me anticipating her next album. Oh, and since this was a year largely defined by albums about break-ups and shaky make-ups, Erykah Badu’s Second World War (#8) needs your attention.
There’s also lots of new stuff I liked this year that I hope ages with me. I’ve made peace with my misgivings about the limited shelf life of Sleigh Bells’ bubblegum through blown speakers, in part because Treats (#12-15 with some staying power) sounds amazing in the car, which is where all great pop records become immortal in the states. I’d like Best Coast more if leader Bethany Cosentino just went ahead and wrote a concept album about the munchies or her cat instead of devoting so many songs to boys. Sufjan Stevens’ indulgence bored me silly, as did Surfer Blood’s inability to rise past their influences and sound like themselves. Big Boi and Bun B’s ambitious releases deserve their accolades, but they should excite me more than they do. I have yet to fall in love with Robyn the way everyone else has, but Rihanna continues to be my girl.
I’m really into the new Anika record, which is tailor-made for insomniacs. However, I’m certain that a woman with a Teutonic monotone snarling her way through catatonia as producer Geoff Barrow quotes post-punk’s buzzsaw guitar noise holds limited appeal. I always welcome a new Gorillaz album, and Plastic Beach certainly delivered. Among others, I liked new efforts from Baths, El Guincho, Noveller, M.I.A., Grass Widow, Sharon Van Etten, Soft Healer, Beach House, Mountain Man, The Black Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Tobacco, Sky Larkin, Tame Impala, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nite Jewel, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Warpaint, Antony and the Johnsons, The Budos Band, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, even if the last two artists essentially release the same great album each time out. And even though I get a free cocktail if Merge wins the Album of the Year Grammy, Matador had a good year for me with Glasser, Esben and the Witch, and Perfume Genius, whose harrowing confessionals will hopefully find a larger audience (Sufjan fans, listen up).
(Note: don’t get me started on the Arcade Fire. I’m going to be mean and unfair, as I’ve been since I gave up on liking Funeral. Suffice it to say, I’m not fond of them and think I can tell you more about living in a Houston suburb than they can. But it won’t be a productive conversation because I’ll tear up my throat launching cheap shots about dressing for the Dust Bowl and wearing denim jackets to prove that you’re one with the working man. It’s not helpful, so I’ll be kind and say they’re fine at what they do but I want no part of it.)
Part of why I can’t settle on a #1 is because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think I need an album to define the year for me. It’s always seemed that selecting one was a fool’s errand. Steve Albini may very well be an insufferable jerk, but he’s absolutely right when he said “Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Last year, I chose Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. While it helped situate my feelings for the year, it can’t hold a candle to her modern classic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But now I’m not even sure what the point is. This exercise doesn’t take into account all of the older music I finally prioritized this year. For me, 2010 is just as much defined by digging through Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses records (4AD had a good year in all kinds of ways), as well as getting excited about Mary Timony, Jenny Toomey, and Carla Bozulich.
Furthermore, I’ve sometimes lost sight of why I write in this medium. Apart from being vulnerable to having my content scraped by sketchy sites and feeling like I should be doing something more politically important with my time, it can be a challenge to keep the routine of blogging from dulling the impact of your work. This may have more to do with a need to explore scarier forms of writing, like the kind that requires the involvement of a guitar or a storyboard. As a departure, I started a film blog series for Bitch last month. It’s been the right kind of challenging, though I’m not always certain I’m effectively communicating what I hope to accomplish. Music allows for abstraction where films require exposition, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m writing several variations on “I walked to the chair and sat down.” But I’m learning and it’s been a lot of fun.
I’ve also been fortunate this year to contribute content for Bitch, Tom Tom Magazine, Elevate Difference, I Fry Mine in Butter, and Scratched Vinyl, for which I’m grateful and hope I’ve done a service to those publications. In addition to music critics I love like Laina Dawes, Maura Johnston, and Audra Schroeder, I’m excited and challenged by writing from Amy Andronicus, Always More to Hear, Soul Ponies, Jenny Woolworth, Sadie Magazine, Women in Electronic Music, This Recording, and regularly follow podcasts like Cease to Exist and Off Chances.
I don’t mean to be self-effacing toward my efforts, as I’m proud of them. It’s been a good year and it’s healthy to be critical when you’re taking stock. Perhaps I’m responding to a lack of stability. This was a year of change. Some changes were seismic, like when several friends had babies. Others were gradual, like my partner launching a successful music e-zine and me delving into the world of freelance writing in earnest while taking a deep breath and learning to play the guitar. While some friends returned to Austin, others moved away this year and more are soon to follow in 2011. There’s even an infinitesimal chance I’ll be in that number, but the likelihood of uprooting and leaving the food carts and backyard parties of my adopted home is so small and too profound to consider, so I push it away.
But as I’ve thought on these feelings during the year, the lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “Home” resonate. Though detractors may note Murphy’s manipulating my generation with lines like “love and rock are fickle things” and “you’re afraid of what you need . . . if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” I’ve taken comfort in crooning them in my car. That’s the best of what pop music can accomplish–taking abstractions and making them applicable to life’s mundane realities, at times clarifying their importance. In whatever medium, I can’t wait for another year of writing about it.
On Monday’s drive home, I tuned in to NPR’s All Things Considered. There was promise of a story on rapper/singer Lauryn Hill later in the broadcast, but it didn’t air while I was in the car. Thus, I picked it up via Twitter and listened to it yesterday.
Since I tend to comment on things in pairs, my interests in the brief feature were two-fold.
1. It contained some people talking about how they grew up listening to her music.
2. The reclusive Hill was herself interviewed and intimated that she may be recording again.
I may not have a signed meal card like one of her fans talks about in the piece, but too grew up with Hill. The Fugees rose to fame in the mid-90s, approximately around my awful year in 7th grade. While I hadn’t listened to the debut Blunted on Reality, MTV engineered the feeling that I discovered them. I remember first seeing L-Boogie, Wyclef, and Praz on Squirt TV. A few weeks later, the music video for “Fu-Gee-La” played on Yo! MTV Raps. And then their cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” took over the world, selling millions of copies of their 1996 breakthrough album The Score, putting the group on the cover of Rolling Stone and catapulting Hill to superstar status.
It didn’t hurt that The Score was a great record. With the glaring exception of that racist skit in the Chinese restaurant, most songs on the album bridge pop accessibility with political nuance and a distinct cinematic quality that showcased each members individual talents. “The Beast,” “Ready or Not,” “Family Business,” especially “The Mask” . . . this album is a classic to me.
But then Hill struck out on her own and made The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which came out in 1998. I loved it. It was so affirming and singular and deserved all the Grammys it received, including the first Album of the Year given to a hip hop full-length. I was so thrilled by her success. To me, she was the whole package: great singer, dexterous rapper, smart, funny, politically conscious, and beautiful to boot.
Of course, then things got complicated. Lawsuits were filed. Hill never recorded a proper follow-up and reports circulated of increasingly erratic behavior. I recall someone asking why Lauryn Hill wasn’t included in the hip hop documentary Say My Name at a Q&A following a SXSW screening. Director Nirit Peled stated that Hill was originally approached to be in the documentary, but told the crew not to look her in the eyes and refused to answer to anything but “Ms. Hill.” Having heard similar things elsewhere, I’ve long been of the mind that the music industry really damaged her.
But I’ve always rooted for her. At the risk of drawing inappropriate comparisons, I have much more invested in Hill returning to music than, say, Courtney Love (who recently played with Hole at the 9:30 Club to at least one irate critic). I was excited to see the Fugees reform for Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, but glad that they didn’t do much past record a track or two if it didn’t feel right to them. I don’t want Hill to force a comeback. But if she’s ready, I’m here to listen.
Earlier this year, it was announced that Bluewater Productions would release a comic on Lady Gaga as part of their Fame series. Grammy winner Taylor Swift, who beat out Gaga for Album of the Year, is also a part of the collection. Teasers for each edition were given out during Free Comic Book Day this past Saturday. My friend Cassandra, herself quite the comic book nerd, was good enough to loan me her copy.
I’ll confess that I’m not too well-versed in comics. I basically read the most popular titles years after friends extolled their worth. That said, I’m certainly aware of celebrity comics. I’m more interested in celebrities who have created comic books. Courtney Love’s co-created the manga series Princess Ai. My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way penned The Umbrella Academy. A comic was released as a supplement for Melissa Auf Der Maur’s new album, Out of Our Minds. I’m also looking forward to reading Comic Book Tattoo, an anthology inspired by the work of Tori Amos.
I’m also interested in actors who author comics that have to do with characters they play on television, as several cast members from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Heroes have done in order to expand the universe of their show (and increase its profit margins). Of course, I also champion actors who create comic book series that have nothing to do with characters they play. Thus I strongly encourage you to pick up Brea and Zane Grant’s We Will Bury You, which is about a zombie insurgence set during Prohibition. The second volume has just been released, and dig the cover for volume three.
But the content for these two pop stars’ comics isn’t particularly interesting. Gaga’s issue focuses on a slovenly male music geek harboring a secret obsession with her that potentially threatens his credibility. Swift’s rise to stardom is rendered in an unimaginative fashion. There’s also too much emphasis on her normalcy and an unchallenged assertion of her role model status for my taste. More will have to be revealed in order to peak my interest.
At the risk of sounding aloof, I’ve been ignoring Taylor Swift for some time. Readers might notice that I haven’t said a peep about her beyond an observation about how she might be a continuation of the girl group tradition after she hosted SNL. When the VMA debacle happened, I didn’t care. I thought Beyoncé was classy about it, and I thought Kanye was right in his opinion, if wrong in execution (seriously, “Single Ladies” is one of the best videos of all time, and perhaps the most iconic of its decade). I thought Swift seemed a little unnecessarily entitled when she was gave her acceptance speech later in the broadcast, but other than that I thought very little about it.
For a while, I actually didn’t know who this Taylor Swift person was. First I thought she was on The Hills. I work under the assumption that any famous white person on MTV is a Hill.
Then I saw her take some Southern kid to the prom on MTV. Then I found out she was a country singer from Pennsylvania who loved Def Leppard and covered Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which didn’t help her cause. Then I heard the pop version of “You Belong With Me,” promptly motivating me to listen to the slightly twangier original. From here, I reduced her to “country Avril” and went about my business.
Swift, not unlike Depeche Mode in their own way, may be a good gateway artist into more interesting and challenging music. Being a pre-teen Depeche Mode devotee led me to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Nick Cave’s various incarnations (admit it, DM fans: your band is at best a singles act; only Violator and maybe Black Celebration are essential in an otherwise mediocre catalog). Likewise, Swift might lead fans to The Dixie Chicks, Neko Case, Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and Wanda Jackson. But my opinion of Swift is, “fine, she’s young and plays a guitar and writes her own songs (with Liz Rose) . . . but I’m totally bored by her.”
Kristen at Act Your Age and my friend Asha forwarded this Autostraddle article to me. Asha asked me what I thought about it, and an outpouring of opinions bubbled up. Apparently I can get my screed on over a musician I have no personal investment in. But as I watched her wide, ordinary Grammy performance with Stevie Nicks (who sounded ridiculous singing “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” BTW) and yelled at my television when she gave her folksy “we’ll tell our grandchildren about this” Album of the Year speech, I discovered that I do have a personal investment in her fame. So here we go.
I’m pretty much in line with the writer and have brought up Swift’s privileged upbringing, pedantic songwriting, normative femininity, her handling of the VMA debacle, and inauthentic authenticity when talking to other people about her.
I agree with the writer about how there wasn’t really anything to hate about Taylor Swift until she started racking up important awards. I get her appeal, but I have no personal investment in her career. She writes inoffensive love songs you’d hear on the CW or romantic comedies women are supposed to love (like Valentine’s Day, which stars Swift and features her music).
Above all, Swift’s music is inoffensive to the point of offense when you factor in its success. When I think about Swift’s age alongside the teenage output of acts like Schmillion, Roxanne Shanté, ESG, Mika Miko, Björk’s work in KUKL, and some girl in her bedroom whose music I have yet to hear, I’m far more interested in that music. It’s weird and flawed and brave and inspiring. It’s really easy to forget about Swift when this music is also available. I wish more people would take the time to find it.
I’d like to point out that the Album of the Year Grammy isn’t as important as the writer suggests, nor should it be to you. In the grand tradition of award ceremonies and canons, the Grammys have long esteemed mediocrity and blandness. Sure, some cool people have won. But lots of boring and past-their-prime people have also won. And some great artists haven’t won Album of the Year but continue to make enduring music, as a Jezebel writer pointed out at the end of a recent article.
I can also counter the writer’s closing paragraphs, which are pretty hyperbolic. I’m not sure how much of a punk Lady Gaga is, or what, for that matter, the value of the word “punk” means when you can apply it to Vivian Westwood couture, coffee table books, and Hot Topic. That said, I too am inspired by mainstream female pop stars who explore and own the complex dimensions of their sexuality, particularly P!nk, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera. I only wish there were more of them, or that Gossip’s Beth Ditto or M.I.A. sold enough records to qualify.
I don’t really take issue with Swift being a weak singer, in that I don’t think evaluating singers in terms of their technical abilities is always a fruitful exercise. I’d be happier with her being a weak singer if she did something interesting with her voice, but I basically feel like she’s doing karaoke when she sings. This could have a charm to it if her phrasing and sense of dynamics weren’t also really obvious. And she often acts out lyrics in a way that I find insulting to the audience. Sure it’s a continuation of the girl group tradition. But do you really need to mime picking up a phone to let listeners know that you’re talking on the phone with some boy? Is it your way of helping out your international fan base? Or is just so you can remember the exact words that comprise the trite rhetoric you’re selling?
Thus, if we have to make problematic either/or value judgments, I think it’s better to evaluate singing not as good or bad, but as present or absent. Lots of artists lack technically proficient or “pretty” voices, but get you with their commitment to creating sound and the feelings behind it. Likewise, lots of singers have pleasant voices, but sound like they’re thinking about checking their e-mail or getting on a plane. So, I actually take issue with how removed Swift sounds from her music. And then I really take issue with how she sings about romance with a disingenuous approximation of sustained wonder. For me, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard does something similar and it drives me up a tree. Add some faux-authentic lyrics about ripped jeans, pick-up trucks, sneakers, and faded t-shirts and I don’t think you’re emoting so much as lying.
That said, I think this quote is a little insulting: “Swift simply hasn’t had the life experience and doesn’t inherently possess the emotional maturity to create great art.” It smacks a bit of “she’s just a girl; she hasn’t experienced life yet.” As women who work with girls, Kristen and I include Swift in our music history workshops. We don’t do this as fans, but because we know she means a lot to many girls, some of whom are just learning how to play music or are picking up instruments for the first time. Some of you might be reading this now, and I totally respect your preferences and value your opinions. You may be die-hard fans, or you may grow out of her music and find something else. You may believe in the kinds of fairy tales Swift trades in, though hopefully you’ll come to them with a revisionist bent like Lady Gaga, Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent.
Whatever you choose, all I hope for as an older, cranky lady who doesn’t like Swift’s music is that you never stop discovering new sounds as you develop your own. And I promise never to bore you with stories about how awesome and progressive my pop idols were in comparison to your music, because no text is ever above inquiry. Swift is problematic, but so is Björk. As I have faith in your awesomeness, I have no doubt that you’ll come up with something that’ll blow me away. And if you wanna bitch about Swift and turn that rage into something completely new and original, I’ll be here to listen.
So, after writing about my nostalgia last week, I thought I’d reflect on truly borrowed nostalgia: the music of my mother’s generation. I’m specifically thinking about the emergence of the female singer-songwriter, who came into vogue in the mid-1960s New York-based folk scene and became a cultural juggernaut by the end of the decade and into the mid-1070s with women like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, for whom Sheila Weller wrote a toothsome, comprehensive biography last year called Girls Like Us.
The women’s sound(s), look(s), and message(s) would help destigmatize (if only for a moment) the feminist movement (if still largely configured to be a straight, middle-class, white woman’s struggle). They also helped pave the way for a revival of female singer-songwriters in the 1990s, helping result in the established careers of Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as the launch of festivals like Lilith Fair (which is rumored to make a return in 2010).
And, though perhaps a stretch, I kept thinking about these three women in relation to Betty Draper, Joan Holloway, and Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, three very different women beginning to weather and confront seismic shifts in gender and sexual politics at the beginning of the 1960s that the three artists featured in this book would at times undo, surrender to, and be blocked by at the end of the decade and into the 1970s.
Having read this book, I wonder if any of the women of Mad Men became fans of these artists. Would any of these women help make Tapestry one of the best-selling albums of all time? Betty and Joan may be a little too old, but I think they’d respectively empathize with Joni’s mother’s need to have a perfect Norwegian beauty for a daughter and Carly’s conflicting feelings about her sex-bomb identity. Peggy seems just the right age to follow these women, as she does accompany a co-worker to see Bob Dylan in season two. Personally, I think she’d be a huge Carole King fan. Two tough Brooklynite professionals with a knack for commercial pop art? Yeah, I think they’d find one another.
The key thing I appreciated about Girls Like Us, which does an exhaustive job documenting these three women’s personal and professional lives, is its committment to dialoging the artists with one another. Often, when attempts of this sort are made, it results in playing women off each other or reducing them to one singular entity (in this case, chick singer-songwriter seems the most apt dismissive). Weller does an admirable job individuating them (further enforced by using a different font for each woman), while at the same time highlighting where they overlap or interact and putting them in a gendered generational context of women and girls coming into their own particular feminist awakenings.
Notably, these women were all self-made. Carole Klein and Canadian-born Roberta Joan Anderson became Carole King and Joni Mitchell, toiling for years in the Brill Building and the coffeehouse circuit before becoming legendary. And Carly Simon, born into the New York elite as the third child of the Simon family (yes, of Simon & Schuster), had to start from scratch after years of following artist boyfriends, watching her sisters get married, and working odd jobs before landing a career. They also established themselves as icons at the same time. 1971 would be the year that King released her second solo album, Tapestry, culminating in one of the few Grammy wins for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year for a female artist. That same year, Mitchell would release Blue, a huge artistic breakthrough. And in 1972, alongside King’s sweep, Simon would win her Grammy for Best New Artist for her self-titled debut.
One unfortunate commonality all three women share is a need to make men happy, almost always the wrong man or the undeserving man. This is a lesson I saw many of my mother’s generation learn the hard way, and fear it will continue to play out with other women and girls, but hope we’ll learn from history. For Carole, this meant four marriages — first to her Brill Building lyricist Gerry Goffin (who would father singer Earl-Jean McCrae’s daughter Dawn while still married to King), then to bassist Charles Larkey, then to two chauvinist mountain men named Rick. For Joni, this meant marrying a man named Chuck Mitchell who (in her account) forced her to give up an infant daughter (her pregnancy, and giving up a daughter, would haunt Mitchell for years until she was reuinted with Kilauren in the late 1990s). For Carly, this meant using her sexual wiles to snare a man at all costs, a lesson she learned from her mother Andrea, before casting her lot with a man that would remain a drug addict for the majority of their marriage before unceremoniously dumping her.
Both Carole and Carly suffered considerable heartache, though Joni, perhaps a typical only child, often would cut and run, preferring solitude and creative freedom to being tied down, a lesson she learned by following Crosby, Stills, and Nash while living with Graham Nash. The woman who wrote “Woodstock” would not be cast as another man’s groupie.
As Carly’s man was James Taylor, it seems important to point out that all three of these women had some connection with Sweet Baby James. As James (along with almost all male rock stars of the era) was in awe of Carole King’s legacy as a Brill Building composer, he often covered her work extensively, most notably “You’ve Got a Friend.”
King nursed an unrequited crush, though her songwriter Toni Stern wrote “It’s Too Late” after the end of her affair with Taylor.
Joni dated James for a while. It ended, but at least she and Carly became friendly later in life.
And Carly presumably expedited the matrimonial process by writing “You’re So Vain” and getting one of her rumored paramours, Mick Jagger, to contribute back-up vocals. Taylor proposed shortly thereafter, creating the first rock star marriage. However, he would often get sidelined by his ongoing battle with heroin, as well as his wife’s meteoric rise to pop stardom. She would often worry herself sick and modify her behavior for Taylor, a symptom Weller believes is linked to wanting to please her disengaged father.
Yet, I don’t want to suggest these women are patriarchy’s tragic casualties. I certainly don’t think they would. Carole continued a long professional partnership with Goffin, and also accepted Dawn, Goffin’s daughter with McRae, as one of her own children, something her biological children did as well. In addition, she became very politically active, lobbying hard for environmental issues, particularly working to preserve Idaho’s wildlife after falling in love with its woodlands.
Joni kept pushing herself further artistically, regardless of whether or not she was met with critical acclaim. She most notably began incorporating jazz elements into her music, hiring reputable session musicians and expanding her sonic and lyrical styles (though also began playing with race and lauding “natural” blackness, which Weller takes to task, specifically when talking about Mitchell’s black alter ego Art Nouveau, which she poses as in blackface for the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter).
And Carly was most prominent in the mainstreaming of feminism (though not without its own issues — in the 1970s, feminism was often a Seven Sisters game and Simon, a Sarah Lawrence dropout born from a wealthy family, fit right in). She also promoted the celebration of female sexual agency and autonomy, complicating the widely-held belief that all second wavers were man-haters waging a war on sex. She also had a liberated attitude toward sex, which Weller supports with conjectures that “You’re So Vain” is actually about multiple men. In addition, Simon has alluded to having an open marriage and being bisexual, as well as being an advocate for LGBT rights.
In short, these women mattered. They shaped the perspectives and actions of millions of women and girls of my mother’s generation. They proved that female artists could garner a huge mainstream audience (a lesson that needed to be reminded to A&R folks, concert promoters, and radio programmers in the 1990s, resulting in countercultural movements like riot grrrl and mainstream enterprises like Lilith Fair). And they continue to influence female recording artists and their listeners. And, most importantly, they continue to work, just as their male counterparts do, regardless of whether or not they are deemed culturally relevant. Let their voices be heard.