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.
Recently, I had the pleasure of catching Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective GRRRL PRTY. It was an excellent set—full of energy and good will. Lots of underground hip-hop legends like Psalm One and P.O.S. made appearances. But GRRRL PRTY delivered, trading verses and beats like they were turning a consciousness-raising meeting into a game of typewriter. How else do you write manifestas?
At the end of the evening, they rapped over Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love.” It was an infectious performance, in part because it was clear how much GRRRL PRTY and the audience loved this song. But what moved me most about it was when they authoritatively chanted “No Ikes, only Tinas” over Jay-Z’s now-infamous command: “Now eat the cake, Anna-Mae/eat the cake, Anna-Mae!” It neatly captured my ambivalence over the song as a fan. I love most of the song, but like many, I can’t swallow that line.
Much of “Drunk In Love” is outstanding. The production is excellent, cannily bringing together trap beats, strings, and vocal arpeggios and transforming those elements into exhilarating pop. Beyoncé’s performance channels Carrie Bradshaw flirting with Aiden during last call. She revels in the grain of her lower register. She exaggerates words because she knows that sexy and silly are often the same thing. She babbles. She articulates her preferences (#surfbort). She lets the power of her own pleasure overtake her, so that when she bellows “We be all night!” I imagine her punching the ocean and delighting in the messy splashes that explode under her fists. The lyrics are funny and shockingly candid. Of course, the candor is part of a performance. But the sex she describes seems believable, both in its hotness and its goofiness. How did we get from the dance floor to the kitchen? And when did we have time to run a bath?
I mentally bracket a few things out of the song. I don’t know what to do with Beyoncé’s use of “daddy,” here and elsewhere on Beyoncé. I consciously avoid that word in all contexts. The cute, upturned second syllable always bothered me as a kid. But I’m not Beyoncé. It would be treacherous and facile to read into the age difference between her and her husband. No two couples feel a twelve-year gap the same way. I don’t want to be the kind of feminist who sanctions other people’s sexual expression. I don’t know what that word means to Beyoncé, and it’s in lots of people’s vocabulary. So I’ll step aside from it.
But I can’t step aside from “eat the cake.” I’m hardly alone. First, as has been well-documented, it references a scene of partner violence in the Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, a connection further supported by Jay identifying himself with Turner’s abusive ex-husband, Ike. Beyoncé’s clear admiration for and emulation of Tina gives the reference additional heft as well. It also makes her engagement with the line disconcerting. She mouthed the phrase while staring at the camera in the video. She delivered part of it with Jay at the Grammys.
There’s the other, pettier reason why that line bothers me. Jay needs to step up his game. This has been the dominant narrative about him following (and preceding) the release of Watch the Throne. My favorite part of the video for Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” is when Jay remains seated after Justin introduces his verse with “Get out your seat, Hov.” He lets the pop star do all the work while he leans into the mic between puffs from his cigar.
There are parts of Jay’s verse to “Suit and Tie” that I enjoy, like when he’s addressing Beyoncé’s parents. Likewise, I’m okay with some of Jay’s verse on “Drunk In Love.” The “panties right to the side” line reminds me of a scene in Jill Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight, which featured several scenes of candid marital sex. I’m uncomfortable with the “beat the box up like Mike” line. First, it reminds me of The Ying-Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song),” which made me anxious despite its crisp production. Jay’s also comparing himself to Mike Tyson, another black male cultural figure who mistreated his female counterparts.
But I wish that Jay rose to Beyoncé’s occasion. If we took Ike out of the “cake” line (which we can’t), it would still be a dumb, leering come-on (get it?). She’s risen to his occasion in their relationship. And she clearly put quantifiable and incalculable effort into this album. But I hear a distance in his performance on “Drunk In Love.” Certainly he’s not big on public displays of affection. For all of the fanfare over the steaminess of their Grammy performance of “Drunk In Love,” the most honest moment for me was when he shyly removed his hand from her backside after realizing that millions of people witnessed that display of physical intimacy. Maybe he collaborates better with producers. Maybe he’s hungry when there’s beef. When listening to his verse, I’m reminded of how Kanye West asked Nicki Minaj to rewrite her verse for “Monster.” She summoned the strength to deliver a passage that reduced the efforts of West, Jay, Rick Ross, and Justin Vernon to dust. Perhaps a love song is not the place to channel that kind of creative energy, but Jay’s verse and performance on “Drunk In Love” illustrates a power differential in hip-hop that requires one rapper to apply herself and another rapper to phone it in on his superstar wife’s album.
It’s too easy to pathologize Beyoncé here. But she said that she’s not his little wife and I believe her. That means we have to recognize her authority in the “cake” line’s presence on “Drunk In Love” in the first place. Beyoncé’s lyrics and videos contain more campy, meme-worthy catchphrases and cultural references than an episode of Drag Race. But we can’t treat “eat the cake” like “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” “a diva is a female version of a hustler,” or “I just woke up like this.”
As was true of the first four albums, Beyoncé is an intersectional work of contradiction. In “Flawless,” she juxtaposes a lyrical post-feminist swagger with a sample from a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED talk that advocated for gender equality. Importantly, the song includes Adichie’s claim “We raise girls to see each other as competitors—not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing…” That inclusion is critical. In the chorus to “Partition,” an exhibitionist fantasy in the spirit of Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” Beyoncé drops the sex goddess act to say that she wants to be the kind of girl you like. That admission is critical too.
What makes Beyoncé powerful as a female artist is that her work and personae centralize the tension between projecting invincibility and revealing an insecurity that often comes from wanting more. Beyoncé wants every woman and girl to have a piece of the pie. But she also wants a bigger piece than everyone else. This is a feminist struggle. This is also a struggle she shares with many other women in pop music, including Tina. I hope Beyoncé reaches out to her as a fan, as an entertainer, and as a woman. If music initiated this controversy, maybe it can resolve it too. In 2008, the pair performed “Proud Mary” at the Grammys. Perhaps they can reunite next year. “Grown Woman” and “Better Be Good To Me” would sound great together.
We’re in February now, which means people are releasing albums again. Yesterday, I listened to new stuff from Toro Y Moi, PJ Harvey, and Adele. I giggled at Urban Outfitters streaming Underneath the Pine, but that’s not unexpected. UO and retailers like American Eagle sell compilations upon occasion. As I mentioned in my review of TOKiMONSTA’s Midnight Menu, the first time I heard an Air song was at the mall. It makes sense. Both artists make music for looking at your ass in expensive jeans. Matter of fact, Chaz Bundick is straight up trying to make Air records.
By the way, if anyone has written on department stores using music as a part of brand identification, please let me know.
In anticipation of their official release dates later this month, NPR is streaming Harvey and Adele’s new albums. I’m sure most readers would expect that I’d devote some space to Harvey’s Let England Shake. However, I’d imagine that regular followers of this blog are already digging the new album and are excited about the short films that are accompanying it. They can probably also tell you that she didn’t peak with Rid Of Me and continues to make great records. They might even say that White Chalk is far more intense than To Bring You My Love. Regardless of whether you know this or not, do check it out.
But I thought I should trumpet my excitement about Adele’s 21. It might be a populist vote, and I strongly encourage fans who want to check out lesser-known artists to give a listen to Orgone and Andreya Triana. However, I’m a believer in supporting good musicians with universal appeal–folks like Jill Scott, Sharon Jones, and fellow Texans like Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones. My mom might have acquired a taste for Joanna Newsom when I played “Sawdust and Diamonds” for her, but what’s not to love about these ladies?
The Grammys are this Sunday, and I plan to tune in and perhaps live Tweet alongside the folks over at In Media Res, who are devoting this week to critical explorations in pop music. I’ve got a cocktail riding on the Album of the Year winner. If it goes to Katy Perry, the hellmouth will open and we won’t have any new Septembers. You’ll recall Adele won two awards in 2009, including the contentious Best New Artist prize. I totally think she deserved it. I admitted my love for her (and my scorn for Vogue‘s sizeism) early in this blog’s run. My only reservation with 21 is that I don’t think there’s a song that matches lead single “Rolling In The Deep,” which opens the album and is powerful enough to bring about a Biblical flood. But “Rumour Has It” and “He Won’t Go” are also in heavy rotation, and her version of the Cure’s “Lovesong” honors the original (which I have tepid feelings for, as I don’t need Robert Smith when I have Siouxsie Sioux) and far exceeds the 311 cover. Adele’s sophomore album is exactly what it needs to be–accomplished, singular, and lousy with hits. She’s well on her way to becoming the Dusty Springfield of my generation, and is becoming our Adele in the process.
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.
I guess I should care about Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s nine-minute music video for “Telephone.” Gaga created the concept with director Jonas Åkerlund. Gaga and B are lesbian partners on the run. But . . . ugh. Okay, I’ll briefly outline my thoughts.
1. Since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” many pop stars have attempted to make lengthy, elaborate, concept music videos work. I can do without all of them, including “Thriller.” Yes, it’s one of the most popular music videos of all time. But I think Jackson’s transformation and the dance routines could stand alone without the slasher movie date night plot, although it’s worth it for his intimation that he’s “not like other guys.”
2. The lesbian jailbird subplot seems subversive but it doesn’t play out that way to me. Most of the actresses are normatively feminine, which plays into the long-standing heterosexual male fandom of the women in prison film genre that the video is hailing. In addition, they’re ornamental, meant to bolster Gaga’s edgy pop star image. If you need any further evidence, witness the “butch” that makes out on (not with) Lady Gaga in the prison yard.
3. I love Gaga’s yellow dye job, which I first saw at the Grammys. As if her platinum blonde tresses and black eyebrows weren’t enough to reveal the hair color of conventional white femininity to be unnatural, she takes its fakeness to a more lurid extreme.
4. Also, Gaga’s telephone headdress is pretty sweet.
5. I think all the product placements speak for themselves.
6. Supposedly, Gaga and Beyoncé are in a romantic relationship here. And this is somewhat interesting in terms of Beyoncé’s career trajectory, as there was a rumor several years back that she was considering starring in a screen adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Sapphic Victorian romance Tipping the Velvet. But they don’t seem like a couple to me. There’s no shared intimacy, no easy rapport. In fact, apart from them joining hands at the end of the video in a clear homage to Thelma and Louise, they really don’t interact at all. Oh, except when Beyoncé feeds Gaga or chauffeurs her criminal girlfriend to their next crime seat. B may sit behind the wheel, but she’s driving Miss Gaga.
7. Also, Beyoncé looks like a real girl doll here. A real girl doll abiding by white people’s notions of what “good” hair looks like and what make-up palettes are flattering. She moves like a robot too. In fairness, both pop stars do, but I still think that B is following Gaga’s lead.
8. I’m not sure about what to do with Gaga and sandwich-making. Perhaps it’s getting at the grotesqueries of processed foods like Wonder Bread and condiments. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the soul-deadening routinization of feminized domestic labor, thus why she’s situated in what looks like a prison kitchen.
9. Thinking back on processed foods, note that Gaga and B’s mass murder takes place at a diner. For one, the diner is a site of fetishized Americana and thus a symbol they might be attempting to destroy (or at least reconfigure, as evidenced by Gaga’s stars and stripes hippie chick get-up). But also notice also that B is Gaga’s decoy and that B snares a black man with her feminine wiles. This man, like many other patrons of color, is killed because the perpetrators slipped poison in his food. Note the racial connotations of what was on his plate too: biscuits, gravy, grits. In other words, highly caloric Southern cooking that often gets associated with particular African American communities, perhaps of which Houstonians like Beyoncé might associate.
Apparently this saga will continue. Let’s hope Beyoncé makes Gaga her driver in the next installment.
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.