I’ve been in a funk lately. A writing funk, a general happiness funk… basically I’ve been a walking avatar for a certain James Brown song.
Duke’s Saturday overtime loss to Syracuse — a symphony of raised and dashed hopes — can be blamed for a portion of this malaise, but my blog block dates all the way back to Grammy night. It started with a simple mistake — following along on Twitter. What I saw was as disheartening as it was difficult to detach myself from, this strange and sad parade of cynicism that was chuckle-worthy one minute, homophobic the next, and mean all the way through. I can’t imagine last year was all smiles and kittens, and I enjoyed the jokes about Pharrell’s hat as much as anyone else, but something felt different this time.
One difference is clear — I had an emotional stake in one of the groups that drew the sharpest criticism. I’ve been a fan of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis since October of 2012, when I discovered “Thrift Shop” via Reddit. I loved it for all the reasons listed here. It was fun and clever, with a message that rang true for me (“$50 for a t-shirt…”). Then I heard “Same Love,” and my respect for the duo grew. I think people of the same sex should be able to marry one another, and I saw the group’s participation in the campaign to sway Washington’s referendum on marriage equality as admirable. Doing the right thing. The song never seemed perfect, but it felt profoundly good to me, in the way that certain people or actions strike you as a net positive in/to/for the world. As a result, I watched the duo’s rise in notoriety with glee, like I was watching close friends succeed at the thing they’re most passionate about. Now, I’m watching with despair as their names and music are maligned in all sorts of ways.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this, because there’s a lot to say, and it’s not the easiest subject matter to wade through. Race. Sexual orientation. Cultural appropriation. This is swampy stuff, and I have to admit to feeling a little out of my depth. I don’t have advanced degrees in any related fields, and my familiarity with the term “cultural appropriation” dates only as far back as the release of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” video. I’m also biased in a way that I have to acknowledge and account for. Like Macklemore, I am white, male, straight and strongly in favor of marriage equality. Throw in a fervent love for crate digging at thrift shops and I may be the most biased person in this situation whose name isn’t Ben Haggerty or Ryan Lewis.
That said, there are a few things I have to say or I’ll be mad at myself for not saying them. You can decide how much weight they carry, based on the disclaimers I provided in the previous paragraph. I apologize in advance for how sanctimonious some of them are.
So the Grammys were this weekend…
I know, I know.
A sizable percentage of you are probably groaning, closing this tab of your browser and saying something like, “Ugh, I can’t stand hearing about those self-congratulating millionaires and the mass-marketed, radio-friendly, auto-tuned crap they give each other awards for making.” Maybe a few of you even added air quotes when you said “making” to drive the point home. Would have been a nice touch.
As much as I enjoy and care about the Grammys, I can’t blame people for detecting, and reacting to, a degree of fakeness. Sunday’s broadcast certainly had its share of artifice, with a Maroon 5/Alicia Keys duet that perfectly embodied pop music’s insider culture and a Bob Marley tribute that hit so far off the mark it seemed genuinely bizarre. (Speaking of which, I made a note a little while ago to write a post about how Bruno Mars might not be human. He’s too good. His voice, stage presence and skin are all unreasonably perfect, and he has this general aura of unreality about him. I’m starting to think that birthers have been rooting around for the wrong Hawaii birth certificate…)
But here’s the thing. There are real people at the Grammys, too. Actual human beings who buy garlic and orange juice at the grocery store and make music that finds success on its own terms. I thought I’d use today’s post to tell you about one of those people, someone whose appearance on the TV screen during Sunday’s ceremony made me cheer out loud as reflexively as I would have if someone had told me that Chris Brown was stuck in an airport somewhere and wouldn’t be available for reaction shots. That someone is Bryn Davies.
I’m usually a huge fan of ridiculous spectacles, pop music and making judgmental comments about celebrities, so the Grammys should be right in my wheelhouse. Nevertheless, I had a really tough time enjoying what I watched last night. Something just felt… off. Reading this stomach-turning Hello Giggles post about Chris Brown just a few hours before the ceremony certainly didn’t help. Seeing this collection of “I’d let Chris Brown beat me” tweets after the show didn’t help either. Nor did the ratio of performances to on-air award presentations, which seems to grow more disproportionate each year (only 10 of the 78 awards were given out on TV). Whatever it was, I walked away more than a little disappointed. But guess what? It’s a big Internet out there, and I’ll let someone else complain about how bad the show was. Besides, a few things happened that made me very happy that I did watch. I loved Justin Vernon’s acceptance speech, for one thing. The acknowledgment of his discomfort in winning showed equal measures of courage and integrity, given his earlier comments about how meaningless these awards are and how creativity should be its own reward. Adele winning everything in sight was heartwarming, as well. I find a tremendous amount of character in her voice, which is refreshing in a pop music paradigm that, as Dave Grohl pointed out in his (rudely truncated) acceptance speech, often favors tonal perfection over personality. But the thing that I’ll remember most about this year’s Grammys was the Civil Wars performing a quickie, one-minute version of “Barton Hollow,” the song that won the award for “Best Country Duo/Group Performance.” They were great. I’d listened to this tune a number of times, and I’ve always liked it, but their natural demeanor and strong, straightforward delivery really stood out from the glut of comically over-produced and awkwardly shoehorned collaborations. Not only did Civil Wars seem like they belonged on such a grand stage, it looked like they could teach a thing or two to some of the other, more well-known and brazenly bedazzled honorees. Their minute on screen was exactly what I needed to jump on the Civil Wars bandwagon with both feet, and I can’t wait to spend more time with their 2011 release Barton Hollow, which took home the award for “Best Folk Album.” Listen to the studio version of the title track below and click here to buy the album on iTunes. I have a feeling you won’t be the only one doing so this week.
The Civil Wars — “Barton Hollow“