A Tale of Three Divas

My head’s buzzing after last night’s Grammys. To wit:

1 – I do not dig The Arcade Fire. I respect them, I get them, and I am thrilled to see Merge Records get this big boost, but the band itself leaves me cold. The thing is, they seem so serious about NOT leaving me cold. Their every muscle onstage is deadly earnest, overwrought. No drum is hit without echoing Agincourt and every hope and dream ever hatched and crushed. All four-by-four driving rhythms and major chords, serious as Suzuki piano lessons. It’s frankly a bit exhausting; it’s one note to me, a note that was compelling when I first hear it in “Wake Up,” but now just seems like way too much. The strobe light assault didn’t help. It seemed to embody everything wrong about them.

It is not that I do not love the music of uplift, of getting sanctified. AF clearly explores territory opened by U2, the band that Sasha Frere-Jones notes traffics almost exclusively in “uplift.” But Bono’s diva act is always shot through (at least since Achtung Baby) with a wicked sense of humor, with the possibility that he is messing with us. That note of humor both lets us enjoy U2’s beautiful surfaces and respond emotionally when they bring the emotional punch they so frequently do. In other words: by NOT being earnest all the time, they are able to KILL with earnestness when they want to.

See? If all you are is earnest, you can never really make an impression on anybody. You need to be able to relax into your earnestness, to allow the humor in, to let the audience find what you bring rather than battering them with what you want them to get.

2 – While thinking on the diva-ness of Win Butler (the guy out front in Arcade Fire), I got to thinking about the diva who was honored at the outset last night: Aretha Franklin, not in attendance but lauded by a devastating five-gun tribute medley. What did Aretha have, I wondered, that Arcade Fire does not? Putting aside genre, passage of time, etc – why do I respond so to her songs, still, when AF leaves me cold?

So this morning I listened to “Respect” five times – really listened, for the first time in years if ever. And what was most amazing was how confident Aretha is in what she is doing. To listen to her lead is to understand why the rest of the performance comes together so magically: she is so assured that the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section can play with her, not at her. How else to account for the drummer’s stutter-swing on the hi-hat, the loose crush rolls and the funky little flam he slaps down on the way into “sock it to me”? He’s not “hammering it down,” and nor is the bass player whose thumping around all that funky junk – instead they are showing up to have fun with Aretha, not behind her. The magic, slippy-slidely feel of the track is borne of the looseness and ease that her confident lead affords. I am not saying the band in and of themselves were not legendary, but they didn’t sound like this with everyone (Wikipedia tells me they also backed the Osmonds’ first hit, which does not have the same ineffable quality to say the least IMHO). And I wonder at whether her confidence is somehow connected to her gospel roots – the fact that since she is consecrated to Sunday morning, she can relax like this on Saturday night. In any case, she can show up and do what she does, making space for others to explore alongside her rather than battering down the door toward her objective. Or something like that.

This seems to have deep importance for the work of teaching (huh? Stay with me). The contrast invites reflection on what is lost by overwhelming, laser-like focus on one outcome – how so many peripheral results of our actions as teachers (or artists) get lost when the only thing we care about is the outcome we have our eye on. Lacan says something like this when he theorizes jouissance as the pleasure of unpredictability and danger, vs plaisir as the pleasure of meeting predicted goals, attaining anticipated satisfactions. So does Dewey when he described “flexible purposing” in Art as Experience. More vivid, maybe,  is Princess Leia’s rejoinder to Governor Tarkin when he insists the Empire is about to crush the Rebellion: “the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” It’s a pretty big issue, and a tough argument to make in the world of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But strobe-light, battering-ram curriculum can only accomplish one thing, if that, and leaves out so much that an approach valuing obliqueness, space, possibility, can bring.

3 – My last diva must be Christina Aguilera, who made my night with her stunning read of Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way” and more than redeemed her Super Bowl National Anthem flub. But consider: I am sure she’s sung “Ain’t No Way” a hundred times to herself, in the car and the shower, in thrall to its gorgeousness. So have I. Who has done as much with the National Anthem? How could she drop a word or a note last night? She was in that magical place where what she desperately wanted to do aligned perfectly with the task at hand: the pedagogical moment, if you will, I think Marshall MacLuhan had in mind when he noted that “anyone who makes a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know a thing about either.” Or so I was reminded, witnessing her valentine to Ms. Franklin last night.

No more time to work this through today. What do you think?


2 responses to “A Tale of Three Divas”

  1. I too watched the Grammy’s last night. I was, for the most part, expectedly disappointed with most of the current acts. As an edm DJ, I lost touch with the mainstream music scene years ago, but most of what I saw last night was truly horrid. Lady Gaga should be ashamed of herself. She is receiving all these awards for her unique style and talent yet blatantly ripping off Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” Most mainstream music is simply recycled trash at this point.

    Bands like AF or even better Mumford and Sons are at least bringing some individuality back into the mainstream current. Mumford and Sons really impressed me with their blend of traditional and current sounds. Though this is nothing new, (ie The Pogues), it was done with a style and class that made it individual to the performer.

    Perhaps Aretha performs in a way that is individual to her. Maybe this is one of the things that has made her a timeless artist. She is able to be a diva and perform this way without being overly self-indulgent —> Christina A. Well, I guess Aretha is a little indulgent, after all she is a diva! 🙂

  2. Chris, as a jazz fanatic, I’ve been thinking about the implications of bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding beating out ol’ Justin Bieber as “Best New Artist”. Putting aside all the usual stuff (that neither artist is particularly new, for example) what’s interesting —edumacationally speaking anyway — is that the Grammy awards have no stated criteria. Without some criteria, how do you judge “bestness”?

    The truth is, “best” new artist perhaps should have gone to Bieber or Drake because the implied criteria is, at minimum, best new POP artist. Obviously, Spalding is a better musician than Bieber (what with her being a Berklee professor and all), but so is every recent graduate of countless music schools. It goes without saying that this is not an award for fine new classical artists, right? They’re not even considered. So why should Spalding be nominated?

    Bieber fans, after the shock was delivered, asked, “Who IS this chick? Can you name one of her songs? How many records has she sold?” These are actually good questions because nearly everything about the award suggests that these are the relevant criteria. How dare the Grammy voters come up with new criteria without telling the Biebstein?

    In classrooms, it’s best to talk up front about what things you’ll be asking students to know or do. Changing the rules at the last minute is not cool.

    It may also be better to aspire to have interesting, powerful skills that you are testing for. Your assessments can favor Esperanza Spalding rather than JBiebs. Mine is not an argument for the conventional or bland or fluffy-haired but for some basic definition and consistency.

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