Several years ago, I made a disparaging comment about Justin Timberlake and the quality of his actual talent (or lack thereof) in relation to the enthusiasm of his disciples. I don’t remember what all I said, but it had something to do with Britney Spears, the Mickey Mouse Club, and the boy band phenomenon that plaguing ‘this generation of musicians.’
My brother’s best friend, Josh, totally called me out. “You need to open your mind and listen again,” he said. “Because he is a total badass. He is the next Michael Jackson.” (Note: Josh can totally sass me like this because he’s professed his love and adoration for me since he was 10 years old/impressionable, and I was 18/hot.)
As it turns out, he was right. JT is the real deal. I practically call off church on the weekends when he’s hosting SNL, I crank up his get-off-the-couch-and-move tunes in the car, and let’s face it…the boy can DANCE.
Here’s what you should know: when I mocked his quick rise to fame, I was probably about 29. 29 is not old. (In fact, from where I sit, on the far side of 35, it sounds alarmingly young). But the thing is, while 29 is not OLD, exactly, I was older than him. I was outside of his target demographic, and therefore, I wrote him off. ‘These kids today…they can’t sing, they can’t dance, they all look like the plastic and airbrushed cut-out dolls that they are…media darlings with no real talent!”
Bah, humbug. #getoffmylawn
Fast forward about 7 years and I’m the first to admit that, watching the Grammys last night, I had NO IDEA who most of those artists were. ‘Hey, there’s Paul McCartney! I know him!” “Wait, the Rolling Stones are still in this game? Well alright then…NOW you can talk about moves like Jagger, and that makes SENSE, people!” All this between choruses of “where the heck are the Avett Brothers??”
So yeah, I totally empathized with all the stuff going by in my newsfeed about ‘who are these people??’ and ‘man, I’m feeling old tonight.” I feel you, friends. This is not our ball game any more.
Here’s the thing though– I’ve learned a lesson (thanks Josh) about writing off whole generations of musicians just because they aren’t MY music. (Even if MY generation of music was kind of a teenage wasteland…and not in a good way). Daft Punk? Daft indeed. I still have no idea who those guys are, or why they were dressed like stormtroopers. I think Fun is only fun for about 90 seconds, and then it all starts to sound the same. While I love the symbol and sentiment of it– Queen Latifah performing a large group sacrament in primetime offended my liturgical and theological sensibilities. And yes, the many of the women performers were scantily clad.
But to say that they have ‘no talent,’ or they ‘can’t sing,’ is really just a way of dismissing the voice of all that they represent. A typically American pattern of writing off the younger generation, by making a joke out of everything they produce or consume.
I see most of this critical voice–a critique intended to silence– aimed at the younger women. Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves, Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor …Take your pick, but I’ve heard dismissive comments made about each of them in the past 24 hours. It goes without saying that there’s some gender bias at play here, as well. Female artists don’t seem to get much credit or recognition from critics until they are ‘mature,’ ‘experienced,’ or ‘have put in their time at the bottom.’ But as Madonna came on the stage last night–to roars of audience enthusiasm–I could not help but think about the Madonna of my youth. The one who was a ‘harlot,’ a ‘heretic,’ a ‘slut,’ and a no-talent bimbo. Yet here she was in all her aging glory, with every generation present in the crowd calling for more.
Loretta Lynn was 22 when she recorded “Honky Tonk Girl.” I reckon she had her fair share of old dudes at the Opry telling her she should go home to the holler. Dadgum #whippersnapper.
I’m just sayin…we never want to hear it from the young ones. We never want to see real talent when it’s on the rise. But this is an illness of our hyper individualized, utterly segregated, narrowly focused culture of entitlement: we can spend our lives surrounded by people who look, think and act just like us, down to the shoes they wear and the songs they like to sing. And we never have to look beyond our own little selves, or think beyond our own immediate space. We can build our professional lives, our neighborhoods, our children’s education–even our churches–into little boxes of shared experience, and we’ll never learn a daggone thing for as long as we live.
We’re all guilty of this, from time to time. We all sometimes think that the old folks don’t get it, and that the young folks will ruin everything, and that we alone have figured out what the world should be. But man, that makes for some gray clothes and flat music.
The truth is, Taylor Swift broke out of her pop-country-princess cage last night, and rocked an angsty emo ballad. While wearing a drop-dead grown-up gown. While accompanying herself on the piano. The truth is, Kacey Musgraves disarms you with her cute face and her adorable, rhyme-y, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. But when you’re not looking, she hits you with something subversive and vaguely prophetic. She challenges those very boxes we all get so comfortable living in, and then she burns your house down. All while wearing BOOTS THAT LIGHT UP. (Man, I would preach better sermons in those…) And sure, that chick from Lorde has a weird name, and is, herself, even weirder…she is an SNL parody waiting to happen. But she won multiple Grammys her first time at bat. My 5-year-old knows her music, and this old lady mom even likes to jam along. Not for nothing.
And yes, Beyonce wore a skimpy costume. So did Pink. So did Madonna before them, and so will, I’m sure, whatever young woman we’re all shaking our heads at come this time next year. But come on… if I was rocking that bod, I doubt I’d cover up much, either.
Although Kacey, honey…you could bring an actual dress to put on after your performance for in case you actually win a Grammy! Because, seriously, if you literally have to reach back and cover your butt as you walk onto the stage…it could be that your skirt is a tad too short. I’m just saying. #whereisyourmother #putonsomeclothes
Call it a study in contrasts, but that’s how I saw the Grammys last night. Good art, prophetic wisdom, a hopeful future, and fabulous boots. Really, what more could we ask for?
Get out of the box. Get off the merry-go-round. Get out of yourself. And by all means, crank up the music.