Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Redeeming Kind of Spectacle: Mary J. Blige Sings Anthem at World Series

I just finished re-watching Mary J. Blige singing the "Star Spangled Banner" at last night's World Series game. When I saw it live last night, it totally killed me in the best way possible. So, I wanted to relive the experience, and give it another chance to convey what it was that made it so poignant for me.

Well, it's a lot of things, it turns out, some ancient and epic, others timely and individual.

First, the ancient and epic. At sporting events like the World Series, a ritual event as significant to our national story as the sport itself, it always strikes me as symbolic of the democratic ideal to see an African-American singing the song most emblematic of our nationhood. Now that we have a black president, the simple fact of the singer being black carries less symbolic power than it might have before, even if there are still people who believe Obama isn't a "real American." (It's unlikely that any of them were in the Bronx last night, or would have been asked to sing the "National Anthem" at a Yankees game.)

What made Mary J. Blige's performance so significant to me, was the way she sang it. She didn't just sing the notes. Sometimes, in fact, she either couldn't find them or was more interested in discovering what else might work. It's a musical adventurousness that marks jazz and gospel traditions as the significant contributions to American music and culture that they are. Those styles embody a spirit of risk-taking, of living in the present, of affirming the validity of your own voice, of redefining the world in our own terms, of enabling the forms of our inheritance to speak in an authentic voice to the problems of today. Yes that's pretty grandiose, but it's exactly why Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock version is still talked about 40 years later.

That adventurousness also makes us vulnerable, which leads me to the individual and timely aspects of the performance. Mary J. Blige's version illustrated vulnerability in a couple of ways. The first was in the way those awkward places made her seem like a human being rather than a celebrity. She risked not appearing perfect. And don't we respect those who divulge their imperfections so openly? She also seemed to risk that chance of personal failure -- if technical flawlessness is your standard -- for the benefit of her listeners. You're singing in Yankee Stadium at the sixth game of the World Series, for goodness sake, so you better give the people their money's worth. The "Star Spangled Banner" is also about war. Without a tangible sense of peril, how can we appreciate that spirit of faith in freedom, equality and human potential which that still-waving flag, at its best, is meant to embody?

OK, so the other vulnerability I'm referring to is that which she exposes by comparison. Everything around her -- in the new Yankee Stadium (with it's huge jumbo-tron in centerfield), in the city's mayoral election -- has had the aura of being scripted, of avoiding risk and accountability, of gaming the system, of winning a rigged game. This makes the celebrations seem shameful in their theatricality.

To wit, the Yankees have the highest payroll in baseball, by such a huge margin that it's impossible not to ask whether their victory was a demonstration of human potential or the anticipated return on an investment. A-Rod, the highest-paid player in the league, and admitted steroid cheat, finally got "his" World Series ring, just like we all expected him to. Bully for him.

Meanwhile, the incumbent mayor spent an unprecedented amount of his own personal fortune, more than $100 million, to "beat" his opponent. An NPR report stated that Bloomberg spent about $180 dollars per vote. winning with 51 percent of the vote, his victory was both narrow and hollow.

In some sense we can forget about the arrogant spectacle of calling the championship of American baseball the "World Series." At least today, despite the fact that all teams are located in the United States save the Toronto Blue Jays, it is an international game of sorts. Japanese player Hideki Matsui was the star of last night's game. Consider that a victory for the game, which does in fact still require that it be played, just like the song still needs a singer.

So, against this backdrop of spectacle and scripted triumph, filtered through the trans-Neptunian object-field of the Oort Cloud, Mary J. Blige's performance stood out for me as a "real" moment.

If it is true that the choice of having Blige sing at last night's game was a deliberate PR attempt to make the game "cooler," as The Wall Street Journal reports, then at least her performance was a more redeeming kind of spectacle.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Honky-Tonk Genius of Cornell Hurd

Oort Cloud favorite Cornell Hurd has everything it takes to ensure his obscurity. Leader of the Cornell Hurd Band, one of the finest honky-tonk and Texas swing bands in the known world -- to borrow a phrase from American Idol's estimable Randy Jackson -- Hurd has little in common with today's country hitmakers, pop music celebrities, or even the celebrated legends of country history.

Besides being very un-Kenny Chesney-like in the young and pretty category, Hurd wouldn't make it out of the freak-showcase rounds of Idol competition, based on his technical limitations as a vocalist. And funny as he is, the subtle, self-deprecating humor of his songs and of his mentally-unstable persona, would lack the gut-punch spectacle the show thrives on creating at the expense of some of the show's truly mentally impaired contestants.

While these qualities guarantee Hurd will never be a popular artist -- even in Austin, Texas, a town certainly friendly to Hurd and neo-traditional honky-tonky and Texas swing -- they also certify his genius.

To prove the point, The Oort Cloud will quote T.S. Eliot, a reference that might be out of place in the country ethos, as well as in Hurd's songs, but wouldn't be lost on Hurd himself, a UC-Berkley graduate and honky-tonk intellectual of the first order. In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot said something to the effect that true genius shows its individuality via finding a voice that evokes its artisitic ancestors.

Hurd's "You Only Kiss Me When We say Goodbye" or "I've Still Got My Mind" speak a familiar honky-tonk language, through the song's lazy shuffle, mournful wails of the pedal steel, the twangy nudge-wink of the lead guitar, and the seamless match between the lyrics and the vocal delivery.

In "I've Still Got My Mind," Hurd plays with the country conceit of tragic-comic failure in which the honky-tonk anti-hero has lost everything, and he sings about it with the exhibitionist's conflicted sense of shame and shamelessness. Like so many bad luck songs in the country and blues traditions -- today's hits notwithstanding, which are always about winning and never being ashamed -- Hurd sings about his ex-wife getting his car and the house and everything else.

But, unlike the cliched hard luck songs that accept failure with a pun, Hurd's persona sings in naive triumph that he's actually gotten the best of her, because, despite everything else, he's "still got" his "mind."

But not really. Hurd invites us to to scrutinize his hero's conclusion, and upon closer inspection, we discover that our singer is, of course, wrong: he's lost his mind too. What casts doubt, among other clues, is the madman laughter that accompanies his declaration of victory, the last act of a desperate man.

We hear some of that same comedy of failure in George Jones' vocals. Not that it's nowhere else in the honky-tonk pantheon, but here it doubles as an enactment of failed denial, the mask of the truly sad. This mask can be more moving than the nakedly earnest failure, because it shares the emotional complexity of enduring pain, the psychological roadblocks to admitting defeat, and of having to consider the likelihood that if she she ever loved you it wasn't because of your looks, good judgment or confident self-awareness.

For another example of Hurd's take on the tradition, check out "I cry, then I drink, then I cry." It's a drinking song that plays off of the romantic portrayal of the drink-to-forget hero. In this YouTube video, Hurd prefaces the song with the ironic announcement that "nothin says fun like hopeless alcoholism." The band of course, DOES make it fun, Cornell makes it funny, and we're reminded all the while that the gesture of heroic alcoholism is always bookended by two parts crying. The song triumphs because its ironic stance embraces the emotional complexity of the confession without stooping to a sanctimonious disavowel of the drunken hero or the intimation that he and his audience lack the depth to understand the whole morass.

To really appreciate Cornell Hurd, you must attend Jovita's in South Austin on any Thursday night. Every show is full of shameless comedy, dark pathos, brilliant musicianship and the truth with a capital Honky-Tonk.