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.