Adele Had the Best Worst Night at the Grammys (While the Grammys Just Had the Worst)

It takes guts to start a song over in the middle of a live Grammys broadcast, but Adele had the confidence to do just that. She sensed that she was off key during the first several measures of a tribute to George Michael, a slowed-down version of “Fastlove,” and she boldly stopped and started again, refusing to get things wrong in Michael’s memory.

Alas, it wasn’t enough to make it a great tribute. She sang beautifully, because she’s a beautiful singer, but everything about the conception was wrong: To honor a man who gave us rousing classics like “Freedom ’90” and “Faith,” the Grammys chose a slowed-down version of one of his lesser known hits, in the process stripping it of its campy fun—it is, after all, a paean to the joy of hookups.

And this moment wasn’t even the worst one for Adele during last night’s production. She seemed to be forced to shoulder the Grammys’ worst foibles, of which there were many: sound problems, ill-conceived productions, and, oh right, racism and lack of cultural relevance.

Adele’s most difficult moment of the night came, ironically enough, when she had to accept Album of the Year for 25 and Song of the Year for “Hello,” the biggest awards of the night. It should have been a triumph, but even she knew she didn’t deserve to beat Beyoncé in either category: Adele made a perfect pop album. Beyoncé made a tour de force in which she turned her personal pain into an allegory for the divisions of our nation. (Good to know the Academy refuses to learn from its mistakes despite a changing political climate; remember when Taylor Swift’s 1989, another perfectly beautiful pop album, beat Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly?) When they first announced this year’s nominations, it honestly felt insulting that Beyoncé would even have to “compete” with the likes of Justin Bieber (also a good album, but come on).

When 25 beat Lemonade last night, Adele graciously used her speech to thank Beyoncé (who had delivered yet another scorched-earth performance earlier in the night, baring her full, pregnant belly while dressed as a goddess, urging the nation toward healing with her songs “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles”).“I’m very humbled and very grateful and gracious, but the artist of my life is Beyoncé,” Adele said. “The Lemonade album, for me, is so monumental.”  She went on, acknowledging what the Grammys surely would prefer not to: that there was a racial element to this. “You are our light,” she said. “The way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. You make them stand up for themselves. I love you. I always have and I always will.”

Later backstage, Adele still couldn’t get over it. She even broke her Grammy in half to give a piece to Beyoncé: “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” Adele asked. Apparently Frank Ocean—who kept his music out of the running this year due to the ceremony’s “cultural bias”—was beyond right. And it’s time we state the obvious: Kanye, sorry. You were right, too.


This Video Gave Me Hope

Maybe it will boost your spirits a little, too. My sister’s partner, Sean Skyler, who also happens to be one of my favorite singer-songwriters, wrote a beautiful song about THESE TIMES WE LIVE IN, and he shot a video for it at the Chicago women’s march this weekend. I was at the Big Show in D.C., but I consider this a perfect memento of the day just the same. For an extra shot of progressive hope, read Rebecca Traister’s piece on The Cut, “The Future of the Left Is Female.”

Drake’s Real Rap Debut (on ‘Degrassi’)

Before Drake was Drake, he was Canadian actor Aubrey Graham, best known for depicting Jimmy Brooks on the excellent Degrassi: The Next Generation. This totally addictive teen show, which continues with yet another generation of young characters on Netflix, hit its first heyday in the ’80s as a cult favorite after-school special, and another one in the 2000s with The Next Generation, which aired on The N in America, a now-defunct teen network.

Out of nowhere and for no actual reason besides Degrassi‘s awesomeness (and Drake’s current blossoming romance with Jennifer Lopez), I had a passionate online discussion about Degrassi, and specifically Drake’s time on it, with some friends (thanks, Pamela!) and my sister, Julie, who got me into the show back when she was in her early 20s and I was … older than that. But being in my early 30s did not make me immune to this show’s charms, and I wasn’t the only adult watching. Because it was Canadian, it dealt more honestly than American teen shows with major issues like gun violence (Jimmy was paralyzed in a school shooting), sex, drinking, sexual assault, class differences, and abortion (The N originally refused to air a character’s decision to get one). The actors were playing closer to their age than most American teen shows, which tended to employ actors pushing 30 to play high schoolers. They were also far more diverse. And this all made the show very compelling to watch.

One of my favorite set visits ever when I worked for Entertainment Weekly was to Degrassi. I spent several days there, roaming the halls of the actual former school building that served as the set. Most sets are sets—they have no fourth wall. But Degrassi was actually in a school building and felt like school. The halls had lockers. We ate in a school lunchroom. I sat on the steps of the school to interview the erstwhile Aubrey Graham—already Drake-charming and uncomfortably flirty at just 17.

To honor Drake’s rise, I give you his first rap performance on Degrassi. The show had a lot of music (there’s an epic Battle of the Bands episode pitting the boys—Downtown Sasquatch—versus the girls—Hell Hath No Fury), and the kids were all legit talented. But Julie and I both remember watching this and going, Whoa. I think he might be really good.

Beyoncé, Hillary, and ‘The Good Wife’: The Power of Women Scorned

IMG_3270First, Hillary Clinton was talking about carrying hot sauce in her bag at the same time that “I got hot sauce in my bag” became a catch phrase, thanks to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl song, “Formation.” Then Beyoncé put out an entire album, Lemonade, about enduring a husband’s cheating and eventually, if very publicly, forgiving him.

Beyoncé and her husband, Jay-Z, have been prominent supporters of our current president—with whom Clinton worked closely during his first term, as she reminds us every chance she gets. But perhaps it’s Hil’s inauguration at which Bey should be singing. Beyoncé and Hillary have more in common than it seems on the surface: They both have deep southern ties (hot sauce in bag), they’ve both fought their way to immense power in the particularly sexist worlds of politics and music, and they’ve both now become poster women for sticking with a marriage after a partner’s infidelity. (We can debate whether Bey embellished or fictionalized for her art, but it doesn’t matter—this narrative is part of her image now.) But their spiritual similarity on that last issue goes one step farther: They have reached new, dizzying heights of power after, possibly even because of, their decision to “stand by” their very powerful men.

That said, their version of standing by is hardly the one espoused in the Tammy Wynette song. Their version flips the script on the trope of the pathetic doormat who suffers through her man’s infidelity silently. Granted, Hillary Clinton was forced by media coverage (to put it lightly) to face her husband’s indiscretions publicly. But her eventual ascent in politics on her own terms, while continuing to stay married to former President Bill Clinton, showed their partnership was based on more than monogamy. Was it, and is it, strictly mercenary and power-driven? We’ll likely never know. But there’s no doubt, when you see Bill campaigning for her now, that they’re true partners. Hillary is far from a sad, scorned woman. She is, in fact, likely to be our next president, the historic first woman to hold the office.

Beyoncé, for her part, has always signified power. Even as far back as her Destiny’s Child days, she was singing about “Independent Women” and “Survivor”s. Now, even on an entire concept album about a husband’s infidelity, her most vulnerable work ever, she has still managed to maintain the power position. In the full-length film version of the album that debuted on HBO last weekend, she smashes car windows with a bat and gathers powerful women around her constantly, as if men aren’t necessary. She’s clear that he—whoever “he” may be—is the idiot here. From “Don’t Hurt Yourself”: “Who the fuck do you think I is? You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.” From “Hold Up”: “Let’s imagine for a moment that you never made a name for yourself … Never had the baddest woman in the game up in your sheets. Would they be down to ride?” And, true to her standard style, she gives us plenty of gloriously empowering catch phrases, and even physical gestures, that we can use to invoke our own power when we’re feeling wronged: “Boy, bye.” “Middle fingers up, get them hands high.” There are few better moments in pop music than when she spits, “Suck on my balls, I’ve had enough.”

The Good Wife will conclude in a little over a week with its May 8 series finale, and that seems suddenly, oddly, perfectly timed, given the ascent of Hillary and Beyoncé. Main character Alicia Florrick borrows liberally from the real life of Hillary Clinton: The show’s premise was inspired by the string of cheating scandals that has continued to bring down politicians since the Clinton-Lewinsky days. It imagines what happens when you make that wife, the one dutifully standing behind the disgraced politician, the center of her own narrative. We’re finding out, after seven excellent seasons, that Alicia is hardly the sad woman we may have imagined her to be if we’d never seen the story from her perspective. Even in the most recent episodes, when her husband finds himself embroiled in another scandal after she told him she wanted a divorce, we understand that when she agrees to “stand by” him as the news comes out, she’s the one doing him a favor. She’s the one with the power. Whether she stays married to him is her decision, and that decision does not change her status as a smart, successful, powerful woman.

Any chance of a joint Beyoncé-Hillary cameo on that series finale? Probably not, but I think those three would have a lot to talk about.

Next Rock ‘n’ Roll Poetry Open Mic: 3/28

The next Rock ‘n’ Roll Poetry, the monthly open mic night I cohost with Moushumi Ghose, will be on March 28 at Otto’s Shrunken Head in NYC’s East Village. Get there at 7:30 p.m. to sign up, or snag a spot early online here. The show starts at 8 p.m., and it’s always a blast to watch. You never know what will happen: covers, originals, folk, hip-hop, indie rock, poetry, storytelling, four teenage brothers playing guitar with their dad on percussion. Our featured guest will be singer/songwriter/guitarist/my guitar teacher Sebastian Cruz. I’ll be doing some Cyndi Lauper.

Here’s some video of open mic regular Andy Roch and I playing “Angel from Montgomery” at last month’s.

Ryan Adams ‘1989’ and Why It’s Totally OK to Switch Gender Words in Cover Songs

I want to talk about an apparently important issue facing our divided nation: whether it’s okay to change the gender markers in a cover version of a song.

I’m a little late to the rush and crush of judgement unleashed upon Ryan Adams’ album covering the entirety of Taylor Swift’s hit album 1989. This is a project the internet loved, because it is fun to talk about, and I loved, because I am a huge fan of both people as well as covers of pop songs. Given the pre-release attention it got, it was a foregone conclusion that there would be a proportionate swell of snarky reviews of the final product. Among them was Slate’s XX weighing in that “Adams fell victim to one of the most aggravating traps of song covers: rigid heterosexuality.” Writer Christina Cauterucci claims, in essence, that it’s aggressively heteronormative to switch the genders in covers of songs. She makes the point that narrators can be either gender, and some sophisticated songwriters have gone this route, like Natalie Merchant, and even Miley Cyrus did it in her excellent Saturday Night Live performance of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

That’s super cool and forward thinking and I couldn’t be more into gay rights, but I don’t think changing the lyrics around to suit your own life makes you a homophobe.

I think Taylor Swift would be the first to agree that song lyrics are deeply personal, whether you wrote them or are just singing them. I do some covers myself (if you must know), and sometimes I switch the gender, sometimes I don’t. When I sing Sugar Ray’s “Every Morning” (you’re welcome for reminding you of that ’90s gem), I switch it to, “Every morning there’s a halo hanging from the corner of my boyfriend’s four-post bed.” Why? I like how the word “boyfriend” sounds slightly better than I like how “girlfriend” sounds. I started doing this song around the time I started dating my partner, so it makes me think of him. (Only vaguely, since the song is about cheating.) It helps me bring him into my mind and connect with the lyrics better. I do “Faith” and don’t switch the “lover-boy rule” to “lover-girl rule” because, well, that’s awkward. I do George Michael’s “Heal the Pain” and keep the “he” who “must have really hurt you.” I figure I could be into a person of either gender who is into people of either gender there. What I’m saying is this is a personal and at least vaguely artistic choice.

I think it’s okay, even effective, for Ryan Adams to do this. I like how the gender switches often cast him in Swift’s songs as the exact kind of dude those songs are pining for/targeting/obsessing over. He is kind-of a (much older) version of that guy, at least as he casts himself in his own songs and his public persona. And if it connects him a little more deeply to the lyrics, or even just makes them a little more his own, I think that’s okay. One of my favorite switches he does goes beyond gender markers: In “Style,” he switches, “You’ve got that James Dean daydream look in your eye, and I’ve got that red-lip, classic thing that you like,” to, “You’ve got that Daydream Nation look in your eye, and I’ve got that pent-up-love thing that you like.” (Sonic Youth reference alert!) He’s just “making it his own,” as they like to say on singing-contest shows.

The politics aren’t crucial here. This sort of argument is just a step away from a trolly piece I read when Beyoncé’s secret album dropped that complained that she hadn’t included gay people somehow in her deeply personal album. (This was also on Slate, second only to Salon in comment-baiting pieces that read almost like liberal parodies.) As a heterosexual person writing a lot about her marriage to a man, it’s hard to imagine how she would do this, short of a blatant anthem about partying with gay friends or something. Which is obviously not what she was moved to write.

Language is important, and pop culture can be a great way to move political thought forward. But not every piece of writing or culture is required to be inclusive of all experiences. In fact, the best writing is so specific that it can’t be. That’s why we need more diverse voices in culture, not requirements that all cis, straight people include all experiences in their work.

Halloween Week Open Mic in NYC!

Pretty purple Daisy Rock guitar.

Pretty purple Daisy Rock guitar.

The open mic night I cohost in NYC’s East Village, Rock ‘n’ Roll Poetry, will be at Otto’s Shrunken Head for another installment at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26. Music and poetry, originals and covers, beginners and pros welcome. Come out and watch, or sign up now to perform. Costumes welcome (but optional)! I’ll be there doing some George Michael and/or Taylor Swift.

The Soundtracks to Our Writing

record_player_03There’s a lovely piece on The Millions exploring the benefits of listening to music while one writes. Writer Jacob Lambert basically concludes that listening to some nice music while you write might get you in the mood, psych you up, or make your time at the keyboard a little more pleasant, but it won’t actually, you know, do the writing for you or instantly turn you into a genius. Darn.

I asked some of my clients and friends yesterday whether they listen to music while writing. Some of their favorite tunes of the moment include ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” Electric Six’s “Danger! High Voltage!”, and music by Explosions in the Sky and Pinback. I don’t listen to music that much when I write, but I do use it for inspiration: I like to create playlists for projects that I listen to as I go about my daily business. It helps me keep the project on my mind at a nice low level, perfect for creative mulling. Anything can make it on the soundtrack if it speaks to some aspect of the project for me. Lots of the selections come from the era I’m writing about, in the case of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted in the ’70s and Seinfeldia in the ’90s, but other selections are more thematic. I’ve gotten more good ideas than I can count this way.

Here are some selections from my Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted “soundtrack”:

Joan Jett’s rock version of the theme song, “Love Is All Around”

Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”

Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Carly Simon and James Taylor’s “Mockingbird”

Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move”

Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way”

The Guess Who’s “American Woman”

James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”

Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”

Joni Mitchell’s “River” (I am convinced that Mary Richards listened to James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in her “off screen” time)

Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire”

Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song”

The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”

The Rubinoos’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”

Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You”