The other night I watched the Grammys. In their entirety. That’s something I don’t usually do—though not as a matter of principle—I’m curious about what people are listening to, what’s popular. But most often, I seem to be sharing my television space with people who are put off by the sturm and drang of today’s popular music. To many of my generation, it all sounds alike. The same hard beat, the same emotions expressed in the same word-bending but incoherent sounds, the noise, the theatricality. It’s hard to hear the intricacy of the rhythms, the interesting counterpoints, the clashing and blending of new sounds. It’s all so loud and over the top. There are often wonderful lyrics, but they’re sure hard to hear. I see people in the audiences mouthing them so I know someone has heard them!
At any rate, I enjoyed the program, even and maybe especially the over-produced numbers by people like Lady Gaga, Eminem, Muse…. I loved the ensemble singing by stars who usually solo at the center of the music that frames them. I loved that some older people—Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand—were included. As usual, there were names that I didn’t recognize. Chief among them this time was Esperanza Spalding who beat out Justin Bieber for Best New Artist. It turned out that I wasn’t alone—most of the viewers and most of the reporters didn’t know anything about her either.
I discovered that when I tried to find out who she was in the press coverage of the event the next day. She was barely mentioned and then only as a surprise. It reminded me of this year’s winner of the National Book Award for fiction: Jamie Gordon. She was so obscure to most of the reporters and reviewers that it took them at least the week after to ferret out a few paragraphs. Spalding, it became apparent, wasn’t anywhere near that unknown—she was just known in the wrong circles: among jazz aficionados primarily, even though she counts among her influences hip hop and rock (and even classical chamber music!). Listening to some of the music from 2006 and 2008 albums (she plays bass as well as sings), I was immediately and deeply impressed. She’s a find. Thank you Grammys.
But isn’t it a shame that I had to go searching for references to her and to Jamie Gordon? Isn’t it a shame that most of prime time television is about good guys and bad guys, with guns, bizarre killings, and even more bizarre killers, when life is so rich and there’s so much to discover? Capitalism, with all its vaunted incentives to entrepreneurship, prefers the sure bet, what made money yesterday. It doesn’t favor the extraordinary variety of life.
Ah, well. It may have been a surprise, but this new year I found a fabulous writer and a splendid musician in an unusual place —at the center of the action.