Bob Schwartz

Month: January, 2014

An Askew Take on the Grammy Awards

Lorde - Grammy 2014
There are a few kinds of award shows. One is the kind that you’re glad you watched live, even if you can always see it in a recorded version later on, skipping the ads and the bad or worst parts, focusing only on the good or (if any) great parts. The other is the kind that, assuming you didn’t escape early, leaves you wondering whether or how you can get the two or three hours of your life back.

So which kind was Grammy 2014? Far from a CWOT (complete waste of time), with moments of validation, pathos, and brilliance. But with all the coverage and videos you can find, you don’t need one more. If you haven’t heard about Pharrell William’s hat or about Taylor Swift’s seizure-style hair whipping and mistaken belief that she won album of the year, check it out. Or not.

Here instead are a few askew points.

Lorde – Okay, this is close to mainstream coverage, but having written so much about Lorde before, I can’t skip it. She won Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Song for Royals. That’s best songwriting won by a seventeen-year-old. She also performed Royals, with a really haunting arrangement of an already haunting, what’s-that-sound track. She also has a softly herky-jerky stage presence, not quite Joe Cocker, but very cool and punk (unlike Taylor Swift’s hair whipping). Accepting an award she said, “Thank you everyone who has let this song explode. Because it’s been mental.” That’s her performing above.

Paul Williams – When Daft Punk won Album of the Year, one of their many awards, and couldn’t speak for themselves (because they are robots), a somewhat short older guy came to the mic, as one of the songwriters. That guy is Paul Williams, 72, who has been around the business so long that a recent documentary about him is called Paul Williams Still Alive. Many if not most viewers had no idea who this guy is, but he gave the final speech of the night, a funny, wonderful, inspirational few moments that put the whole Ryan Lewis and Macklemore/Same Love/mass gay marriage event in brightly positive context. For those who don’t know, Williams is a songwriter, singer, actor and, currently, president of ASCAP. His compositions include Top Ten hits for Barbara Streisand (Evergreen), Three Dog Night (Just an Old Fashioned Love), the Carpenters (We’ve Only Just Begun, Rainy Days and Mondays), and many more. Now he’s part of the Album of the Year in 2014. How f***g cool is that.

CBS and Language – And speaking about language, CBS or any broadcast network that wants to feature music awards, or for that matter movie or television awards, is going to have to figure out how to deal with language in 2014. Questions about the evolution/devolution of language norms and niceties are huge right now, but outside the scope of these notes. Kendrick Lamar’s electrifying performance with Imagine Dragons wasn’t spoiled by the bleeps (the button guy missed one, by the way), but it goes beyond silly to artistically hurtful. If you’re going to feature and exploit current art, take it and present it for what it is, or don’t. But if you want to feature universally praised nude paintings as cultural highlights, neither CBS nor the FCC should be putting black bars across the nice but naughty bits.

The Finale – And speaking about artistically hurtful, the show ran late, as awards shows will. The Grammys and CBS make a big promotional deal about all-star finales, in this case an interesting combination of Dave Grohl, Lindsey Buckingham, Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age. For those who don’t follow music, three of these people are in the pantheon: Grohl (Nirvana), Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). Most of these big-name combinations don’t work, but this was really captivating, in a kind of dark, progressive, alt rock way. It seemed a little unusual as an ending, but artistic, edgy and vital. Before it was done, though, the cameras pulled back, and the sponsorship promos began, followed by the credits—all while the artists were still performing.

Reznor tweeted: “Music’s biggest night…to be disrespected. FUCK YOU guys.”

Led Zeppelin – In covering the nominations, I wrote about the absurdity of Led Zeppelin being nominated for Best Rock Album. In 2014. For a performance in 2007. Of songs released in 1975. They won.

Jake Bugg: Another Reason to be Optimistic

Jake Bugg
Jake Bugg is another reason to be generally optimistic.

Some of us—maybe you—use pop music to get through the bad days and times and to celebrate the good. But part of the time, including now, if all you hear is what’s at or near the top of the charts, you might be a little charmed but a lot discouraged. Where is that something to tickle your ears, touch your heart and tap your feet, mixing originality and talent with that secret musical sauce?

It does come along; see earlier posts about Lorde. Once again me catching up with those who already got there, here’s Jake Bugg. Unlike Lorde, who is now seventeen, he is much older. Last year he recorded and released his second album, Shangri La, at the age of nineteen.

You can read all about him, and I could write all about him, but you know my motto: It’s in the tracks. So listen to both albums whole if you can. Below are links to a few sample tracks, but like a lot of new artists, the work is genre blending/mashing/smashing, so please try not to category listen.

His biggest track, from the first album, Jake Bugg, is Lightning Bolt. From the new album, released in November, There’s A Beast and We All Feed It (“There’s a beast eating every bit of beauty and yes we all feed it.”). And for those who want less beat, more ballad, Broken .

Is he a next really big thing? Who knows, but whatever the charts and awards say, we are all a little better off with this music around.

The Gates Book and the Gates Speeches

Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is about to release a memoir of his tenure under Presidents Bush and Obama. Provocative advance excerpts from Duty are now being released, and these explosive devices are anything but improvised.

Every news outlet, pundit and politician is already busy making points about President Obama, Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, based on comments clipped from these excerpts, rather than having read the whole book. Even out of context, it is clear that Gates has formed some definite opinions based on working for and with these American leaders. That is anyone’s privilege, but particularly that of a man who spent forty-five years in laudable public service, much of it at the highest levels of government.

As always, though, opinion and criticism is a matter of perspective, that is, where the critic stands underlies what a critic sees and says.

You can read all the speeches that Gates delivered as Secretary of Defense. This is guaranteed not to be as titillating as reading or hearing about the “best parts” of Duty, but it might give you additional insight that will make the context of the book clearer.

Here, for example, are excerpts from remarks he made to the Heritage Foundation on May 13, 2008, when he was serving under President George W. Bush. (You can read the entire speech here) At that point, the Iraq war was five years old, only halfway to its conclusion. At that point, he had been Secretary of Defense for two years, and from that point, he would remain in that position under President Obama until July 2011.

But there is a more fundamental point that I will close with – and again, historical perspective is important. It is impossible to separate discussions of the “broken” Army following Vietnam – a conscription army – from the ultimate result of that conflict. At a congressional hearing last year, General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, recounted the profound damage done to the Service’s “fiber and soul” by the reality of defeat in that war.

The risk of overextending the Army is real. But I believe the risk is far greater – to that institution, as well as to our country – if we were to fail in Iraq. That is the war we are in. That is the war we must win.

There it is, the context: Iraq was “the war we must win.” Gates’ insights into military matters is often brilliant and sensible, informed by his intelligence, experience and education. But on this point he candidly reveals a premise that for some colors everything else he offers. We must win Iraq because the failure to win would “break” the military the way that Vietnam did.

We did not win in Iraq, but technically, we did not lose. That current events in Iraq point to some devolution doesn’t really settle the question. That some U.S. Senators are calling for us to return to Iraq to avoid that loss or at least to avoid the appearance of futility is a partial reflection of exactly what Gates said.

We know that Gates’ personal critiques are based on close working relationships and observations. We also know, or should recognize, that those critiques are grounded in a worldview that others may not, very legitimately, share. If for Gates one of the measuring sticks is whether someone believes that Iraq had to be won, that measure may be skewed by genuine differences in informed opinion. One opinion is that as valorous as the service and sacrifice was, Iraq was a mistake, to be abandoned as prudently as possible; others might now say the same about Afghanistan. What Gates has to say about our leaders is certainly worth listening to, provided we pay equal attention to the mindset of the speaker.

The Other Poverty: The Poverty of Ideas

The other poverty is the poverty of ideas.

Let us ask each of our leaders and politicians for just one relatively new and interesting idea to solve a pressing problem. Just one. It doesn’t have to be an idea that has won substantial support or that has achieved broad consensus. In fact it can’t be that. Instead it should be something that is just a little bit out there, the kind that might elicit a “you must be kidding” or “that will never pass” or “that will never work.”

What we mostly have is problem solving that borders on archival monomania, the single idea with ancient lineage that fits a particular purpose or ideology—but has not really demonstrated an ability to solve particular problems.

This morning Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada explained why he is one of the few Republicans supporting an extension of unemployment benefits. In the course of the interview, he said that the biggest problem was jobs. He then ticked off the number one conservative solution—tax reform—but when he got to the second idea, it came out sounding like “something else” without a single detail. That’s because leaders and politicians on both sides of the aisle are stumped, which they admittedly should be by the unique and unprecedented economic moment we are living through.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich was roundly derided for his suggestion that we mine the Moon and colonize Mars. There are plenty of reasons that Newt wasn’t and isn’t a good choice for President, but that isn’t one of them. Sure it’s a bit science fictionish, but then so is practically all of the current tech that is one of the only bright spots in the global economy. Can you imagine a U.S. Senator in the 1950s coming to the floor of the Senate brandishing a copy of that weekend’s Sunday funnies, pointing to Dick Tracy and saying “That wrist radio, gentlemen, is where we should be heading.”? China and India are racing to the Moon, and it is not for the view.

Politics and political leadership are inherently conservative, in the sense that maintaining the institution and its support seems to demand modest, slow, incremental change—if any change at all. That’s where party lines and sticking to scripts come from. An intolerance for innovation and fringe philosophy go with that. We shouldn’t be asking parties or politicians to give up core principles and precepts. But if we actually want to solve problems, and not just hear tired old nostrums that won’t do any good, then we have to make a safe place for innovation, one where thinkers who happen to be in office are not committing political suicide by offering something interesting and maybe even eccentric. Because until we ask our politicians to enrich us with new ideas and not empty platitudes and happy talk, more of us will be unhappy with increasingly empty pockets.