Seattle had a great moment last Sunday, Jan. 26, when one of its own, rapper Macklemore, walked away from the Grammy Awards at Staples Center in Los Angeles with four trophies — never mind that he later apologized for winning. (How Seattle is that? More below.)
But who could have guessed Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis would also set the agenda for the show?
Mack’s pro-gay anthem, “Same Love,” spurred one of the most stunning theatrical moments in Grammy telecast history, as Queen Latifah presided over a ring-exchanging ceremony between 33 couples — straight and same-sex.
The notion of pop music as a force for social change and personal liberation got legs, big time, in the ’60s, so it was a sweet coincidence that a Grammy ceremony reviving that idea also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the U.S. arrival of the group that symbolizes those times: The Beatles.
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The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which puts on the show, gave the group a Lifetime Achievement Award and also invited the two surviving Beatles — Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr — and the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison — Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison — to take part, including, of course, sterling performances by McCartney and Starr.
Neil Portnow, president and CEO of the Academy, said NARAS had no agenda going into the show.
“We don’t take a political position,” he said. “But every year, we get a fresh canvas to paint on, based on the music made this year … there were a lot of artists who were thinking about social issues and social justice.”
Though Hollywood haters would take issue with Portnow’s plea of neutrality, there is no arguing the facts. From country singer Kacey Musgraves’ inspirational “Follow Your Arrow” and Hunter Hayes’ crooning song about self-belief, “Invisible,” to a duet by Carole King and Sara Bareilles on “Beautiful” and “Brave” and Macklemore’s “Same Love,” pop music in 2014 sharply raised questions about gender, justice, class and staying true to yourself, right down to 17-year-old song of the year winner Lorde’s interrogation of pop-music fame itself, “Royals.”
And that was just on the main show. The academy presents a variety of smaller programs, including the Special Merit Awards, held this year at the stunningly beautiful art deco Wilshire Ebell Theatre. There, on Saturday afternoon, the charmingly dizzy Ono referenced politics and music again.
“It was a music of smiles, love and fun,” she said of the Beatles, “but they didn’t just do that, they were activists in the best sense … they changed the whole society by their songs.”
Is pop music alerting us to another social revolution?
Telecast emcee LL Cool J seemed to think so, kicking off with a shout-out to the transformative power of music, singling out, among others, those “four young men from Liverpool.” Throughout the night — and also at the pre-telecast show at the adjacent Nokia Theatre — there were references to Nelson Mandela, recently-released Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot, the need for musicians to lobby Congress about the copyright law and any number of rebellious gestures, including Macklemore’s comment in his acceptance speech, offered to a room full of industry executives, that he had made his album “without a record label.”
After the big wedding number, back in the press room, Queen Latifah was asked what she thought about Macklemore “breaking new ground” in hip-hop, a notoriously misogynist and homophobic genre.
“I don’t think this is new ground for hip-hop,” she answered. “I think this is exactly what hip-hop is about. We are part of the reason apartheid was changed.”
Indeed. It’s been a long time since American popular music — in all genres, from rap to country to rock — has felt so saturated with a fever to change the world.
Macklemore’s temperature is probably higher than anyone’s. The Seattle rapper was nominated for seven awards. His win for best new artist made sense, and so did his loss to Daft Punk, the French electronic music pioneers, for album of the year, though it’s arguable that Lorde’s “Royals,” which bested Macklemore’s “Same Love” for song of the year (an award which acknowledges the songwriter), will have a much shorter shelf life. Over all, Daft Punk’s second win, for record (single) of the year, was a healthy indication that Grammy voters took a forward-thinking outlook this year.
But Macklemore’s wins in three rap categories were puzzling — apparently even to him. Macklemore has a gift for narrative, but his strengths are lyrical and melodic, not rhythmic; his flows are flabby. Though “Thrift Shop”’s humorous rejection of bling made it a credible choice for best rap song, as a rapper, Macklemore is not in the same league as Drake, Eminem, Jay Z., Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, all of whom he beat for rap album and rap performance.
After his win for rap album, Macklemore posted an abject, I’m-not-worthy message on Instagram saying Lamar should have won. Whatever the wisdom — or sincerity — of this odd public apology (and that debate continues on social media) airing such anxiety is all too familiar to Seattleites who grew up with Nirvana. This Seattle urge to win and lose at the same time, this ambivalent syndrome of wanting fame and success, but feeling self-loathing once you’ve got it, seems to be part of our DNA.
So even if the music is, in fact, telling us another revolution is at hand, and even if Seattle finally brought home the bacon as part of it — apparently, in the Emerald City, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Paul de Barros is a member of the Recording Academy and writes about music at blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts Reach him at 206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org.