History has been cruel to Elvis Presley. Last impressions are usually the enduring ones, and our last impression of Elvis is the “Fat Elvis” of the 1970s: a sweaty, blubbery shell of his former self, spaced out on drugs in his gaudy Elvis suit as he butchers his song catalog on a Las Vegas stage. This impression is accurate for the latter years of his life, but it is not a complete one.
The Elvis of the 1970s — especially the early 1970s — was an innovator onstage. Invigorated by his stunning 1968 TV special, Elvis had returned to live performing after a lengthy layoff while he churned out horrible movies for most of the 1960s. He was hungry. He wanted to feel the heat and thrill of connecting with an audience in person. In Las Vegas, he found what he was looking for. But Elvis didn’t just play Las Vegas. He changed Las Vegas.
By the time Elvis came along, Las Vegas was struggling for relevance with younger audiences. The city too square for contemporary rock stars. And being too square for rock and roll was a big problem in the post-Beatles era. Sure, Las Vegas would always attract hard-core gamblers. But the old-guard stars such as Frank Sinatra, who provided essential entertainment for the gamblers, were fading.
And then Elvis hit town. Talk about right place and right time. Elvis rescued Las Vegas as a vacation destination and an epicenter for entertainment. He didn’t just parachute out of the sky and play songs like a country rube that many people thought he was, either. He hand-picked his band down to his back-up singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother). Elvis being Elvis, he also imported an orchestra to fill out the large stage he was about to call his home for two performances for weeks at a stretch at the International Hotel (which would become the Las Vegas Hilton). He told them what sound he wanted, arranged the show the way he wanted it, and rehearsed the band until they sounded as electric as he felt. As he rehearsed, he wore weights around his ankles and wrists to build his stamina.
Elvis also did his homework. So studied Tom Jones — by now a dynamic star of the Strip — and learned some tricks for winning over Las Vegas, such as using his body like a weapon. In the 1950s, Elvis had taught the world the power of swiveling your hips onstage, but it was a long way from the Louisiana Hayride to Las Vegas, a stage where he’d actually flopped when he played the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. He’d never performed night after night on a stage as large as the one he was going to play at the International.
He didn’t want to take his audience down memory lane, either. Now in his 30s, he was getting on in years by rock standards of the time. His musical instincts told him he’d need to play contemporary songs to be relevant — but they needed to sound like Elvis songs. He wasn’t going to make a fool of himself as Frank Sinatra had done in the late 1960s, trying to adapt his voice to rock songs that made him sound even more out of touch and a bit desperate. He wisely chose fresh songs that sounded timeless, such as the swamp funk of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Proud Mary,” as well as songs he’d just recorded in Memphis, such as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” (which would, of course, become hits).
In August 1969, he went onstage and completely changed everything — maybe not on the scale he once did in the 1950s, but in a big enough way to shape the future of a city. No one had brought a rock-and-roll show to Las Vegas like he did. And the critics loved what they saw and heard.
Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times, said that seeing Elvis “felt like getting hit in the face with a bucket of melted ice. He looked so timeless up there, so constant.” Ellen Willis wrote in the New Yorker, “Presley came on and immediately shook up all my expectations and preconceived categories. Their reactions were typical. Elvis was a smash.
Elvis stuck around for many years, and into the early 1970s, he refined his act, incorporating more stage moves (such as karate chops) and songs. But he didn’t just play Las Vegas. He transcended it. Frank Sinatra had been a legend in Las Vegas, but he was for the gamblers. Elvis was so big he attracted people who came to see him first and foremost. The entertainment industry noticed: instead of touring, a star could stay put in one location and perform for fans who came to the star. And so the modern-day residency was born. Over the years, artists such as Elton John and Lady Gaga would make fortunes off residencies. Elvis paved the way for them. He also arguably opened the door for hugely popular shows such as the Cirque du Soleil “Love” tribute to the Beatles, which would become attractions in and of themselves instead of a second-tier alternative to gambling.
As Richard Zoglin, author of Elvis in Vegas, wrote in The New York Times, “Elvis brought something new to Las Vegas: not an intimate, Rat Pack-style nightclub show, but a big rock-concert extravaganza. He showed that rock ’n’ roll (and country and R&B too) could work on the big Vegas stage. And he brought in a new kind of audience: not the Vegas regulars and high rollers, but a broader, more middle-American crowd: female fans who had screamed for Elvis as teenagers, families who made Elvis the centerpiece of their summer vacation.”
You can get a taste of Elvis at his early 1970s peak by watching a video clip of “Polk Salad Annie.” Before he even sings a note, he’s in total command of the stage. First off, he looks like he owns the room: lean, tan, and confident, his trim frame almost a little too slender for the tasseled white suit he wears. He smiles and introduces the southern-fried tune with a short introduction that transports you to the country fields of the Deep South. And then he launches into the song, not only with his smoldering voice but with his lithesome body. He gyrates, shakes his legs, punches the air, and moves his shoulders like a singing gyroscope. Watch him closely, especially his right arm. He’s doing more than dancing and crouching: he’s using his body to control the tempo of his backing band. He’s running that show with his voice and his body.
Throughout the 1970s, he also recorded compelling music — the great Back in Memphis in 1970, the excellent Elvis Country in 1971, and the very good Promised Land and Good Times a few years later. Even a decent-but-not great effort like Moody Blue, released the year he died, contained moments of brilliance. Fortunately, some of his live performances from this time period were recorded, too, including Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, On Stage, and That’s the Way It Is.
Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t last. The pressure of performing twice-nightly shows for weeks got to him. He took pills to stay awake and get to sleep. He ate. His shows became sloppy. And you know the rest of the story. But he never lost his voice. Regardless of how out of shape he became, his voice retained that power. And the power of that voice endures for me.
God bless Snoop Dogg for proving that music still has the power to provoke.
On October 4, the famous hip-hop artist lit up the University of Kansas Allen Fieldhouse basketball court by performing some of his profanity-laden hits, while dancers gyrated on makeshift stripper poles. He also peppered a lively audience with fake $100 dollar bills (featuring his likeness, natch) shot from a money gun.
Snoop’s appearance was part of the KU athletic department’s “Late Night in the Phog,” an annual preseason celebration that happens along with scrimmages by the men’s and women’s basketball teams. And no one does late night like Snoop Dogg. Not surprisingly, the moment went viral:
But not everyone appreciated what went down. After Snoop’s performance, KU’s Athletic Director Jeff Long — apparently the only person in the United States who failed to grasp what Snoop Dogg is all about — issued a statement of apology:
We made it clear to the entertainers’ managers that we expected a clean version of the show and took additional steps to communicate to our fans, including moving the artist to the final act of the evening, to ensure that no basketball activities would be missed if anyone did not want to stay for his show. I take full responsibility for not thoroughly vetting all the details of the performance and offer my personal apology to those who were offended. We strive to create a family atmosphere at Kansas and fell short of that this evening.
KU Men’s Basketball Coach Bill Self fielded questions about Snoop, in addition to the usual questions about basketball, although he took the questions in stride:
Few reporters really wanted to talk about the basketball team. They wanted to talk about Snoop. And who could blame them?
Apparently the students loved it. “I thought it was super cool that we even had him here,” KU Student Geneis Garcia told WDAF-TV in Kansas City. “You know who Snoop Dogg is. You know he’s a rapper and comes from a background. Don’t bring your kids to his events.”
Exactly. Just what was KU thinking if they wanted a family atmosphere?
Now, by contemporary standards, the Doggfather’s performance was actually tame. The songs he performed, such as 1993’s “Gin and Juice,” cover familiar ground of drinking, smoking reefer, and sex — pretty standard themes for hip-hop. You can find mainstream movie stars such as Jennifer Lopez gyrating on stripper poles in one of America’s most popular movies right now, Hustlers. Snoop Dogg himself is so mainstream that he co-brands with Martha Stewart.
Snoop Dogg gave KU what they asked for. But somehow KU didn’t quite see the connection between Bill Self wearing gold chains and then Snoop Dogg making it rain with fake $100 bills. KU pushed boundaries, realized it had gone too far, and backpedaled.
Snoop Dogg was doing what he’s always done. He was true to his brand. He’s always been about weed, sex, and partying. He only became dangerous when KU responded with an uptight and clueless apology. This is how art become a threat: when institutions of authority make the artist dangerous. Perhaps KU would have been better to let the matter drop. Instead, they’ve tried to demonize Snoop Dogg and in doing so, have made him a hero, while exposing the university’s own hypocrisy.
Absolutely Live is the only official live album the Doors released in Jim Morrison’s lifetime. It’s also a misunderstood album. Rock historians remember Absolutely Live, released in 1970, as a document of an artist in decline. In fact, Absolutely Live captures a time when Jim Morrison was finding a new muse through avant garde theater.
“I’ll Be Good for Nothing but Nostalgia”
Understanding Absolutely Live means going back to early 1969, an unhappy time for the Doors. The band had released three albums in 18 months, had toured heavily, and was working on its fourth album, The Soft Parade – a punishing workload. The Soft Parade had turned into a beast to create, partly because Morrison was drinking heavily and becoming an unreliable, disruptive force in the studio.
The pressure of being a rock star was getting to Jim Morrison. He was also struggling creatively. According to The Doors: The Illustrated History, in 1969 he told composer Fred Myrow, “If I don’t find a new way to develop creatively within a year I’ll be good for nothing but nostalgia.” He was writing fewer songs, and his band mates (especially guitarist Robby Krieger) needed to pick up the slack by contributing more to The Soft Parade.
In late February, something happened that had an impact on the band’s fortunes, although no one knew it at first: Morrison discovered the Living Theatre, and in doing so, found a creative muse.
The Living Theatre
The Living Theatre was a theatrical troupe that broke down the fourth wall and confronted the audience. For instance, in the production Paradise Now, the actors provoked arguments and goaded the audience into participating in the show. The performers protested the inhibition of personal freedoms, including not being allowed to smoke pot or take off one’s clothing. The production culminated in everyone taking to the streets for a parade and demonstration. Open nudity was part of the show.
Morrison had always been fascinated with the visual theater of music – the ability to draw energy from the audience and throw it back in a whirlwind of song and dance. He watched multiple performances of the Living Theatre when the troupe performed in Los Angeles, according to Doors co-founder Ray Manzarek. As discussed in The Doors: The Illustrated History, Morrison attended a showing of Paradise Now on February 28: “Jim was mesmerized, and he eagerly joined in when the audience was asked to participate; with his beard, most people didn’t realize it was Jim Morrison.”
The Doors were scheduled to perform a concert at the Dinner Key auditorium March 1, in Coconut Grove, Florida, an event that would go down in the annals of rock history as “the Doors Miami incident.” According to Manzarek, Morrison decided to do his own version of the Living Theatre there.
The Miami Concert
On March 1, 1969, he took the ideas of provocation to an extreme at the now-infamous concert. He berated and taunted the audience. The song “Touch Me” (which he didn’t write) was by then a hit (the band’s last Number One single). Morrison was fully aware that to his fans he was still a sex symbol despite his declining physique. He mockingly exposed his body onstage – including his genitalia, or so the Dade County Sheriff’s Office would contend when charging him with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity, and drunkenness afterward. Here’s how Manzarek would describe that night to NPR in 1998:
We’re in Miami. It’s hot and sweaty as a Tennessee Williams night. It’s a swamp and it’s a yuck — a horrible kind of place, a seaplane hangar — and 14,000 people are packed in there, and they’re sweaty. And Jim has seen the Living Theater, and he’s going to do his version of the Living Theater. He’s going to show these Florida people what psychedelic West Coast shamanism and confrontation is all about.
He takes his shirt off in the middle of the set. He says, ‘You people haven’t come to hear a rock and roll band play some pretty good songs. You came to see something, didn’t you? What do you want? . . . OK, how about if I show you my c—k . . . Isn’t that what you wanted to see?”
Eventually, Morrison challenged the audience to storm the stage. “No limits! No laws! Come on!” he shouted. “This is your show. Anything you want goes!” He urged everyone to take off their clothing. Fights broke out. The stage teetered on the edge of collapse. The house lights came on. Morrison joined the general chaos in the audience even though the rest of the band fled for their safety. He headed a human chain through the venue before leaving for his dressing room.
“How Long Are You Going to Let Them Push You Around?”
Manzarek insisted that even though Morrison simulated the act of removing his clothing and exposing parts of his body, he never actually flashed his genitalia. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office disagreed. Within days, Morrison was charged with multiple crimes. An actual trial would not commence until August 1970. He would later be sentenced to six months in prison and fined $500. He would never serve the time.
You can actually hear some audio of him that night. It makes for an ugly listen. At one point, he says,
You’re all a bunch of f—–g idiots! Letting people tell you what you’re going to do! Letting people push you around! How long do you think it’s going to last? How long are you going to let it go on? How long are you going to let them push you around? How long? Maybe you like it! Maybe you like being pushed around. Maybe you love it. Maybe you love getting your face stuck in the s—t. . . you love it don’t you? You’re all a bunch of slaves, letting everyone push you around. What are you going to do about it?
The ramblings of a drunk? Yes and no. Yes, he’s drunk. And yes, he rambles. But if you listen carefully to the audio, you hear the Doors trying to play the song “Five to One,” a 1968 Morrison composition that taunted flower children with lyrics such as:
You walk across the floor with a flower in your hand
Trying to tell me no one understands
Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes
Gonna make it baby, in our prime
Morrison was taking the ethos of the song to an extreme: question. Confront. Provoke. Now, think of the Miami incident in context of this clip from the Living Theatre:
It’s impossible not to notice the similarities, such as when one of the actors in the above clip yells, “America owns the world! We’re all enslaved!” Notice, too, nudity in the context of the performance.
But the Living Theatre was avant garde. The Doors’ audience was not interested in avant guard. They wanted to hear “Touch Me.” Many venues canceled Doors concerts. But even still, the Doors played more than 40 dates between 1969 and the first half of 1970. Absolutely Live is stitched together from performances from that stretch of 1969 and 1970.
Although Morrison sparked no riots or arrests during those subsequent concerts, he had forever shed any semblance of being a rock star. He was now a theater performer who happened to sing as part of that performance. And when he was on, the entire band was smoking hot. In fact, at a May 1970 performance at Cobo Hall, the Doors played so hard that they didn’t end until well after curfew, which led them to being banned from Cobo Hall – ironically not for obscene behavior but for doing what they did best: play music. Absolutely Live is a snapshot of Morrison as he was morphing into the theatrical shaman who eclipsed Morrison the rock star.
When I listen to the album today, I am struck by how hoarse and nasal his voice sounds at times. But his delivery is hypnotic as he embraces different personae. He is a demonic pied piper on the opening song, “Who Do You Love,” his words bouncing along with John Densmore’s Bo Diddley beat. When he sings the Bo Diddley lyrics “Tombstone hand and a graveyard mine/Just 22 and I don’t mind dying,” he chillingly prophesizes his own death, which would happen only months after Absolutely Live was released.
On the introduction to “Break on Through,” he assumes the spirit of a fallen, wasted preacher. To the piercing sound of a gong, he works up the audience by shouting these words:
When I was back there in seminary school
There was a person there
Who put forth the proposition
That you can petition the Lord with prayer
Petition the lord with prayer
Petition the lord with prayer
You cannot petition the lord with prayer!
He pauses dramatically before shouting the final line, as the band launches into “Break on Through.” Of course, Doors fans know that the “When I was back there in seminary school” spoken verse actually comes from the song “The Soft Parade,” from The Soft Parade. But he applies it to great effect as a build-up to the explosive “Break on Through.” His delivery on Absolutely Live is electric.
The difference between Morrison the singer in the studio and Morrison the shaman on stage becomes vivid when you listen to both versions of the spoken introduction side by side. Here’s the studio introduction. And here’s the live preamble. In the studio, he is reciting words to no one. He sounds resigned to sadness. Live, he feeds off the audience’s rapturous cheers to create a crackling energy.
On “When the Music’s Over,” he interrupts the song and berates the chatty audience. “Shut up!” he screams, in full Living Theatre mode. Then he gently shushes everyone before asking, “Is that any way to behave at a rock and roll concert?” Then he scolds the audience and pleads, “Give the singer some” . . . before launching into the climactic “We want the world and we want it now!” line. It’s as if he was making a statement recorded for his and future generations: if we want the world, then you need to stop your idle chatter and join me. (Imagine him saying that in 2019 to an audience of mobile phone waving millennials and Gen Zers.)
On the centerpiece of the album, “Celebration of the Lizard,” he transforms into a tormented poet, speaking of lions roaming the street, and a beast caged in the heart of the city. “Is everybody in?” he asks. And then,
You can’t remember where it was
Had this dream stopped?
Is everybody in? Yes, we are, even from the comfort of our suburban homes decades later, as we listen to a shaman on vinyl.
Mr. Mojo Risin
Jim Morrison was in conflict with who he was and what he had become. But in the spirit of the Living Theatre, he did not hide his inner torment from anyone. He embraced theater as catharsis. In doing so, he rekindled his creativity. In the 24 months following the Miami incident, the Doors released two albums, Morrison Hotel, and L.A. Woman, which are widely regarded as classics.
Both contained songs featuring some of Morrison’s strongest writing – “Riders on the Storm,” “L.A. Woman,” “The Spy,” and “Peace Frog,” among them. (After the Miami concert, the Doors also released The Soft Parade, considered their weakest album, but as noted, most of it had been written and recorded before the concert took place.) Unfortunately, the winning streak of brilliant albums would come to an untimely end on July 3, 1971, when Jim Morrison died at age 27, a victim of his own hard living. He could channel his torment creatively, but he could not conquer his inner demons completely. In the act of trying, though, he left behind a compelling creative legacy. Absolutely Live is a powerful portrait of an artist rediscovering his muse through theater.
Don’t let an algorithm define your tastes. Get out there and discover art with reckless abandon.
Last weekend, I visited a vinyl record store, Plaza Records, in Carbondale, Illinois. I had not been there in three years. All record stores are different. Their inventory reflects regional tastes of their buyers and sellers. You have to visit them and explore to really figure them out. Amazon won’t do that for you. At Plaza Records, I discovered a small but well curated country section that included the album Family Bible by Willie Nelson. I almost left the album in the bin. I am glad I didn’t.
Willie has recorded some of the best country albums of all time. But he’s also put out some bad records, too. He is to music what Michael Caine is to acting: always working, and not particularly choosy. Family Bible, released in 1980, certainly did not invite further exploration, with a washed-out album cover suggesting a slipshod effort. But the track listing intrigued me: all gospel songs, with no one but Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson performing. The album cost $6, and I do not know a whole lot about Willie’s gospel side. Why not?
Since last weekend, I must have played that album 10 times in five days. Almost immediately, with the multi-tracked harmonies on “By the Rivers of Babylon,” the album’s warmth drew me in. The songs are the kind of old-timey standards that evoke a longing for the comfort of the past. Many are in the public domain. Willie sings them with grace and strength; his phrasing has seldom been better, as evident on songs such as “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings.” When he sings “You who are weary, come home” on “Softly and Tenderly,” I want to answer the call right then and there. In a world full of bombast, he offers a soft, warm invitation to rest your weary spirit.
Willie Nelson wrote the title track in 1957. The story goes that he was inspired by his grandmother, who would read from her Bible and sing “Rock of Ages” after supper. But, facing financial problems, he sold it to Paul Buskirk, who is credited along with Claude Gray and Walter Breeland as the songwriters. That’s the way the world works sometimes. You sell your work, and then you sing it decades later with the credit going to someone else. But when he sing the words, his voice soaring over the strumming of the guitar he reclaims the song as his own:
There’s a family Bible on the table
Each page is torn and hard to read
But the family Bible on the table
Will ever be my key to memories
At the end of day when work was over
And when the evening meal was done
Dad would read to us from the family Bible
And we’d count our many blessings one by one
I can see us sittin’ round the table
When from the family Bible dad would read
I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages
Rock of ages cleft for me
Now this old world of ours is full of trouble
This old world would also better be
If we’d find more Bibles on the tables
And mothers singing rock of ages cleft for me
I can see us sittin’ round the table
When from the family Bible dad would read
I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages
Rock of ages rock of ages cleft for me
He and Bobbie play together with a familiarity and ease that makes you feel like they are in your home, gathered around a piano, filling the evening with song. Bobbie’s rousing piano introduction to “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings” sounds like it came from a dusty Nazarene tent meeting somewhere in the Illinois corn fields.
I suppose if this album were recorded today, we might think of it as Willie Unplugged. Willie is listed as the producer. And he made the right call by employing a simple sound. These songs are meant to work their way into your heart gently. But you have to find these moments of communion with song. You have to dig through the crates in strip-mall record stores, take a risk on that one more album even though you’re already spending more than you should. And then return home, stop what you’re doing, and listen.
When I told my sister Karen I was going to see Al Green perform at the Chicago Theater May 7, she replied, “You mean Reverend Green.”
Yes. Reverend Al Green. The Al Green who sold millions of records singing about love and sexuality before becoming an ordained pastor at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, where he preaches today.
When I was a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, Al Green was my world. He made me fall in love with music, a love that remains today. Whenever I could save up enough money, I’d ask my mom to take me to Kmart, where I sought out 45s from his Memphis record label, Hi. He was more than an entertaining singer with a sweet falsetto voice. He introduced me to feelings of love and longing through songs such as “You Ought to Be with Me” and “Call Me.” He was also the only black person I knew, or at least I felt like I knew, in our neighborhood north of town in the country. To a lonely kid afraid of the world, Al Green felt like an exciting voice from a grown-up place, assuring me of experiences yet to come with people from unexplored paths who looked and sounded different than me. He also figured into some family history, too, as I’ve described in my post “Al Green and the Family War.”
As I grew older and my musical tastes branched out, I never lost sight of Al Green’s brilliance. That cooing voice, punctuated by the Memphis horns and the tight rhythms conjured up by Willie Mitchell’s smooth production, always brought me back to those magical days of musical discovery in Battle Creek. Meanwhile Al Green embraced gospel for a lengthy run and then returned to secular music in 2003, releasing generally well-received albums over a period of five years. But after 2008’s Lay It Down, he stopped recording. So a few months ago, I was surprised to hear that out of the blue, he had decided to do a tour of eight venues, including the Chicago Theater. I scooped up two tickets for me and my wife, Jan.
I did not quite know what to expect. Al Green had recently turned 73 years old. Mick Jagger, two years his senior, remains a powerful force in concert, but he maintains a rigorous physical regime (as evidenced by his rapid recovery from a recent heart valve replacement). Artists such as Robert Plant have shown that they can turn their aging voices into a strength by adapting their vocal styles. They choose songs that not only accentuate their maturing voices, but also open up new vistas of musical discovery for themselves and their audience. But Robert Plant hones his voice through ongoing touring and songwriting. Al Green had not toured in years. Judging from recent photos, he looked heavier. But this might be the only chance we’d have to see him live.
So on a spring Tuesday evening, Jan and I took our seats in the balcony of the Chicago Theater to find out what Al Green had to offer. After an opening act, a 15-piece band blasted a salvo of strings and horns, and out sauntered the reverend, holding roses in his arms, singing “It Ain’t No Fun to Me.” He sounded huskier, but he hit those high notes with conviction. He wore a red vest and dark suit that barely contained his stocky frame. He prowled about the stage and handed roses to the women. He waved to the balcony and yelled “I love you Chicago!” often. We could feel his charisma even from where we sat. When a woman tossed her sweater onstage, the audience roared with approval.
I cannot remember the last time I heard a singer yell “I love you!” to his audience and seem like he meant it. Maybe I never have. A few years ago, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was performing at the Riviera when a fan yelled “We love you!” Darnielle replied, flatly, “No you don’t. You don’t even know me.” Al Green would have none of that disaffection. He fed off the audience’s obvious affection and gave it back to us.
The roses and the “I love you’s” were great theater. The gestures also captured the essence of Al Green. This is a man whose signature tune is “Love and Happiness” and who once released an album entitled Al Green Is Love. This is a man who was also a notorious lothario. At the height of his fame, a married woman he was romantically involved with, Mary Woodson White, became distraught when he refused to marry her. She poured boiling grits on him while he was bathing and then shot herself in the head. The story is essential to the Al Green mythology — the sinner who loved liberally before tasting hell and turning to the gospel for personal redemption. In reality, the lover-turned-preacher myth is not so clean-cut, as stories of domestic abuse dogged him into the early 1980s. In 1982, the same year he recorded the album Precious Lord, he admitted to spousal abuse. Whatever demons might have consumed him, he recorded more than a dozen gospel albums in the 1980s and 1990s, as he focused on preaching and singing for God.
He is also a man whose falsetto pierces your heart. Such is the power of artistic expression that a loyal audience casts aside the inconvenient facts and believes the myth. It was clear from the enthusiastic response from the audience at the Chicago Theater that we were surrounded by believers. He blitzed through his classics, such as “Let’s Get Married” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” He delved into country (“For the Good Times”) and briefly transformed the Chicago Theater into the Full Gospel Tabernacle with a tender “Amazing Grace.” When he sang “Let’s Stay Together,” I shed a tear. He passed out more roses.
But about midway through the show, the myth began to fade. He became winded. He sat in a chair for a few songs, which made me think of an aging Phil Collins, now performing entire concerts seated in a chair owing to chronic back problems. He occasionally took off his jacket, lay it on the floor, and then slowly put it on again, an odd gesture that seemed to serve no purpose but to give him an excuse to stop singing and take a break. He paused to walk over to a table laden with bottles of Gatorade and water, and he took leisurely swigs, taking his time to unscrew the caps instead of singing.
And the reverend began to cheat. He cut corners with his songs. He sang incomplete verses before walking away from the microphone to hand out more flowers. He coasted through medleys, which allowed him to pick the least-demanding parts of the songs before moving on to the next one. He leaned on the audience to sing along with him, inviting them to handle entire verses for him. I knew what he was doing, and Jan did, too: taking a rest and letting the audience do the work we’d paid him to do.
Jan would later tell me that he reminded her of a visibly winded Axl Rose performing at the United Center in November 2017. But whereas Axl Rose could lean on the powerful guitar work of Guns N’ Roses bandmate Slash for a rest, Al Green didn’t have a foil onstage. But he did have the audience, and maybe it was appropriate that he leaned on us. After all, we were his wellspring of energy.
I wanted badly to like what I was hearing and seeing. And Al Green’s charm draws you into his orbit. I also wanted to relive those days when I would flip through the singles at Kmart in search of an Al Green song and then celebrate the moment when my eye caught that black Hi Records label. So this is what it must have been like for all those Elvis fans watching the bloated King labor onstage in his caped Elvis suit in the 1970s — longing and wanting, not for the man onstage but for an experience they could not have again. Perhaps if you shut your eyes, you could hold on to the myth.
After about an hour, the opening strains of one of his signature songs, “Love and Happiness,” filled the hall. “Love and Happiness” is recorded with a gentle guitar strum, a simple tapping of two feet on a Coke carton, and a whoosh of an organ, all atmosphere and nuance. But at the Chicago Theater, the song sounded like an anthem, engineered to fill the entire auditorium with a loud stampede of trumpets and a stanza repeated while the reverend handed out more flowers before disappearing and leaving us alone with his band and a table littered with plastic bottles of water and Gatorade. The lights came on. There was no encore.
But he was still Al Green. In the flesh. As the Reverend Green could quote from scripture, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
What would you do if you were a young musician with a record label interested in you — but you realized that your future with the label meant singing songs you didn’t believe in? Would you somehow make it work? Now let’s up the ante: you just moved to Nashville, you’re far from home, and you have no means to support yourself. What would you do?
If you’re Alexis Saski, leader of the Nashville band Tennessee Muscle Candy, you turn your back on the label even if it means performing in the streets to make ends meet.
“When I first started out, Sony wanted me to be a Christian artist,” she told me in a phone conversation on a recent Friday afternoon. “They moved me to Nashville to work with a producer for a month. But on my first night out in Nashville, I met two brothers from a rock band known as the Gills, Matt and Andy Prince. They had the most dynamic rhythm section I’ve ever heard. I realized I didn’t want to be a Christian artist. I wanted to play my own music.”
So Alexis dropped Sony and started her own band on her own terms. She learned how to sing live on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, performing for tourists and the homeless. Today, she is one of the most charismatic, powerful singers I’ve ever heard perform live, singing as part of a loose collective of musicians that includes popular guitarist Ricky Dover, Jr. She is Tennessee Muscle Candy’s undisputed leader and chief songwriter with a singing style that evokes Brittany Howard, Amy Winehouse, and Tina Turner. When she sings live, as she did recently at the Cobra in Nashville, she owns the floor, twisting her curvy frame, shaking her head, spinning like a tornado, and dropping to her knees at the lip of the stage.
Her band is unsigned, and her future is uncertain. But she is doing what she loves, creating art on her own terms, and performing concerts that can make you put down your drink and run out to a dance floor.
Riding a Wave of Energy
“When I am onstage, I feel like I am literally riding a wave of energy, and I just follow it,” she said. “Everything you see onstage — my confidence and my attitude — came from playing in the streets of Nashville. It’s weird that I had to leave a major label to find that. I had the freakin’ dream. I had what everyone wanted. But I was not happy at all.”
When I saw her onstage on May 4, my wife Jan and I were hanging out at the Cobra watching different acts take turns with short sets. We had no idea who was playing that night. We’d spent the day as tourists bombing around the city and wanted to chill out. We were tired and tempted to head back to our Airbnb. We were glad we stayed. From the moment Alexis, three guitarists, a keyboardist, and drummer hit the stage, they generated an electric garage-band energy that ignited the narrow, sweaty room. Ricky Dover, Jr,. and guitarist Matthew Paige (also of the Blackfoot Gypsies) traded licks with a ferocity that made me think of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous double-barrel guitar sound. Alexis dominated the stage with her muscular singing, while giving everyone around her room to shine.
Jan and I both rushed to the front of the stage, drawn to the grungy rock sound, immersed in a crowd that moved with its own energy force field. I had not felt this motivated to move in a very long time. Afterward, Jan and I lingered. Post-show, Ricky Dover, Jr., and Matthew Paige were quiet and courtly, but Alexis was effusive. She accepted our hugs and basked in the energy her band had just created.
When our trip to Nashville ended, for all the great music we experienced that weekend, I thought most of Tennessee Muscle Candy. Where did this band come from, and where were they going? I just had to know. It was easy to find Alexis — one Instagram private message to the band’s account was all it took. We set up a time to talk, swapped a few texts, and I listened to her story.
“Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes”
She told me she was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and raised in Rockport, a beach town with 7,000 people that was recently ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. Music was her world from the start. Her dad drummed for a Christian rock band and instructed her to write a song a day. Her mom performed for a rock band that played everything from Heart to No Doubt. Alexis remembers doing her homework while watching her mom rehearse.
“I was completely in awe of my mom,” Alexis said. “None of the other kids’ moms were in rock and roll bands. I basically wanted to be my mom.”
She loved singing as early as age 5, when she sang hymns in Sacred Heart Church. By age 15, she was organizing a praise and worship band in her local church, where her mom is choir director to this day. She taught herself how to play guitar, while earning recognition for her talents. She won a music scholarship to study at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Music to her was about singing gospel songs, although hearing Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?opened up her ears to the power of rock and roll. After hearing Hendrix, rock called to her like a distant siren — and just might have gotten under her skin.
“Growing up, I was Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes,” she said. “I was a role model. But it was a lot to maintain. It really is tough living up to expectations, especially in a small town. You can make no wrong moves.”
She would shatter those expectations before going to college — in fact, her first night away from home. At a bar she saw 311, the rap-rock band from Nebraska that was becoming a national phenomenon, with albums such as Music and Grassroots. After their performance, she hung with the band.
“I partied with them all night before my first classes began,” she recalled, noting the irony of meeting the band at the same bar where her mom often performed. “After that, the only class I attended was surfing.”
She was consumed with a passion to perform — not four years from now, but now. So, she dropped out of college. When her parents asked her what she was going to do with her life, she replied, “I’m going to sing.”
She traveled to Las Vegas to sing in a contest, Talent Rock, where she won a car. She sold the car to finance an R&B demo that she shopped around to different record labels. Warner Bros. Records came calling.
Everything was happening so fast. At an age when her peers were either in college or working local jobs in Rockport, Alexis was tasting the first fruits of commercial success. As Bruce Springsteen once said about being an unknown talent, when you get your shot at making it, you say yes to everything, even if saying yes to everything isn’t always in your best interest. Warner Bros. introduced her to a record industry executive who asked her how she would feel about singing Christian pop music, at the time enjoying an explosion of popularity.
“I said, ‘Fine,’’’ she recalls. “I answered without thinking.”
The next thing she knew, she was in New Jersey making a Christian music demo with Anthony Krizan of the Spin Doctors — yes, the band that gave us “Two Princes” back in the day. The demo caught the attention of Sony Records. Sony sent her to Nashville to start recording songs for its Provident label.
Land-locked Nashville held little appeal to a woman who grew up in a beach town. But she needed to surround herself with talented producers and musicians to break through, and Music City is where they are found. Sony put her up in hotels and then a lake house to work with different songwriters and producers. She was paying her dues and finding her voice as a Christian pop artist. But just as a chance encounter with 311 changed her life, so did her random encounter with Matt and Andy Prince of the Gills, unleashing her passion for rock music. And so began her education on the streets of Nashville.
Alexis and the Prince brothers decided to try performing together. So Alexis moved out of the lake house.
“The lead singer of the Gills, Jesse Wheeler, stealthily helped me move my stuff out of the lake house,” she remembered. “It was like an escape.”
Alexis moved into a house in Antioch with the band and practiced. It was January. They were broke. They could not afford to pay their heating bills. Things got so bad that they used an open oven to keep warm. They decided start performing in the streets to earn enough money just to pay the bills.
Lessons from the Streets
“Playing in the streets is the best education you can give yourself,” she said. “You have to play for people who don’t have any reason to see you. You have to send a charge of energy to attract them. I felt like I had this power in my chest, like a magnet in my heart: energy force, engage!”
The band played covers such as Jerry Ragovoy’s and Bert Berns’s “Piece of My Heart” (made famous, of course, by Janis Joplin), Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.” If you search YouTube, you can find amateur footage of the trio playing on the sidewalk. Her talent is evident even in the rough fan footage. In her cover of “Piece of My Heart,” she nearly drops to her knees as she caresses the microphone like Tina Turner, then uses the microphone stand like an instrument. She is pure energy, drawing a crowd around her.
In 2011 fan footage of the band singing “Rock and Roll,” you can hear the random passers-by gasp and break into spontaneous dance, while Alexis jumps and sings.
“Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable,” a voice exclaims.
But Alexis believed.
“A Bottle of Soda That Was Being Shaken Forever”
“I was a bottle of soda that was being shaken forever, and then someone finally took the lid off,” she remembered. “Playing in the streets took the lid off.”
People began to ask them who they were. They needed a name. Tennessee Muscle Candy resulted from a prank Facebook status that the Prince brothers posted.
Nashville was, as it is today, a large collective of musicians who are always hustling side gigs in addition to their main careers. If you need to find band mates to play with, it’s a wellspring of talent so long as you accept the fact that the guitarist you perform with in April might not be the same one you record with in May. Soon Alexis started meeting other musicians and playing on their gigs, such as Magnolia Sons:
She met guitarist Matthew Paige at the High Watt club in Nashville after a Blackfoot Gypsies show. Paige asked her to sing back-up vocals on a record (she continues to sing back-up for them today). After that, she met Ricky Dover Jr. while she was gigging with Magnolia Sons. Meanwhile, Andy Prince joined a band full-time, Manchester Orchestra. Matt Prince got married and moved to Pensacola, Florida. (“We will always be family, but our paths are different,” she noted.) Tennessee Muscle Candy evolved.
She also began writing songs, which capture a vibe all their own. Her first single, “Walk That Walk,” produced and co-written by Reno Bo, is described on the band’s Facebook page as a “catchy three-minute jolt of psychedelic garage pop,” which is an apt description, especially with the theremin solo that whines like a drone. That fuzzy theremin evokes Jimmy Page’s theremin solo on the live version of “Whole Lotta Love” you hear on Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same.
“Weird Around You,” is all rock and soul. But “Lights On” and “So Good” grab you with a full-on Led Zeppelin-esque wall of sound. In “So Good,” Alexis unleashes a furious, tough bluesy vocal that sounds even earthier live.
These are songs made from the gut and meant to be played loud and live. The Tennessee Muscle Candy line-up we saw May 4 did the songs justice, with a tight set that sounded as if they had been playing together for years, which is impressive when you consider how often local bands like theirs change personnel.
“Everyone brings their own ingredient to the mix,” she said. “It’s not always easy to define our sound. We’re a mixture of punk and those old 1960s garage bands.”
“You Have to Own That One Thing”
When I told her the band’s live sound reminded me of early Doors, circa London Fog 1966 or Led Zeppelin on their first tour, she laughed. She recalled playing Led Zeppelin covers such as “Whole Lotta Love” and mentioned that the Doors are an influence.
“A lot of people want to be Jim Morrison,” she said. “But no one can be Jim Morrison. You have to own that one thing that you bring that no one else can.”
That “one thing” for her is being the uncorked soda bottle onstage. Somehow, she manages to own the stage without suffocating everyone else playing with her, though. When other bandmates play solos, she even kneels beside them, as if offering a tribute. How does she pull off that balance?
“It’s about empathy,” she replied. “A lot of front men go wrong that way. They can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what other people in the band are feeling when they are onstage with you. Empathy is in my nature. When I kneel in front of them, it’s a chance to thank them.”
But make no mistake: she commands the stage, draws energy from the audience, and shoots that energy across the room. “You have to go big,” she said. “Performing with my body is like strutting as animals do to attract others.”
She added, “I don’t have to be ashamed of my body. I am not heroin chic. I am a full-figured woman. There are a lot of young women who approach me after the show and thank me because of who I am. Performing is great for body positivity. It’s good for young women to see someone with body confidence. It’s a feeling that this is what I am meant to do. It feels really good.”
And now, ahead of her, comes more recording and possibly touring. In June, she will record in Nashville studio Bomb Shelter with a line-up that will include Matthew Paige and her regular guitarist, Jon Little. Her producer (and owner of the studio) Andrija Tokic, recorded the Alabama Shakes’s breakthrough album Boys and Girls.
“I would love to tour,” she says, “Building a following happens with touring. We need to get a good single out and hit the road with that.”
“A Foolish Sense of Hope”
And, ultimately, what does Alexis Saski want? How will she define success?
“I just want respect, and I want to support myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be self-sufficient. We’re over the dream of being fabulously wealthy.”
She has no health insurance and not enough money to support herself. So why do it?
“A foolish sense of hope,” she laughed. “My love for music.”
K-pop is having a moment in America, and for once, BTS is not the only reason. But is K-pop truly achieving mainstream popularity Stateside beyond its fan base?
The genre of pop music born in South Korea is a global phenomenon, and although K-pop is bigger than BTS, the Korean boy band’s loyal and global fan base (the ARMY) is surely a major reason why BTS has been the face of K-pop in the United States for the past few years. During the weekend of April 12, BTS set a record for the song with the most YouTube views within 24 hours, racking up 74.6 million views for its single “Boy with Luv” (featuring Halsey) from an album, Map of the Soul: Persona– which had sold millions of copies long before its April 12 release.
And on April 13, BTS became the first K-pop group to appear on Saturday Night Live, prompting music veteran Bob Lefsetz to write, “What kind of crazy, f—ked-up world do we live in where a Korean boy band sings to track and blows away every performance on SNLthis year? . . . That’s right, the Koreans know more about music than the Americans, at least those in the music industry.” Meanwhile, Map of the Soul: Persona was on its way to becoming a Billboard Number One seller.
The Rise of Blackpink
And BTS has company. On April 12, Blackpink became the first-ever female K-pop act to perform at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival — and on April 19, Blackpink performed during Coachella’s second weekend. Blackpink’s appearance was a coup because Coachella caters to the largest demographic in the United States, millennials. Of course, Blackpink was participating in a larger festival featuring headliners such as Ariana Grande and Janelle Monáe. Even still, Blackpink’s appearance stole buzz from BTS, creating, I suppose, K-pop’s equivalent of the Beatles-versus-Stones rivalry during the British Invasion. And consider these popularity signals:
When BTS accumulated the most YouTube views within 24 hours, the band broke a record that Blackpink had just set for their song “Kill This Love” a week earlier.
The group’s EP Kill This Love debuted at 24 on the Billboard 200 chart.
As of this writing, Blackpink is keeping K-pop visible on the charts, not BTS. But stay tuned.
How Big Is K-Pop?
Meanwhile, whether K-pop has become a mainstream phenomenon in the United States is open to debate. True, we’re seeing K-pop acts achieving prominent roles in mainstream TV shows and concerts (after Coachella Weekend One, Blackpink performed on The Late Late Show with James Cordon. BTS is appearing on CBS Sunday Morning April 21). And BTS’s 2019 tour sold out quickly.
On the other hand, the singles and album charts are dominated by mainstream pop and hip-hop, with K-pop barely visible (as you can see by reviewing the Apple Music Top 100, Billboard 200, Billboard Hot 100, and Spotify Charts). And BTS’s SNL performance, while lauded, did not exactly win over mainstream American viewers. SNL suffered low ratings when BTS performed, especially among the 18-49 age bracket, an important age cohort with spending power. As Ashley King of Digital Music News points out, the low ratings reinforce a perception that BTS’s fan base remains firmly entrenched among digital natives as opposed to a larger American audience:
Teen girls in the United States may love BTS, but SNL viewers do not. Adding to the mismatch, BTS’ younger base is far less likely to care about live television — or even know how to access it.
King goes so far as to state:
The no-show raises the possibility that BTS’ popularity in America may be a flash in the pan, with finicky younger audiences eventually moving onto the next boy band. The numbers suggest that BTS may already be past its prime in the U.S. The K-pop group placed 7 tracks in the top 10 on iTunes last Friday, but they are mostly gone now. Last August, the group claimed all 12 top spots on the U.S. iTunes chart with tracks from the Love Yourself album.
Incidentally, all 26 songs from the Love Yourself album featured in the top 50 when it debuted. This rapid success on the charts has prompted plenty of media outlets to highlight the craze, making it seem like K-pop is a huge media sensation. In reality, the genre still appears to be popular among a particular niche of fans.
Adam Buckley of Digital Music News argues that a vocal and relentless fan base makes K-pop seem bigger than it really is. (Side note: are Adam Buckley and Ashley King the same person?) Buckley points out that K-pop songs fall off the charts as quickly as they rise, and he also notes the paucity of K-pop songs on the Billboard lists.
That said, the popularity of the BTS tour cannot be denied although I’m sure Adam and Ashley will fold their arms and ask just how many of the stadium fillers are of legal age. At the risk of bringing the wrath of music fans on my head, I will say this: when the Beatles first hit it big, no one thought they’d really break through beyond the teen market, even after their triumph on Ed Sullivan (a historic ratings breakthrough unlike BTS’s paltry ratings on SNL). Beatlemania was about screaming teenage girls. And then things changed.
Jagger famously captured the essence of rebellion and raw sexuality decades ago. At the height of his creative powers and cultural relevance in the 1960s, he was a threat to the established order and a voice for a younger generation. He was also aware of the limitations of that role. He once said, “I’d rather be dead than sing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45.”
Now he’s singing “Satisfaction” well into his 70s. Why? Because performing is what he loves. Being a musician is his passion. And so he continues to tour and record music, as the Rolling Stones have been doing since 1962. But we don’t know how to handle a 75-year-old Mick Jagger prancing onstage, shaking his butt, and singing “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Start Me Up,” and, indeed “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” all of them staples of the Stones’s No Filter tour in 2018.
Seventy-five-year-olds are not supposed to sing about sex and drugs. They’re supposed to move over and let a younger generation have the stage. It’s OK for older generations to occasionally entertain us so long as they do cute things such as escape nursing homes to attend heavy metal concerts. But Mick Jagger refuses to step aside and age quietly.
Our discomfort with Mick Jagger became clear when news broke that the Rolling Stones were going to postpone their 2019 tour because Jagger was suffering from an undisclosed medical condition. In due course, we would learn that he required a heart valve replacement, which was performed successfully April 4. Although the news triggered plenty of supportive comments, jokes about his age surfaced on social media, and The New York Times ran an ageist article that noted, “Jagger is not the first 1960s-era music icon to show signs of slowing down in old age” and chalked up his (then undisclosed) health problem as a result of the demands of touring.
I thought it was interesting and disappointing that The New York Times assumed Mick Jagger was suffering an age-related problem before anyone knew what was wrong with him. And citing the ravages of touring seemed odd given that Jagger has prided himself on how well he takes care of his body through a strict diet and rigorous exercise. If anything, touring energizes him.
To be sure, the odds of requiring a heart valve replacement increase as you get older. But why is it necessary for publications such as CNN to point out repeatedly that Jagger is a 75-year-old grandfather and great grandfather when reporting the results of the surgery?
We don’t know what to do about Mick Jagger because we don’t know what to do about the reality of growing old. We want to keep the elderly in the background because seeing them reminds us of our older selves. Perhaps this very personal fear of growing old helps explain rampant ageism in the workplace, as discussed in a recent Fast Company article, “Ageism is thriving, so what are companies going to do about it?” Ageism is not about rejection of The Other. Ageism is about negating our older selves.
In fact, Mick Jagger is a reminder that our stereotypical notions about aging can be proven wrong. He’s a vibrant rock star dancing and singing about whatever he wants, even if the notion of a 75-year-old man singing about sex makes some people uncomfortable. Well, deal with it. And hope that your future is as bright as Mick Jagger’s.
The old music institutions are losing their grip. The Super Bowl LIII halftime show February 3 was a bust because of a musicians’ boycott. And now musicians who matter are blowing off the Grammy Awards. Childish Gambino, Drake, Ariana Grande, and Kendrick Lamar have turned down the chance to perform at the 61st Grammy Awards on February 10. What’s going on?
The Super Bowl halftime show boycott was a matter of principle. Musicians such as Cardi B, Jay Z, and Rihanna boycotted the Super Bowl halftime show as a show of solidarity with embattled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Grammys are about relevance.
The Grammys, run by the Recording Academy, call themselves the music industry’s highest honor. But the Grammys have demonstrated an astounding lack of relevance year after year. This is the institution that once awarded Best Rock & Roll Recording to “Winchester Cathedral” over the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” among other notable gaffes. In recent years, the Grammys have been taken to task for failing to recognize progressive music from women and people of color in its nominations and choice of performers during the telecast. In 2018, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow came under fire for making a condescending remark about women while at the same time the Recording Academy snubbed Lorde as a performer (even though she was up for Album of the Year), and Alessia Cara was the only solo female Grammy winner.
Who can blame the musicians for skipping the Grammys? Artists build their fan bases on their own digital platforms, not at the Grammys. On digital, they can reach a more relevant audience that listens their music, attends their concerts, and buys their merchandise. Consider Ariana Grande. She dropped her new album, thank u, next, two days before the Grammys. You’d think a televised appearance before millions of people would be the perfect opportunity to promote her new music. But instead she just gave the Grammys a very public middle finger.
Ariana Grande doesn’t need the additional exposure. Her 294 million combined followers on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Twitter, and YouTube alone do a powerful job promoting thank u, next, and to a more relevant audience (compared to the 19.8 million who watched the Grammys on TV in 2018). She’s already dropped two singles from the album, one of which was her first-ever Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. She was the top-streamed female artist in 2018. Ticket sales for her Sweetener tour, launching in March, appear to be strong based on her adding shows. She’s headlining Coachella in April.
What would the Grammys do for Ariana Grande except associate her name with a stodgy, out-of-touch brand?
It will be interesting to see if more musicians avoid the institutions of yore such as the Academy Awards. But I wouldn’t count on any of the old-guard television events adapting. They’re using a playbook created last century. Meanwhile, the artists are creating a new game.
The Super Bowl halftime show used to feature marching bands and harmless American cheese such as Up with People. Then the show became a high-profile global stage for big-time musicians such as Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. This year, it’s a lightning rod for controversy and an embarrassment for the NFL.
For the Super Bowl LIII halftime show occurring February 3 in Atlanta, the NFL has struggled to find performers to land a gig so prominent that stars are usually willing to perform essentially for free. That’s because a number of musicians have staged an unofficial boycott of the halftime show to express their solidarity with embattled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The Colin Kaepernick Factor
In 2016, Kaepernick triggered a national culture war and a public battle with NFL owners when he took a knee during pre-game national anthems to protest oppression of people of color. He became a free agent before the 2017 season, but no team signed him. In the wake of his not being signed, he filed a collusion suit against the NFL that is expected to move forward in 2019.
Over the past two years, Kaepernick has become transformed from an NFL star into a social activist. His public profile received a major boost when a Nike ad in September 2018 positioned him as a leader who transcends sports. And now the NFL Super Bowl halftime show has done the same although certainly not by design.
The Rihanna Factor
Normally, artists jump at the chance to perform at the halftime show, and it’s easy to see why: since 2010, Super Bowl viewership has ranged from 103 million to 114 million, giving halftime show performers a gigantic stage to promote their music and elevate their personal brands. But when the NFL approached Rihanna to appear at Super Bowl LIII, she reportedly turned down the gig to support Kaepernick. And when someone with Rihanna’s clout acts, others follow. Musicians joining the unofficial boycott include, reportedly, Cardi B, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj. The NFL finally confirmed Maroon 5 on January 13, and then Big Boi and Travis Scott agreed to join them. By contrast, the NFL confirmed Justin Timberlake, last year’s headliner, five months before the Super Bowl.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl LIII, Big Boi, Maroon 5 and Travis Scott have faced criticism on social media and from other artists. For example, Roger Waters has challenged Maroon 5 to take a knee onstage as Colin Kaepernick did before the national anthem. T.I. has called Travis Scott selfish for agreeing to perform. Black Twitter has spoken out as well. The show has now become a racially charged PR fiasco for the NFL, an especially embarrassing situation given Atlanta’s prominence as a burgeoning hip-hop center and its reputation as the black mecca of the United States.
Two Big Questions
In the aftermath of the media storm surrounding the controversy, two questions remain:
Will all the drama hurt Big Boi, Maroon 5, and Travis Scott? Yes and no. They’ve lost credibility with other musicians for crossing the unofficial boycott line. But fans are another story. An artist has to try really hard to alienate their fans to the point where they stop buying their music. If anything, the media exposure will help Maroon 5 and Travis Scott sell more tickets for their tours, which are in progress. Big Boi just released two new songs in advance of the Super Bowl. He’s banking on the controversy to help him.
Will the NFL be affected? Not on Super Bowl Sunday. Fans are not going to boycott the game because of the halftime show. But it says something that musicians were willing to skip a show that should have been a no-brainer decision to do. The NFL can be wounded (especially when Rihanna wields the sword). The unofficial boycott has called attention to Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem controversy just when it seemed as though the issue had become dormant. The NFL would prefer that the Super Bowl buzz focus on football, not on racial injustice. But the artists have stolen the narrative. They have collective power that they could exercise in other ways in the future, such as turning down Super Bowl ad spots.
Meanwhile, the halftime show mess has probably helped the man at the center of the boycott, Colin Kaepernick, by keeping his name in circulation as his grievance against the NFL goes to trial. The graphic below shows the volume of searches for Colin Kaepernick in the United States within the past month. Searches for his name spiked on January 16 when a story broke about Travis Scott reportedly meeting with Kaepernick before Scott joined the halftime show lineup. Interest is climbing again on the eve of the Super Bowl.
I doubt that Colin Kaepernick’s protests have had any impact on NFL viewership. NFL fans, like music fans, are very good at compartmentalizing. Viewership ratings have dipped and then increased over the past few years, and the quality of the play on the field has made the difference. But Colin Kaepernick never said he was protesting the NFL when he took a knee. He was, and is, calling attention to oppression of people of color in the United States. He has succeeded. Musicians have helped him keep the conversation about racial injustice in the public eye. And this conversation is bigger than the Super Bowl.