The Grammy Awards are often maligned for being out of touch with mainstream culture. But the 2022 Grammys proved its cultural relevance by giving three awards to Olivia Rodrigo, including Best New Artist, Best Pop Solo Performance, and Best Pop Vocal Album for her breakout album Sour.
Along with Billie Eilish — who won four Grammys in 2021 — Olivia Rodrigo represents the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of the swelling Gen Z population. This is significant because Gen Z comprises 20.2% of the US population — 68.2 million tweens, teens, and young adults ages 9 to 24. As the third-largest cohort, Gen Z is the most racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse generation in history as well as the third-largest generation behind Millennials and Baby Boomers. They are also a generation shaped by trauma. According to the Pew Research center, 70% of teens across all genders, races and family-income levels say that anxiety and depression are significant problems among their peers.
Rodrigo’s Sour blew up in 2021 because it connected with Gen Zers traumatized by a pandemic, school shootings, and an uncertain economic future. She did not sing about those topics explicitly. Instead, she explored internal trauma in other ways — such as the insecurities of comparing herself to others on social media and always coming up short (in the song “jealousy, jealousy”) and the heartbreak of loss, most famously on the single “Drivers License.”
As Heather Phares of Allmusic wrote, “Rodrigo nails what it’s like to be 17, heartbroken, and frustrated, and updates the traditions of the sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued songwriters before her for Generation Z.” That heartbreak is deeply traumatic in its own way. And she is not afraid to share it. “I’ll tell my Uber driver all of my deepest traumas and insecurities, and so I just think songwriting for me is an extension of that aspect of my personality,” she once told Nick Reilly of NME. Those deepest traumas were on full display in her show-stopping performance of “Drivers License” during the 2022 Grammy telecast.
She is known as a voice of a generation coming to terms with mental health unlike generations before them. As Sarah John of MSN noted, “As other Gen Z artists have stated, their generation is delivering more rawness than their predecessors. Rodrigo, a self-proclaimed oversharer and the child of a therapist and teacher, weaponizes that emotionally open generational rawness especially well. Rodrigo understands the demand for authenticity from her generation.”
Olivia Rodrigo is responding to Gen Z trauma in her own authentic way. The Grammys got it right.
Who inspires you when you need motivation? What face do you envision when you need a kick in the butt? I think of Tony Iommi, co-founder and lead guitarist for Black Sabbath.
Let me tell you something about this guy.
When he was a teenager and aspiring guitar player in the 1960s, he lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in a factory accident. It sure looked like his guitar-playing days were over.
As he later told Loudwire magazine, “I went to the hospital and they cut the bones off and then they said, ‘You might as well forget playing.’ God, I was just so upset. I wouldn’t accept that there wasn’t some way around it, that I couldn’t be able to play.”
So what did he do? He adapted to a two-fingered guitar playing technique. He fitted his damaged fingers with homemade thimbles so that he could still use them on fret chords.
“It worked,” he told Loudwire, “but then I had to persevere for a long, long time to get used to working with them . . . and it was painful.”
He also slackened the guitar strings, which made it easier to bend them. All these changes added up to a different sound, the heavy metal power chord, that would make him one of the most inventive guitarists in rock history and contribute to a long run of success for Black Sabbath that included 70 million record sales. Rolling Stone would rank him Number 25 on its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time List.
Now let me tell you something else about Tony Iommi.
Let’s fast forward to 2013. Black Sabbath was a legend. Tony Iommi had accomplished everything. He could have rested on his laurels. But instead, he went back into the studio with the band to record 13, the first album Black Sabbath had recorded in many years. The album become a critical and commercial success. Black Sabbath went on tour to promote 13, which is when when my family and I saw them in concert one night. Well, Tony Iommi took over that stage. Dressed in a black leather jacket, he looked like a cross between the Road Warrior, the Terminator, and one of the Nazgûl as he wielded his guitar like a weapon. He didn’t preen like Jimmy Page or mug like Keith Richards. He just shot one power chord after another into the air like roman candle bursts from hell.
Oh, and you know what? He was doing this show in between lymphoma treatments.
Here is how he described that tour four years later to the U.K. website Mirror:
After we released the album we went on tour and played 81 shows in 28 countries. I really enjoyed it, but it was tough. After the illness I got really tired. Every six weeks I had to fly home for treatment at the Parkway Hospital in Solihull, just outside Birmingham.
I was hooked up to a drip and given an antibody that sort of coats the cancer cells and stops them spreading. Then I had to be home for two or three weeks recovering before I could join up with the band again. We had to plan the whole tour around my treatment.
Unbelievable. Get hooked up to a drip. Rest. Then go onstage and become a guitar god. But he had no other choice because that’s how he rolls. As he told the Mirror website, “I could be here another 10 years or just one year – I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I should try to live a more peaceful life. Then I think, ‘I don’t want to let the illness take over. ’”
I’ve never seen such a unmitigated display of strength onstage. Tony Iommi inspires me all the time. Who inspires you?
One of the ways I learn about musicians is to pay attention to their stage patter on record albums, and fortunately the vinyl resurgence makes this particular form of immersion easy to do. On a live album, a musician’s interaction with the audience can reveal something important about the artist. On the Doors album Absolutely Live, when Jim Morrison screams “Shut up!” at a chatty audience in the middle of “When the Music’s Over,” you are hearing an important moment in Jim Morrison’s life when he was experimenting with the confrontational performance technique he’d learned at the Living Theatre in Los Angeles.
Then there’s Mick Jagger on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, teasing his audience with, “I think I busted a button on my trousers. Hope they don’t fall down. You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?” This quintessential Mick Jagger moment, all ego and sexual bravado.
Sometimes stage patter becomes as memorable as the music. On One More From the Road, when Ronnie Van Zant famously asks, “What song is it you wanna hear?” the audience’s lusty “Freeeee-birrrd!” response becomes a defining moment for fan zealotry. (Whenever you hear someone at a concert jokingly shout “Freebird!” you now know where the joke originated.)
One of my favorite albums with interesting stage patter is Charley Pride’s In Person, a 1969 recording of a concert in Ft. Worth, Texas.
His personal story is one of overcoming poverty and racism on his way to becoming something very rare: a Black country music superstar. He was born to a family of poor sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1934. At age 14, he learned how to play guitar. Throughout his life, he thought his ticket out of poverty would be professional baseball, and indeed he played a considerable amount of minor league ball until an arm injury cut short his dreams. After his baseball career ended, he worked construction and unloaded coal from railroad cars in Montana, a dangerous job. Well, all this time, he was singing. And he was good at it. When he was playing ball, he sometimes sang before games, which increased attendance and earned him some additional income. After baseball, he keept at it, playing gigs in regional bars. He became good enough to land a recording contract at RCA Victor in the 1960s. RCA believed in him, but it was hard to get record promoters to play country music by a Black musician. But fortunately for Charley Pride, when his songs such as “Just Between You and Me” got played on the radio, where white listeners did not know the color of his skin, he caught fire.
As his popularity rose, he started to perform live to white audiences who were in for quite a surprise when a Black man walked onstage to sing the songs that they’d fallen in love with. The audience did not always welcome you with open arms. But he quickly won them over with his charm and enormous talent. The album In Person captures the essence of Charley Pride – his easygoing singing style and his warmth. “Oh, you’re mighty fine,” he says from time to time, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause. (It’s clear his audience loves him.) During two important moments, he also reveals profound truths about his difficult past. Before he launches into the rollicking “Shutters and Boards,” he says, gently, “I’ll tell you, it’s getting a little warm up here, but I’ll guarantee, I’d rather be seating up here than picking that cotton in Mississippi.” If you’re distracted, while you’re listening you might miss the remark – but when you hear it, you think of the album in an entirely new context. That one remark says everything about where he’s been and his motivation for succeeding. And then, before the final song on the album, “Cotton Fields,” he makes that motivation even more clear when he introduces the song. He says “Cotton Fields” is personally important to him because “It reminds me of what I never want to go back to doing. It hurts my fingers, my back, and my knee. When I go onstage, I try to sing the best I can, because I don’t want to go back to doing it anymore.”
For Charley Pride, there was no going back. He would go on to record 52 top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and 30 of those made it to Number One. After he became an undisputed star, he most certainly put his life on the line performing in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in 1976 – at a time when it was too dangerous for anyone to travel there to perform. That’s the kind of man Charley Pride was. Brave enough to risk his safety to perform his music. Brave enough to travel down the lonely road of becoming a Black country singer. Brave enough to open up about himself onstage. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2020, he died at age 86 of complications from Covid-19.
Kanye West is possibly the most polarizing celebrity alive. He is also a billionaire capitalist, with a clothing line and music to promote. Creating the moment, a tactic Kanye has perfected, serves his business aspirations well. That’s exactly what he was doing July 4 when he tweeted that he is running for president:
Elon Musk tweeted his support.
Journalists everywhere, no doubt cranky about interrupting their Independence Day, dutifully covered the announcement. Within a few hours, everyone from The Los Angeles Time to USA Today covered the news.
Social media exploded, including speculation that West, who cozied up to Donald Trump in 2019, is trying to siphon the Black vote away from Joe Biden. It was as if Kanye provided a welcome distraction from a somber Independence Day amid a pandemic and social unrest.
In other words, Yeezy did what Yeezy does best: create the moment. It’s a skill he’s mastered for years.
This is not the first time Kanye has talked about running for president. In 2015, he announced his #Kanye2020 bid at the 2015 MTV Music Awards, and the reaction was just the same as it is now: social media lit up, and everyone with access to a keyboard (including me) fired off an analysis. At the time, I wondered how Kanye was any different than Trump, as both were (and are) known for their erratic comments and actions. This is what I wrote in 2015:
. . . the media coverage of #Kanye2020, which has put Kanye West on a platform alongside Donald Trump, forces you to ask: why is the white guy with the big mouth a real presidential contender gaining in polls, whereas the black guy with the big mouth is, at best, a farce? When Kanye disrespects Taylor Swift or Beck on TV, he is scorned. When Donald Trump makes disparaging remarks about women, insults Mexican immigrants, and kicks people out of press conferences, his popularity seems to rise. If Kanye were white, might he be treated seriously as a real candidate as Trump is? If Trump were black, where would he be in the polls?
Not much has changed since then, has it? And yet everything has changed. This, after all, is 2020, and anything goes. Trump has demonstrated that the Kanye approach — create one outrageous distraction after another, each one more outrageous than the last — builds loyalty among his core base. So what is Kanye’s rationale to announce a presidential bid, even though he’s missed the filing date to run as an independent in many key states?
First off, it’s useful to view the announcement in context: it’s the latest of many “look at me!” moments dating back many years. Within the past two years alone, Kanye has been all over the map, appearing with Minister Joel Osteen to announce that he’s both the greatest artist who ever lived and a servant of God, wearing a MAGA hat, referring to President Trump as his brother, and, most controversially, referring to slavery as “a choice.” Meanwhile, his business empire has expanded because of the popularity of his Yeezy line of sneakers. His new gospel musical has received mixed-to-lackluster reviews.
What does Kanye want? Is he serious about running for president? This much I know: for Kanye, being outrageous usually means he’s got something else to promote. Unlike Trump, Kanye uses outrage to build visibility even at the risk of alienating his core fans. So what’s Kanye selling these days? Let’s look at the two things he’s most serious about: being respected as an artist and as a business person. As to the latter aspiration, he said in 2015, “One of my dreams was to be the head creative director of the Gap. I’d like to be the Steve Jobs of the Gap.” Well, guess what: he’s just about getting his wish. He just signed a deal to bring his Yeezy line of clothing to the Gap in 2021, and as part of the relationship, he’ll have creative input into the merchandising. His financial stake in the deal is worth about $100 million.
But the Gap is in financial trouble as COVID-19 rages on. Kanye has every reason to promote the deal. And part of promoting the deal is drawing attention to himself. How does he do that? Through the art of outrage, a tactic that has worked well for him in the past. The numbers speak for themselves; Forbes recently announced that he’s officially a billionare, with his Yeezy sneaker line generating $1.3 billion annually in revenue. Kanye needs that Gap deal to work if he’s going to bring Yeezy clothing to the masses through the Gap.
As to Kanye the artist? Check this out: Kanye has new music out, a collaboration with Travis Scott known as “Wash Us in the Blood,” and he has announced a new album coming, “God’s Country.” He also said he will join his longtime Kid Cudi to voice characters in an animated show inspired by their 2018 album Kids See Ghosts. He’s also badly wanted respect for his forays into gospel (read more about that in my post, “Kanye West and Al Green: The Sacred and the Profane”). With music, it’s all about relentless promotion, especially when you’re taking your sound in a different direction, as Kanye has been doing with gospel (traditionally a niche form of music at best and hardly a money maker). When Kanye cozied up to prosperity minister Joel Osteen to raise awareness for Kanye’s gospel in 2019, the two talked seriously about going on tour together in 2020. COVID-19 put an end to that talk. Kanye running for president is Kanye’s solution. He gets the stage all to himself, and he can rely on digital aggressively as the two current candidates are doing.
Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Kanye has irons in the fire. And the fire needs stoking. Kanye has created his moment once again.
Virtual reality believers have had a lot to smile about lately, as Facebook and Google took big steps to make VR mainstream.
On October 4, Google launched its anticipated $79 Daydream View VR headset, part of Google’s toolkit to embed VR into our lives through Google’s ecosystem, whether we’re watching concerts on YouTube or navigate Google Maps. Two days later, Mark Zuckerberg wowed the technology industry by showing off a slick VR demo at the Oculus Connect developer summit, which showed how quickly Facebook is delivering on Zuckerberg’s vision to transformation social media into social VR.
These are indeed good reasons to be excited about the future of VR. But you know what really made me feel passionate about VR in recent weeks? Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Yep, an iconic song that was released more than 40 years ago gave me a more compelling glimpse of the future than any demos and new products coming out of Silicon Valley recently. Last month, Queen, Google Play, and studio Enosis VR collaborated to create The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience, an app that presents Queen’s masterpiece as an immersive journey “through frontman Freddie Mercury’s subconscious mind,” in Google’s words. After you download the app, you can experience the song with or without Google Cardboard in Android or iOS, as I did one recent afternoon. (Google Cardboard enables the VR experience, but without the viewer, you can still enjoy the song with a 360-degree view by tilting your screen — not quite VR, but a step toward it.)
And by “experience the song,” I do mean experience. Here is an inspiring, visually stunning re-imagining of Queen’s most endearing work. Drawing on animation that reminds me of Yellow Submarine, the video depicts a world of stars, floating snails, twirling figurines, moving album covers, forbidden caves, and members of Queen exploding in neon — just within the first few minutes of the six-minute epic.
God knows how many times I had heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” before seeing the song this way. It’s the kind of song that I stop what I’m doing and pay close attention to each time I hear it. “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t need VR to be memorable. But VR gave me a fresh perspective. It made me experience the music in a new way by using spatialized sound, or sound that corresponds to different segments of a video depending on how you turn your head.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is the latest example of how Google is partnering with artists to show us the possibilities of VR. For example, through Google Spotlight Stories, Google and directors such as Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) make short movies in VR. And on October 16, the 600th episode of The Simpsons will feature a virtual reality sight gag developed with Google. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably Google’s most ambitious creative partnership yet. The song speaks to multiple generations and has become so far embedded in popular culture that future generations will be singing along with Freddie Mercury in 2926. The app entailed a collaboration with Queen guitarist Brian May, a braniac who has a PhD in astronomy and who also just happened to help develop a VR viewer through his directorship of The London Stereoscopic Company.
The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience illustrates two essential truths about VR:
1. The Content Has to Be Great
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is great. But “We Built This City” would suck in any reality. If you start with terrible content, experiencing VR is about as compelling as watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 3D: virtual crap. By working with acclaimed and popular artists such as Queen and Continue reading →
Are you ready for some gospel hip-hop? Check out “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD),” from DATz DEM, which consists of artists ILL Son and Focist P. The opening moments of “WWJD” evoke Marvin Gaye’s gospel side, with a soulful vocal floating above strings before ILL Son and Focist P trade raps about Jesus, Psalm 23, and the joys of spirituality (they name check televangelist Creflo Dollar for good measure).
The lyrics are an unabashed expression of the Christian faith and a condemnation of all things evil. “The devil is a lie, that’s why people be killing,” they rap, “Robbing and stealing sometimes for no reason/Cutting down trees in the Garden of Eden/The Snake got you eatin’ forbidden fruit/So the question is for you/What would Jesus do.”
“WWJD” is an affirmation of life (“Every day above ground is a wonderful day”) and faith (Jesus “delivers us from evil like a Greyhound bus”). “WWJD” is also ILL Son’s first foray into gospel hip-hop and a departure from the romantic, secular “Wait for Me,” which I featured on Superhype earlier this year.
In an email interview with me, ILL Son explained that “WWJD” is “a direct reflection of how I have been pursuing my dreams for 15 years and counting; and no matter how long it takes, we shall achieve our goals.” He believes the spirituality of “WWJD” co-exists comfortably with more secular material because both types of songs simply reflect what he and Focist P are feeling from moment to moment.
“I just feel that however the music speaks to us at that moment, that is what comes from the heart,” he says. “We do not put ourselves into any kind of musical box.” He describes the audience for “WWJ” not in religious terms but as “anyone who enjoys great hip-hop music.”
This summer, they performed three shows (including “WWJD”) over two nights at the Atlanta Gospel Fest, where the likes of Shirley Caesar and Montel Jordan appeared (an experience that ILL Son describes as “a blessing’). Now ILL Son and Focist P are busy on a mixtape, video for “WWJD,” and a promotional tour.
You can be sure the experience will be inspirational.
For further exploration: check out this sitefor more insight into gospel hip-hop. And if you are not already fans of Marvin Gayeand Al Green, I invite you to explore their musical legacy to appreciate how two giants of music mixed the secular with the spiritual in their art.
For a week this summer I took a vacation from digital, and I’ve never been happier. My wife Jan, daughter Marion, and I visited our friends Kevin and Robert in their home outside Quebec City for nine days, and incredibly enough, we managed to stay offline almost the entire time. We wrote, read, explored streams and hiked through the walled city of Quebec. To document how it felt to be truly liberated from technology, I kept a journal scrawled in pen on blank typing paper. What follows are excerpts from my personal journey. This is not my typical blog post commenting on technology, marketing, and entertainment. But I hope it conveys a commentary in its own way about the value of unplugging and focusing on the people who bring joy to your life:
The ad itself was simple, clever, and perfect for the Pinterest age: a gay-pride themed Oreo cookie accompanied by a post, “Proudly support love!”
Within days, the ad accumulated more than 280,000 Likes and 55,000 comments, ranging from supportive to critical — and the comments keep pouring in. For instance, on Friday afternoon as I wrote this post, Facebook member Jake Pisano commented on the Oreo wall, “I have a question. . .if being gay is so natural then why can’t 2 gays have a baby together hmmm i mean if it was something natural then shouldn’t they be able to have a baby.” Meantime, Facebooker Jocelyn Battisti wrote, “Oreo I bought some of your product yesterday just in sheer respect for your open support of equal love! I am a straight female who also supports equal love and I also am a huge fan of PROGRESS. KEEP IT UP!”
The comments exploded across the digital world, creating a firestorm of media coverage from publications such as ABC News, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Los Angeles Times.According to Radian6, as of June 27, the ad had sparked 11,600 mentions of the topic across the web (and no doubt the figure is hire by now.) For instance, Music Mogul (who is also my friend and business partner) Jermaine Dupri triggered a passionate conversation on his own Global 14 social community when he posted an image of the cookie and asked, “How do you feel about this?“ Some Global 14 members asked whether the ad might unwittingly segregate the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. On the other hand, a Global 14 member nicknamed Crush wrote, “Why is this even news? It’s not that serious! I respect everyone’s opinion but I will be who the hell I want to . . .OREO COOKIE OR NOT! I am VERY GAY and VERY normal…”)
And in the grand spirit of user-generated content, consumers created their own images inspired by the ad:
Interestingly, Radian6 also reported that eight out of 10 of the comments made about the ad are positive with a disproportionate share of virulent remarks posted on the Oreo Facebook page — and suggesting that the media coverage overstates the controversy.
A Kraft spokesperson responded to the controversy by saying, “As a company, Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.”
I would like to see Kraft do more than make a statement. This kind of advertisement can do something very important, which is to invite people to take a closer look at how corporations like Kraft can enact change to make society more tolerant. Big brands can act as powerful agents of change through their statements and more importantly through their actions. AT&T and Disney are among the companies receiving perfect marks by the Human Rights Campaign for being LGBT-friendly based on a number of factors ranging from the nature of their domestic partner benefits to resources they provide for LGBT employees. (Kraft scores well but lacks a perfect score.) I see an opportunity for Kraft to lead a conversation now the ad has caught our attention.
The song “Hotel x Music” by BruthaZ-N-ArmZ has been going through my head for a few months now, which is a good sign that I should highlight it on Superhype.
The video for “Hotel x Music” seems prosaic on first viewing: a bunch of slow-mo shots of guys hanging around in a hotel not doing much of anything. But in fact there’s more going on: a group of hip-hop artists holed up in a hotel take a hard look at their lives (“”The fans . . . consider us popular/we ain’t goin’ nowhere/It’s safe to admit that”) while appreciating for the moment (“Cool life I’m livin’/Hotel lifestyle”).
My favorite moment occurs about 27 seconds into the song, after the band quietly watches the lights of the city outside the hotel, before an infectious horn and percussion sample straight out of James Brown kicks in — a recurring riff that carries the song.
I first heard about “Hotel x Music” on Global 14, which is a social site run by Jermaine Dupri and source of vibrant communities who share lifestyle interests ranging from hip hop to relationships. Check out BruthaZ-N-ArmZ here.
If I were an executive creator director, I would require everyone on my team to spend a day with children in a learning environment. Pre-teens are your future bosses and customers, and they’re already influencing purchasing decisions made in the home. Understanding how they learn and how they interact with technology can open your eyes and make you better at what you do. On April 26, a classroom of fourth graders showed me how their creative growth comes from “finding flow” (or immersing yourself in activities that make you lose sense of time), collaborating with others, and finding your lesser strength (or challenging yourself to get better at a skill that makes you uncomfortable). I blogged about my experience on the iCrossing Great Finds blog. I hope you find a few moments to read what I learned and share your experiences, too. My Great Finds post is not the first time I’ve blogged about what kids have taught me. In 2008 on Superhype I discussed how kindergarteners taught me the importance of the journey and the power of pure joy. If you create anything for living or for personal joy — and I’m guessing almost every Superhype reader does — find time to be with kids. Volunteer your time at a school. Find a local institution that involves kids performing community service. Even if you don’t particularly like being around kids — or perhaps especially if you dislike being around kids — I guarantee you’ll walk away with an insight. Embrace the uncomfortable and learn.