Tonawanda News

January 29, 2014

DUVALL: No apology needed for music's evolution

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — I watched the Grammy’s Sunday with a little more attention than most years. There’s been a Renaissance of sorts in my life for pop music.

Somewhere along the line I attained a healthy disdain for radio music. I retreated into the recess of things I already knew and liked. And then I realized I was dangerously close to turning into the crusty old guy who refuses to listen to anything made in the last 20 years.

Granted, not all pop music is created equal. A lot of it really is bad. I’m just not going to dismiss the genre entirely because of its worst practitioners.

I was armed with the ability to know who (almost) every performer was. There was some shiny kid with a nice haircut singing a song about how it’s OK to be different — it was terrible — and I was happy to know there’s still room for the most white-bread of pop stars to tell America’s youth it’s cool if you dye your hair blue. Some things never change.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Grammy’s came after the show was over.

White rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were the night’s big winners. Their gay rights anthem “Same Love” stole the show despite a chorus sung by Madonna, who looked like her face was melting off. Thirty-one couples, some gay some straight, were married during the song with Queen Latifah as officiant, a sight that probably left lots of people in the fly-over states wondering what happened to their country.

If popular music isn’t pissing off old people in the Midwest what’s the point?

In a moderate surprise, Macklemore’s smash hit, “The Heist,” won best rap album.

And that’s where it got interesting. Macklemore, a Seattle native, sent a text message he sent to Kendrick Lamar, a breakout rapper in 2013 who was also nominated. Macklemore wanted to apologize — for winning.

“I robbed you,” the text, which Macklemore posted to his Instagram account, read. 

There was no shortage of subtext. White guilt that a suburbanite from the Pacific Northwest won an award that normally goes to a black man straight out of Compton?

Was Macklemore offering a genuine apology? Or was making it public more self-serving than a real expression of admiration for Lamar?

And a larger question that’s bedeviled musicians since the beginning of time: How do we weigh street cred versus popular appeal?

Lamar appeals to hip hop purists. He rose up from the mean streets of Los Angeles. He’s rough, vulgar.

Macklemore’s socially conscious — some would argue overly pious — blend of dance pop and hip hop is the opposite, so much so many questioned whether it belonged in the rap category at all.

Is Macklemore the next Kenny G, a white guy standing on the shoulders of pioneering black artists, turning their groundbreaking music into Muzak?

Ironically, he’s already weighed in on the subject. One of the better songs on “The Heist” reflects Macklemore’s self-awareness he holds a sensitive position in the hip-hop community. (”Don’t even wanna tweet RIP Trayvon Martin/Don’t wanna be that white dude Million Man Marching.”)

Maybe I’m biased because I really like Macklemore’s album — or maybe I’m part of the problem because I’m that white guy who rarely wanders into the realm of legit hip hop but likes that guy with the song about gay marriage. Either way, I think purists usually lose this argument.

Music evolves. Would 70s and 80s punk fans be aghast at Death Cab for Cutie? Probably.

What would Lennon and McCartney have thought if we told them as they stepped onto the set of the Ed Sullivan Show that the Beatles would redefine a genre — and sow the seeds that would eventually let Nirvana and Pearl Jam do the same? I suspect they would think it’s pretty cool.

Actually I don’t have to guess. One of Sunday’s Grammy awards went to McCartney and Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s old drummer.

Not every branch on the evolutionary tree is a good one. Some are downright infuriating. Some are offshoots so new and interesting we can’t imagine what it will look like in a generation.

It’s too early to tell whether Macklemore’s success will open the door to a glut of street cred-killing, preachy pop impostors who will smooth over the gritty texture that makes good hip hop great.

But for the sake of music’s evolution, critics be damned, he has to try. He shouldn’t have to apologize for it, either.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.