If you know me, you know I believe deeply in the power of popular culture to shape our cultural, political and social landscape. It is the reason why I devote part of my life to writing. I believe narrative matters, that the stories we tell give shape and meaning to the facts and experiences from which we manufacture our world. I believe that narrative makes our world, that, as the American poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser put it, “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
And so when someone who occupies space in the popular imagination — because of their ability to act or sculpt or erect a meaningful building or manufacture a story from thin air — uses their voice to tell a story that needs to be told, in just this way, at this particular moment in humanity’s great march, I stop and I listen and I let it wash over me. I listen as they speak in all of their tongues, tongues that may be alien to me or familiar, like unto or unlike my own. I listen as they speak in their human tongues, tongues which, the Tower of Babel notwithstanding, are meant for my ears, and my heart, and for our shared, deepened understanding of what it is to be human in all of its guises, and what it means to embrace the other as our own.
The New Zealand singer Ella Yelich-O’Connor, who goes by the name of Lorde, is a 16 year old with the wisdom of an octogenarian, who, as The New Yorker’sSasha Frere-Jones put it in magazine’s October 21st, 2013 issue, is “a teen-ager from Auckland, with an unnatural gift” who “has entered the suit-infested ruins of the music business with the confidence of a veteran and the skills of a prodigy. She is less a flashy new mansion in the suburbs, Frere Jones writes, “than an architectural gem in a tony neighborhood.”
I’ve given up hating for good. Not that I was ever much for the hating game, but I have my opinions, shall we say, and they’ve fallen hardest on the things in life that seem, to my overwrought eyes, a little slim on substance, if you know what I mean. I have a deep thinking, philosophical bent, which does have its place, but as I sink into the sweet spot of my own creativity — something that’s been happening like hot cakes these last several months — my appreciation for those who boil it down to the essence of things only grows. Not that you’ll find me lining up any time soon for any surface-only thing. I still want there to be there there. But these days, I’m as ready to engage the signifier of a thing as I am to plumb the deeper, murkier depths, which is another, wordier way of saying, I have fallen hard for the braggadocio and metaphoric freestyle that is hip hop — and no one emblemizes that more than my new role model (a.k.a. “my daddy”) Jay-Z, whose 12th solo studio album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail”, dropped on July 4th, to an intriguing and mixed passel of reviews.
Last night on American Idol, Candice Glover gave what I called on Twitter “one of the most astounding performances I have seen in a lifetime.” When she took to the stage to sing The Cure’s “Lovesong,” she brought me to tears, and she brought me to my knees. My husband came home while I was watching it for the fourth time. Tears were streaming down my face. He asked why I was crying. I answered, using words that were clearly inadequate to the occasion, “It’s just so moving.” He laughed. I have to admit it was funny, the childlike wonder with which I tried to explain what cannot be explained. I didn’t try again. I just sat him down and rolled tape.
I wouldn’t know a Nicki Minaj song if you tied me down, played it on constant loop and told me you wouldn’t let me up until I named that tune. Nevertheless, I am a fan. Not of the music, which I suppose I should go listen to now, but of the freak flag flying soul who makes that music tick. Before this season’s American Idol, I knew almost nothing about Minaj aside from her penchant for wearing theatrical clothes. I didn’t get it really. Still, I have a special place reserved in my heart for all those who walk there own way, whatever the world may so. And so, o sound unseen, when she popped up on Idol, I resolved to give her a try, and what I found surprised.
As the weeks passed by, Nicki the act receded, and Nicki the woman stepped forth. That’s when I noticed how pretty she is, outside and in. What I love about Nicki, by far my favorite this year, is (1) the way she always speaks her mind even if what she’s saying kind of makes no sense (though, if you listen closely, she usually brings it home in the end) and (2) her heartfelt passion for the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys. It’s a beautiful thing, this compulsion to make sure everyone knows they’re okay, exactly as they are. One of my favorite moments of the Idol season was when Minaj told a contestant who’d been blessed with extremely short height that it was time to retire the story of how short he was and how much all this hurt. She said something like (cue her signature wine, which I’ve secretly come to love), “Stop it. Because when you sing, we don’t see your height.”