Music

Alicia Keys and Billie Eilish Bring Political Blues to the Grammys

Billie Eilish accepts the award for Best New Artist at the 62nd Grammy Awards Show, Los Angeles, Calif., January 26, 2020. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
More award-show narcissism mixing bad music and bad manners

Singer Alicia Keys shut down the Grammy Awards show almost as soon as she started last night, by praising her profession as “the one thing that has the power to bring all of us together — and that’s music.”

Then she dropped a semi-improvised political bomb: Tonight we must unite in spite of all the news that we’re seeing. It’s like so crazy I don’t even watch TV. Commander in chief impeached, y’all get out let’s bring Cardi B. Cardi, can you please show these people what to do?

The mish-mash of everyman cheerleading, mawkish camaraderie, and insider smirking epitomized the arrogance of a pop star stepping out of her lane. It’s almost to be expected, but this time it was so awkward it was instructive.

None of Keys’s ideas held together as she went from crowd-pleasing to uninformed apathy, political sniping, and wink-wink cuteness. The purported “power” of music was negated by Keys’s social semi-consciousness — her humblebrag about not watching TV yet boasting knowledge of news events and then promoting the political aspirations of her colleague Cardi B. (Cardi B is the lewd, money-oriented, yet covetous comedy-rapper who recently announced a non-ironic desire to join Congress.)

Keys sang out her pretend sensitivity and political acumen to the loosely improvised melody of the Lewis Capaldi hit “Someone You Loved.” But to quote Capaldi’s lyric, Keys “pulled the rug” out from under her good intentions by doing what smug celebrities routinely do at awards shows: boasting sensitivity and then coming on with snide, haughty conceit.

For an entertainer who has given pleasure in the past (Key’s “Fallin’,” “My Boo,” “Empire State of Mind (New York),” “Girl on Fire”), it amounts to an impeachable offense. Yet there is a sense in which her self-righteousness last night was well timed for an award-season broadcast in which every performance (from Tyler the Creator to Demi Lovato) conveyed the egotism and hostility that now afflicts contemporary pop-culture amusements.

This derangement can also be traced to the night’s most acclaimed Grammy winner, Billie Eilish, the 17-year-old Californian whose Record of the Year, Song the Year, Album of the Year, and Best New Artist trophies paid tribute to the desperate confusion and narcissism of Millennial youth.

On Eilish’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?, themes of adolescent alienation stand in for widespread social isolation. It might be the first album about the solipsism bred by social media — the venue that Eilish first conquered and that led to her successful self-branding in music and fashion (15 million Instagram followers). Now her single-mindedness takes the place of what used to be showbiz geniality and generosity.

When We All Fall Asleep resists the self-righteous attitude of “wokeness,” yet it is very much in the vein of woke dissent. Each song features a self-destructive undercurrent that suggests the influence of leftist malevolence, the sorrowful, angry backbiting of revenge and resistance. She combines girlish daydreaming with nervous tension — goth-music affectations influenced by knee-jerk atheism (or something worse on “All the Good Girls Go to Hell”). Eilish’s bad romance with the such influential idols as Lady Gaga results in a persona and a songwriting style that are brazenly distasteful, a manic rejection of old-fashioned showbiz pieties — but not entirely; after all, Eilish was there to collect the trinkets that certify her acceptance by the showbiz elite.

Reviewers have praised Eilish’s Asperger-style perspective for its low-grade arrogance, the spiritual aberrations of homeschooled teenage cynicism. Rock critics have always loved this brashness, whether in male-dominated cockrock or female variations — from white riot-grrl punk to the black female bravado of Keys and Cardi B. This may sound new owing to Eilish’s girly soprano, but it connects to what older, more-conventional pop demagogues such as Keys consider being “outspoken.”

It comes down to bad manners, and we suffer through this loutishness almost every week during awards season. The Grammys were just the latest example of show hosts and performers who exhibit an inappropriate sense of occasion. Keys and Eilish simply expose how music can be insidiously exploited. Eilish’s pop-song tantrums and Keys’s false piety give music the power to keep us apart.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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