Testifyin’ or Signifyin’?: Analyzing Choir Use at the Grammys, Pt. 2

Testifyin’ or Signifyin’?: Analyzing Choir Use at the Grammys, Pt. 2

Welcome to Part 2 of Testifyin’ or Signifyin’, an analysis of whether the many choir appearances and Christian allusions presented at the Grammy Awards were doing good work or perpetrating a fraud. As a reminder, here is the scale that I based my assessment on:

-Artistic style points: How does the choir enhance or detract from the overall experience?

-Social buzz: Did it look like a stunt to get attention, or was it a naturally buzzworthy performance?

-The faith factor: Does the song sound like an authentic expression of faith?

-Special circumstances: Is there anything else that elevates or detracts? Is there a certain je ne sais quoi about the musical performance?*

From this thoroughly biased, quasi-scientific process,** each song was given an appropriation index, and a final verdict. Is the choir appearance in this song one that testifies to the goodness of God, or is it signifyin’ – playfully insulting the faithful with irreligious or profane imagery?

Let’s go (back) to the tape!

Pharrell, “Happy”

Appropriation index: 3

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Pharrell performing “Happy” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.

I give him one thing right off the top – Pharrell Williams is nothing if not eclectic. And considering how ubiquitous his hit was in 2014, you knew that for this special night, he was going to have to do something different.

And different, it was.

From the dramatic spoken word opening (interpreted in various foreign languages) to the string-heavy orchestral accompaniment, to the impressive solo from Chinese pianist Lang Lang, to the phalanx of players, dancers and singers accessorized in white, black and yellow, it seemed like the production was designed to elicit gasps every 30 seconds. By the end of the song, I was expecting military helicopters to detonate the roof so that a UFO could abduct Pharrell with a beam of light, “Close Encounters” style.

Ironically, the one emotion this song didn’t seem to really capture was happiness. The first chorus was in a minor key, and hearing the sound of the choir belting out the words about happiness to minor string arpeggios felt a little ominous. During the solo, his brown-skinned, black-hooded dancers, adopted the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose, which has become the universal sign of nonverbal protest against police brutality. That was great! I loved that he put that in there, but that’s not exactly a posture of happiness.

Matter of fact, It took almost four minutes for the arrangement to sound at all like the song we’ve all grown to like, love, and then get tired of.

So on the one hand, I give Pharrell a lot of credit for trying to endow more significance to a song that was initially just about being so happy that you don’t give a bleep what people think. On the other hand, I think his exuberance and willingness to jam so many ideas and images into one song made it feel chaotic and scattered. Whatever unity of message he was trying to deliver was sidetracked by the variety of spectacle and the thematic disconnect between interpersonal happiness and societal injustice.

But those yellow-sequined shoes, those were kinda fly. Was that enough to make up for the existential crisis we all witnessed? It’s hard to say.

The verdict: BOTH TESTIFYIN’ AND SIGNIFYIN’

Beyoncé, “Take my Hand, Precious Lord”

Appropriation score: 1.5

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Beyonce performing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.

Okay, so here’s the thing.

Beyoncé sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” accompanied by a choir of tuxedoed black men. It’s the same song that the Mahalia Jackson was famous for singing, widely reported as Dr. King’s favorite.

As Kevin Bacon said in A Few Good Men, these are the facts, and they are indisputable.

But if you were on social media at all during the telecast on Sunday night, then you know this much already. And you’ve likely heard a hundred different takes, all clustered around two basic questions – did she do the song justice, and/or should someone else have been invited – namely Ledisi, who played Mahalia Jackson in Selma, and who’s garnered a reputation of her own as an incredible soul singer.

Here’s my take.

I think she did a nice job. Not a great job, but a good one. I would’ve preferred Ledisi do it, but it’s obvious that eyeballs rule when television decisions are being made, and no one can deny that Ledisi wouldn’t deliver anywhere near the number of eyeballs as Queen Bey.

That said, it was clear from her performance that the song was meaningful to her, and just in case the performance wasn’t convincing, she also had someone cut a brief rehearsal documentary to talk about why she wanted to do it and why she had a choir of black men up there with her. In it, she mentions the struggles her parents and grandparents faced, and she talks about how she wanted to sing from their pain.

I think that’s an admirable goal, but slightly misguided. Struggle and pain are not exactly synonymous with the Beyoncé brand. Not that she doesn’t have problems like the next person, but, well, no, she doesn’t. Not that she doesn’t have problems, but they’re not like the next person’s. (I’m resisting the obvious Jay-Z joke there.)

So yeah, it looks a little hypocritical to win a Grammy for “Drunk In Love” and then get up to sing that song. She certainly had a right to do it, and it made plenty of good business sense to do it, but I think it would’ve been classier to at least share the stage with Ledisi. Especially with her sheer, flowing quasi-wedding dress look, the whole thing just looked a little self-indulgent. The tenor of the performance was grounded enough overall that the whole thing still went relatively well. But, in this case, she needed the choir a lot more than the choir needed her. I could’ve just watched the choir by itself and been fine.

Also, I could’ve lived without a few of her runs, and maybe a little less of her rapid vibrato.

The verdict: TESTIFYIN’ (mostly)

John Legend featuring Common, “Glory”

Appropriation score: 0

What’s a zero appropriation score mean? It means they brought it.

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Common & John Legend performing “Glory” at the 2015 Grammy Awards.

The rap bars were passionate and on-point. The lyrics were full of Scriptural references that embodied the struggle for civil rights. And, more than anything else, it seemed that both Common and John Legend, in their respective rhyming and crooning, were using their voices as proxies for the collective whole, not grabbing the spotlight for themselves.

And the choir was perfect. Dignified, but still full of fighter’s passion. Restrained, but pulsating with rhythmic intensity. As Common’s wordplay danced between the staccato bows of the strings, and John Legend’s plaintive wails echoed against his stark piano chords, the choir continued to respond to their call. Purely aesthetically, it was amazing.

But most importantly, the song seemed to echo God’s truth for all people – that we long for the Lord’s coming because His return will usher in a new era of justice and peace. And in that judgment, on that cataclysmic day, we will not only see the Lord’s glory, but we’ll be able to partake in it.

What I loved most about the arrangement was the very end, right when it looked like it was over, the strings kept playing as the lights dimmed on the two soloists, and the last moment left was the voice of the choir, vicariously standing in for all of us who yearn for His return, proclaiming in one voice:

“Glory.”

The verdict: TESTIFYING!!!   (add more exclamation points as needed)

But that’s just my take, what’s yours? Leave it in the comments.

Note:

*Yes, I realize the irony of borrowing a French expression in an article about cultural appropriation. Welcome to America.

** In this case, “quasi-scientific” is a euphemism for “not at all scientific.”