This year’s Grammys were a pleasant surprise. I have to admit that as an opera singer and voice teacher, I usually don’t make it past the first hour of the awards show. I’m often discouraged by the overly simplistic pop songs (Puccini and Sondheim have ruined me for much contemporary pop music), and the in-your-face sexuality. It just isn’t my thing.
When you’ve been through not one but two conservatories, and spent literally years working on an AH vowel, the bitterness runs deep. And if I’m being truly honest, I’ve found myself feeling defeated while watching the Grammys, thinking what the heck did I work so hard on all these years. What was it for?
This year, though, was different. Here’s why.
The power of creating your own art came through strongly from start to finish.
Tracy Chapman’s megahit “Fast Car” has been one of my favorite songs. I’ve never seen her live, so to see her perform that lyrically and melodically haunting ballad was thrilling. I was practically weeping at Joni’s rendition of “Both Sides Now.”
Both performances got me thinking: “Wow, I bet that both of these women wrote these songs with a guitar in their bedroom alone over a journal or songwriting notebook.” Both performers created their own art in their early days, not knowing if anyone would ever see or hear it. It’s action. It’s scary. It’s everything.
Then came the newest generation of female singer-songwriters: Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Ellish, and Taylor Swift whose songs owe a debt to giants like Mitchell and Chapman. Whether or not the music of these three artists is your cup of tea, they’re risk takers who no doubt began writing poetry and songs in their room with just a guitar or piano.
When I asked my 11-year-old student why she loved Taylor Swift “soooo, soooo much,” she replied, “I like that she’s independent and doesn’t rely on anyone to do her work. She writes songs from her own experiences. She doesn’t have anyone else write for her.
This is important. Most of us will never ascend to the stature of these stars, but we all started out at the same place, spending hours in solitude practicing, writing, dreaming, and creating. So often this work seems hopeless or worthless, as if it’s going into a void, but I would argue that it never really does. Maybe someone else will sing your song. And maybe someone else hears it, is moved, and feels or realizes something new. Maybe your song leads to an album. Maybe your song goes viral on Tik Tok and touches lots of people. Maybe your song is the theme song of your dad’s 70th birthday video. Maybe your song inspires you to write more. It all matters.
Pretty singing was in.
The performances were both emotionally powerful and for the most part, technically excellent. They sang (omg!) in head voice and not everything got belted in chest voice, as had become the norm. The melodies were haunting and the singers shifted impressively between the two registers. It was so exciting, again as a voice teacher and classically trained singer, to see that head voice is returning in popularity!
Speaking of pretty singing, shoutout to the Met and Terrence Blanchard, and all of the incredible performers for Champion taking Best Opera Recording.
The nominees and winners honored those who came before.
Stevie Wonder honored Tony Bennett; Oprah and Fantasia honored Tina Turner; Miley Cyrus honored Mariah Carey. Annie Lennox honored Sinead O’Connor. To see Joni, now an octogenarian, be adored and honored as the legend she is did my heart good. In a youth-obsessed culture, this was all so refreshing and moving.
Artists expressed individuality.
Even as artists acknowledged influences in a sincere and heartfelt manner, the new generation of female artists are all unabashedly themselves. Billie Eilish couldn’t be more different from Taylor Swift, just as Tracy Chapman’s look and energy is radically different from Tina Turner’s. Pink hair, ball gowns, jumpsuits: it all works. And I love that because it sends a clear message to all aspiring artists: we can only be ourselves. Our voices, our bodies, our hair, and our perspectives: these are unique.
A great song is timeless.
“Both Sides Now” (written when Joni was just 23!?) feels current and relevant and could have been written this year. It’s just that good. Not so unlike opera, is it?