A Great Big Heart

If you regularly tune in to contemporary FM radio, you may soon come across a pretty little love song called “Hold Each Other” by the New York-based duo A Great Big World.  Keep an ear out:  If the melody doesn’t get your attention, the lyrics probably will.

It begins innocently enough:  The usual business about some girl who sets the singer’s heart aflutter.  “I was trapped inside a dream / I couldn’t see her next to me / I didn’t know she’d set me free.”  And so forth.

However, when we get to verse number two, something weird happens.  The voice on the record is different—but still clearly male—and the object of his affections is no longer a “she.”

“Something happens when I hold him / he keeps my heart from getting broken / when the days get short and the nights get a little bit frozen / we hold each other.”

Following a bridge containing no gender references either way, we return to the original vocalist and his initial female love interest:  “Something happens when I hold her / she keeps my heart from getting older.”  Fade out.

Happening upon this song for the first time, I assumed that whole middle part was just my imagination.  However, upon further investigation, I discovered that—lo and behold—my ears were working just fine.

The band behind the record, A Great Big World, is a pair of millennials named Ian Axel and Chad King.  They are known (if at all) for the heartfelt but slightly nauseating ballad “Say Something” featuring Christina Aguilera, but have otherwise kept themselves pretty well under wraps outside of their immediate fan base.

Accordingly, it had probably not been widely known that one of them, Chad, is gay.  (Ian is not.)  Although they divide singing and songwriting duties equally and their repertoire contains a fair share of love songs, Chad has opted not to draw attention to his homosexuality in his work because, well, that’s just how he is.

With “Hold Each Other”—the first single from the group’s forthcoming second album—he decided to do away with any such reservations and, perhaps for the first time, sing what he really feels.

Hence the song’s unusual linguistic structure, with Ian crooning about “her” and “she” at the beginning and end, while Chad waxes about “him” and “he” in between.

It’s a minor breakthrough in American popular music, and a triumph for humanity in so many different ways.

Certainly, this is nowhere near the first instance of a pop artist singing about his or her love for someone of the same sex.  Indeed, it was only this past February when Sam Smith won a bucketful of Grammys for a hit song, “Stay With Me,” that was based on a relationship with another man—a point Smith charmingly underlined in one of his many acceptance speeches that evening.

On the other hand, you wouldn’t necessarily know “Stay With Me” is about a same-sex encounter simply from listening to it.  The song contains no gender-specific pronouns and, if sung by a heterosexual about someone of the opposite sex, it would still make perfect sense.

Indeed, perform a sample survey of all the love songs written over, say, the last five or six decades, and you’ll find that a considerable chunk of them follow this same pattern, containing lyrics so general that they could—without changing a word—be sung by anyone, for anyone, irrespective or sex or orientation.

This leads us to an obvious yet critically important point, which is that love itself is universal.  Whatever form it takes, the need for an emotional and physical connection to another person is that rare trait that transcends every boundary across the human race.  The capacity to love and be loved in return is part of what makes us human in the first place.

Bearing this in mind, we might well ask if it even matters whether the pronouns and minutiae of a particular tune correspond to those of the person listening to it, or whether that’s irrelevant to how strongly the song resonates.  If love is love, then what’s the difference if the gender designations don’t completely match up?

It’s not such an easy question, especially when considered in a broader cultural context.  After all, the entire premise of the gay rights movement—and the central argument for legalizing same-sex marriage—is that gay love and straight love are fundamentally the same thing.  Once this fact was established once and for all, and marriage was seen as being rooted in love and commitment above all else, the case for restricting the institution to heterosexuals ceased to make any moral or legal sense.

Now that Team Gay has essentially won that argument—with a major assist by the U.S. Supreme Court—we have the breathing room to wonder if there is, in fact, something different about being gay and in love compared to the alternative.  Having convinced the world that our crazy emotional quirks are as deserving of respect as everyone else’s—no more, no less—are we now going to turn right around and claim that we are special?

To a degree, yes, we are.

Recent studies have concluded that, at best, maybe 3-5 percent of the world’s population is attracted exclusively to people of the same sex.  This is not going to change.  While the steadily growing acceptance of gay folks by straight folks has profoundly transformed and improved the day-to-day lives of the former (and the latter), the fact remains that same-sex attraction is a statistical oddity whose participants will always be severely outnumbered and, inevitably, feel a little off-kilter about their emotional inner wiring every now and again.

In other words, although the essence of gay relationships is identical to that of straight ones, the fact of being in this tiny minority—one whose very existence has never quite been explained or justified—means that the gay experience will never be taken for granted in artistic media the way the straight experience has.  There will only ever be so many openly gay musicians to tell this story, leaving those precious few who need to hear it with far less material in their iTunes libraries than they would like.

Which is all to say that, when a gay listener hears a gifted male vocalist croon matter-of-factly about the man who stole his heart—well, it’s kind of a big deal.

As it happens, “Hold Each Other” did not initially include the switch from female to male pronouns from one verse to the next.  It was only when Ian, the straight half of A Great Big World, asked Chad, “How are you going to sing this honestly?” that they decided to tweak the words as they did.  Chad himself was skeptical at first, saying in a recent interview, “My whole singing life, I’ve always wanted to sing about girls […] just because it’s what people do.  It’s what the pop world is like.”

However, once he realized that Ian had a point—that singing about loving a woman would ring false in an art form that’s supposed to be about honesty and truth—he knew that he didn’t have a choice.  If you’re not willing to come to terms with who you really are, then what’s the point of being an artist?

Indeed, what’s the use of living at all if you spend your time pretending to be someone else?

Reflecting on his 20-odd years of fighting for same-sex marriage in the United States, the blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote in 2012, “The point of the gay rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay.  It is about creating the space for people to be themselves.”

It’s a distinction that is narrow but deep.  You see, it’s not just about gays having the freedom to watch Glee and listen to Lady Gaga without embarrassment or shame.  It’s also about straight people watching Glee and listening to Lady Gaga without embarrassment or shame—or gay people playing football, joining the army or engaging in any other “straight” activity.  It’s about pursuing your own happiness and interests without concern for what other people—or you—might think.

Opponents of the gay rights movement often carp about how gay people should not be entitled to “special” rights and privileges.  They are absolutely correct.  Like black people, women and every other historically marginalized group, gay people ask nothing more than to be treated like everyone else.  Because, as it turns out, we are like everyone else.

A song like “Hold Each Other”—which allows both of its singer-songwriters to express themselves on their own terms—demonstrates both the hope for and the flowering of this radical idea that we call equality.  If a reserved male singer can summon the nerve to mention that the object of his affection is a guy—and if the rest of the world can accept that, yes, sometimes this does really happen—it means the efforts of the past half-century have not been in vain.

The truth is that, for the gay community, the pronouns do matter.  After a lifetime of listening to music about heterosexual relationships and having to do the gender conversions in our heads, to hear a song that does the work for us is both a relief and an affirmation:  A hopeful, understated validation that says, “You are not alone.”

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Kanye and Me

I can’t say that I’ve ever given much thought to Kanye West.

I know he’s a significant figure in the world of hip-hop, but I don’t listen to hip-hop.

I also know that he is—as President Obama once observed—a jackass.  At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, West famously stormed the stage to protest the awarding of Best Female Video to Taylor Swift, insisting it should have gone to Beyoncé, instead.

Smash cut to last Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where West came this close to repeating himself, creeping toward the podium as the trophy for Album of the Year went to alt-rocker Beck.  West paused and returned to his seat before reaching the mike, but the point was made:  Once again, this was a prize that should have gone to Queen Bey.

The following day, West explained himself thusly:

The Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us.  We aren’t going to play with them no more. […] Beck needs to respect artistry; he should have given his award to Beyoncé.  At this point, we tired of it.  What happens is, when you keep on diminishing art, and not respecting the craft, and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration.

West has been roundly criticized for this and related comments, presumably for the way they seamlessly combine selfishness, arrogance, condescension and want of tact in a single thought.  West later clarified that his dig was directed not at Beck, per se, but at the Grammys themselves, saying, “Beck knows that Beyoncé should have won.  Come on man, I love Beck, but he ain’t have album of the year.”  So that clears that up.

We could dismiss this whole episode as yet another eye-rolling instance of Kanye being Kanye.  Yet I am somehow inclined to run with it and take it semi-seriously.  The truth is that, however childish and inappropriate his series of rants was, I understand how he feels and I think the actual ideas behind the bluster are worthy of our attention.

All that he means to do, after all, is take the Grammys seriously as not just a TV show, but as an institution that judges the value of popular music.  Music artists spend 364 days per year pouring their souls into their work, and the Grammys represents the one moment of official recognition by the music industry—a means of determining which works rise above all the others.  It is not something to be taken lightly.

I confess I do not share West’s passion on this point about his industry—perhaps because my own tastes in music are not particularly well-represented by the Grammys in the first place.

On the other hand, there’s another trophy-leaden TV event next Sunday that I care about very much:  The Academy Awards.  In a good year—and as a consequence of spending far too much time in dark auditoriums—my feelings about the Oscars mirror Kanye’s about the Grammys, and I’m not going to apologize for them.

For reasons too complicated to explain, there are eight movies up for Best Picture this time around.  Word on the street is that it’s anybody’s game, and the final vote is expected to be very, very close.

It shouldn’t be.  So far as I’m concerned, the year 2014 in film can be divided into two groups.  There was all the usual fare, and then there was Boyhood.

Richard Linklater’s gloriously engaging film—originally called, simply, The Twelve-Year Project—accomplished nothing less than showing what it was like to grow up in the first decade of the 21st century in America.  Which is to say that, for the generation now coming of age—along with innumerable members of other generations, it would appear—it will stand as the definitive film about growing up, period.

By no means is Boyhood the first movie made about the infernal Millennials, and certainly not the first about the joys and horrors of adolescence.  However, it is the first such film to follow its protagonist through the entirety of his life from age 6 until his high school graduation, while also charting the travails of his mother, his father and his older sister.  All these people are allowed to age at the pace at which they actually did.  As you have surely heard by now, the movie was filmed, on and off, over the course of 12 years.

Granting itself such breadth—unprecedented for a non-documentary—Boyhood suggests the ways in which people change and grow over time.  How a deadbeat dad can eventually become responsible and mature, or how a single mother can weather several dead-end relationships while earning a graduate degree and securing a good job.  Not to mention how a young boy who spray-paints graffiti on the underside of a bridge can develop into a serious-minded photographer who embarks for college with confidence but also a nagging insecurity about where his life is headed.  You know:  Just like the rest of us.

Lacking a formal plot, Linklater’s experiment amounts to a collection of small moments that add up to something quite big, indeed.  After four viewings, I sense I am still only beginning to understand precisely how to account for its seemingly effortless (and bottomless) appeal.  In a way, I feel about this film as Roger Ebert did about the documentary Hoop Dreams—a four-year chronicle of two promising young basketball players—of which Ebert wrote, “It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

On Oscar night, the Academy should respect artistry by giving its top prize to Boyhood.  It’s a monumental achievement of cinema, and for Best Picture to go to anything else would diminish the form.  Seriously, Academy, don’t be disrespectful.

However, I won’t rush the stage if they go and give it to Birdman instead.  After all, I’m not a crazy person.

A World Without Oscar

What do I think of this year’s Oscar nominees, you ask?

Well, my favorite movie of 2013 received a whopping one Academy Award nomination.  My second favorite garnered none at all, as did three other entries on my personal top 10.

That’s what I think of this year’s Oscar nominees.

Actually, I think this year’s lineup is just fine.  The year 2013 produced many excellent films with many exceptional performances, and a commendable number of both turned up among the Academy’s honorees at the annual nominations announcement on January 16.  Some of the esteemed film society’s selections caused many analysts to scratch their heads, but plenty of others were well-deserved and, dare I say, inevitable.

You know.  Just like every other year.

In truth, in the movie world throughout January and February, the only thing more fashionable than the Oscars is complaining about the Oscars.

These critiques take a dizzying number of forms, each one more predictable than the next.  Some folks gripe about the media’s intensive focus on fashion and the red carpet, while others bitch about the ceremony’s boring hosts and self-indulgently long running time (the last telecast to run less than three hours occurred in 1973).

The more pointed dissents, however, cut directly to the institution’s original primary objective, which is to bestow the title of “best” onto a given year’s assortment of motion picture releases.

After all, when it comes to movies, what does “best” mean anyway?  Isn’t weighing one movie against another—movies with utterly disparate subject matter and purpose—the ultimate exercise in comparing apples to oranges?  Was Humphrey Bogart not onto something when he mused, “The only honest way to find the best actor would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win”?

Even more so than other awards shows—at least the Grammys divides its categories by genre—the Academy Awards is a patently absurd attempt at applying some sort of objective standard to an inherently subjective art form.

This year, then, let us take this curmudgeonly thought a step further and pose the following query:  What if we got rid of the Oscars once and for all?  What if there wasn’t this annual gathering of Hollywood’s best and brightest congratulating themselves on a job well done, with the rest of us following along for the ride?  How would the movie industry change, and would such a scenario produce a preferable environment to the one that currently exists?

The upsides are certainly tempting to ponder.

For starters, the abolition of a movie awards season might engender a more evenly-distributed release schedule (qualitatively speaking) compared to the lopsided, bottom-heavy one we have now.

With no Academy voters with whom to curry favor, studios would not be tripping over each other to release all their high-quality “prestige pictures” in the final weeks of December while spending the year’s remaining eleven and a half months churning out utter cinematic dreck.  There would be little reason not to unload Important Films by Important Directors about Important Subjects at any old time of the year.

Studio executives would still care about nothing except profit, of course, and would still employ careful strategery regarding when (or if) a particular project might see the light of day.  (Don’t expect future installments of Star Wars and Star Trek to ever open on the same weekend.)

But these considerations would no longer be tethered to some gold-plated grand payoff that so often comes at the expense of the very consumers whose dollars these executives seek in the first place.

Per contra, minus Oscar’s sinister allure, the relationship between producers and consumers would become considerably more direct, and a bit more honest as well.  For the film industry, the only real point of the Oscars is to sell more tickets and DVDs.  In its absence, moviemakers would no longer be able to rely on a political, drawn-out, behind-the-scenes marketing campaign to reel in unsuspecting viewers.

Instead, any such scheme would need to be directed squarely at those viewers themselves.  The message would shift from, “Watch this movie because it won a bunch of shiny trophies,” to, “Watch this movie because you just might enjoy it.”

And that directs us to the real question in all of this:  Is it useful to turn the experience of watching movies into some sort of competition?  Does it finally do more harm than good to reduce a medium that many still regard as a form of art into a horse race?

So long as great movies can be seen and cherished for their own sake, shouldn’t we stop pretending they require anything more?