Monday, May 10, 2021

Christina Grimmie, Music, and Me: A Personal Story

[Credit to owners for the original pictures on which these artwork/designs are based.]

It doesn’t seem so long ago that I wrote about the phenomenon of Christina Grimmie for the first time. In fact, it has been nearly five years. I wrote with astonishment back in June 2016, because I had begun to realize that I had encountered something mysterious in the very last place I had ever expected to find it.

There seems always to be a cresting wave of young singers, musicians, artists, and performers full of talent and aspirations. I have kept my eye on it (more or less) for many years, but the wave is so big that no one can see everything that sparkles. And then the sparkles fade so quickly when the wave crashes onto the shore and the waters recede. It seems all a spectacle of momentary glitter, of ephemeral flashes of light that become monotonous and practically indistinguishable the more familiar you are with the shore. And then you begin to turn cynical when you start to realize how polluted the water has become.

How incredible it is when one day a diamond washes up on the beach.

I am descended from a long line of Opera lovers, and so it's not surprising that I love a "good show." As a musician who played many gigs in my youth, I also know that a lot of hard work goes into making a good show, and that "performance" isn't simply driven by an ego trip (though it can degenerate toward that). Performing artists have an irrepressible urge to give something beautiful and valuable to people, and the best ones have a kind of "genius" for it.

Performers are motivated by the ideal of a great show, but are often disappointed at its elusiveness. Even when achieved, it is soon forgotten and the public demands an even better show. Many performing artists find this pressure overwhelming (though there are a few who actually thrive on it). 

When I was young, I has musical aspirations that were quite strong, along with no small talent: I was classically trained on the cello, and played in my high school orchestra, Pittsburgh's All City orchestra, and a remarkable private venture called the Ozanam Jazz Group (we once shared the stage with the legendary Count Basie). Meanwhile, I was also self-taught on the guitar, jammed and played in garage bands, and wrote a number of instrumental songs. The musical road was a viable option for me to pursue as the decade of the 1980s began. But I had other options that were ultimately more compelling, that led me to pursue advanced academic studies, teaching, and the intellectual life. That doesn't mean I gave up music. I kept playing (though much less since the decline of my health) and I kept my eye on the musical world - both classical and popular - where I continued to discover much that was excellent. I also heard a lot of music of lesser quality and some that was just junk.

I have also seen a great deal of real talent spoiled: artists are simultaneously overindulged and overworked, their own vision thwarted and replaced with superficial material, their performances marred by excess and exhibitionism, cheap spectacle, emotional manipulation, smugness, obscenity, confusion, nihilism, exhaustion. The big music world grows more monstrous (like everything in this epoch of power), more artificial, more banal.

I realize (from personal experience) that artists can be a bit wacky, and that you won't see creativity if you don't allow some "space" for their wackiness. I also know that performers are moved by an incessant impetus, a peculiarly talented but in some ways chaotic energy that requires immense effort for it to be forged into an integrated human virtue. Many great artists fall short, but I think we can appreciate their struggles and whatever beauty and goodness can be found in their ambivalent success without endorsing their weaknesses and failures, much less proposing them as moral exemplars. Even in the classical period, there were artists who wrote and performed sublime music but were much less admirable in the "art" of behaving like decent human beings.

Thus, I have continued to listen to all kinds of music, even as I mourn the plight of the artist-celebrity and note also the way it often spills over into his or her work. When I write about musicians and other artists on this blog, I don't usually recommend their stuff for your kids; certainly your kids need to learn discernment, and it is helpful if they grow up in a pedagogical environment that fosters the education of the heart to authentic freedom.

Still, I have always loved music overall, and I loved the drama of seeing people take the stage to sing or play their hearts out, putting themselves into an achingly vulnerable position because the deep human desire to be creative, to give something from their talents, to touch the mystery of creativity had stirred them to take such tremendous risks. I loved it, but I never expected to find anything more than good music and some signs of that exquisite, desperate but determined human longing for meaning, value, and permanence. I hoped that somehow the momentary flash of light on the foam of the wave that disappears might suggest to the desire of my heart that there is a beauty that endures, that prevails, that continues to shine.

But I never expected to find a diamond on the shore of the murky sea of popular music.

In 2016, I was living in a house full of teenagers. (It wasn't quite as bad as it sounds!😉) This was a Catholic Christian household that my wife and I did our best to sustain through prayer and charity and bounderies that were essential without being onerous (see the earlier years of this blog). We were trying to guide the kids to maturity within an atmosphere that would facilitate a deeper encounter and relationship with Jesus, a committed following of Him in the Church, and a renewed mind - not conformed to "the world" (i.e. the world of sin and its effects, the "structures of sin" that reject and oppose the love of God in Christ) but able to discern, to "test everything" and hold fast to the good. 

We weren't alone either. We also had an excellent school and a good community - not fanatical, not puritanical, but just solid, with some very special friends to help us to remember that we belonged to Christ.

It was far from a perfect home. I'm sure we made many more mistakes than we know. In any case, there was an abundance of music and movies in the house, and a variety of tastes, which made things confusing but also interesting. 

Meanwhile, in 2016 I was (and still am, somewhat) recuperating from a long illness. I spent some time studying and engaging with the constantly developing media technology and its various consequences, including the new possibilities that were being opened up for music. Mostly I was "put off" by the big pop stars, but places like YouTube were alive with creativity. If you were just tuning in to the scene, there was a lot going on by the middle of the last decade. It was easy to see Christina Grimmie as just one among many, from my (scattered, inattentive) vantage point. 

My focus in those days was drawn more to others, like that girl who danced and played electric violin (I mean Lindsey Stirling, of course) -- anyone who played a classical stringed instrument in my youth dreamed of being able to "plug in" and have the sonic "weight" to really jam. (When I was a kid, I bought a Radio Shack "transducer" for my cello: it was a suction cup with a cheap mike in it that you were supposed to stick on your instrument and plug into the stereo. Radio Shack did a lot to bring joy to my childhood... but not with this disappointing piece of low-tech!😜) Also, five, six, seven years ago, there were some YouTubers crossing over to the mainstream: back then I was more familiar with Tori Kelly and Alessia Cara (both super-talented singer-songwriter-instrumentalists) than I was with Christina. (I still tell people to pay attention when they listen to Christina, to appreciate all the superb features and versatility of her voice.)

And then came June 10, 2016 ... and all the tributes and effusive praise and sorrow from famous people and ordinary people all over the Internet. That's when I realized I had to learn more about Christina. I found out how many YouTube videos she had, how far back they went, how "novel" all of these kinds of homemade webcam song covers were back in 2009. In the beginning, some people did karaoke covers for fun, but 15-year-old Christina made her own arrangements for her piano keyboard, and played them while she sang. She was making the videos herself, without fancy gadgets, with a simple microphone. She was a kid in her room in New Jersey, with a poster of Sonic the Hedgehog behind her on the wall, and she was making freaking history!

Christina's legacy is "history" in so many ways. She was an amazing person - which is ultimately more important - but what got my attention and helped me to see something of her great personality was her prodigious music.

From the beginning, in 2009, her voice was remarkable and her musicality was impressive. Then she rapidly began to mature even more in her vocals. Her dynamics are still among the best I have ever heard: from a booming belt to soft, gentle notes with flawless and apparently effortless transitions, Christina had incredible vocal control that didn't sound "controlling" or forced but almost spontaneous. Her head voice continued to expand, her soft tones gained warmth and subtlety, and her full-voice resonance - already stunning - was widening out in her chest. By the age of 18, her voice was beautiful, powerful, agile, brilliant, poignant, soothing, soulful - a magnificent instrument of the whole range of emotional expressiveness. 

The most amazing thing was that she was so young. Her potential as a vocalist was developing right up to the end (and would have continued to become even greater in years to come if she had remained with us). Recordings from her last concerts and live appearances suggest that she was rapidly growing more supple, richer in tone (if that's possible), and that her range was still expanding. Christina loved to full-on belt, of course, and it made for some of her most epic moments. It was large pitch-perfect sound from such a small girl, but also a young girl. Something of that youthfulness remained in her belts, and if she had been granted the years to mature to her full adult stature, this would have grown into a kind of fullness that I can't even imagine. She would have shaken the earth.

The voice we did hear up to age 22 was, I believe, great enough and unique enough to establish her ineradicable musical legacy. I am quite sure that in the future she will be remembered and appreciated as one of the greatest singers of our time. She will certainly never go out of style. 

I have said a lot in previous articles about Christina's faith. I remember being really struck by how so many people (Christians and non-Christians alike) talked about the impact of her faith on them in those days following June 10, 2016. Yet it didn't seem like she mentioned it herself all that often. With a couple of exceptions, she didn't cover "Christian songs" at all. But she did speak about Jesus and refer to his love in moments when she was moved to express it. And as I watched more and more of the videos, I began to realize that her belonging to Jesus Christ was the foundation of everything she did. 

This was the secret of her vast magnanimous open-hearted humanity. She was utterly genuine. She was unscripted. In her videos she was shy at first, then funny, goofy, direct, self-deprecating... until she started playing and singing with intensity, focused passion, and... I feel like I want to say... "authority." She "owned" the songs she sang and played - not only those of her own composition but also her covers (which were often just plain better than the originals, but were always presented and articulated in her own inimitable way).

When Christina did have something to say by way of advice or encouragement - whether on YouTube or her busy and very interactive Twitter page - there was power in her words. She was simple, direct, personal, strong, tender, loving, and wise - without ever ceasing to be an approachable teenager/young-adult who was at home with her adolescent frands, and open to everyone. She might use a simple common phrase, but - coming from her - even apparent clichés like "be yourself" were the opposite of evasive generalizations. We know that absolutely everybody says "be yourself." But from Grimmie, you hear it differently. It suddenly comes alive, like a provocation and a challenge.

At a certain point, it began to dawn on me that I was no longer "educating myself about someone important in music and media" in the first half of the last decade. I was meeting a real person and she was helping me see things in a new way. She was helping me to recognize the love of God shining in places I knew nothing about, or places I might have considered "too dark" for any light to make a way. She was convincing me that the people "on the margins," people with unremarkable lives, people with problems, sick people, disabled people - people like me - really do matter. We are loved. I am loved.

And this love is greater, stronger, "deeper" than death.