An Unexpected Journey To the Land of Glitz and Music
Pink performs at the 56th annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
Katy Perry performs "Dark Horse" at the 56th annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
Beyonce, left, and Jay-Z perform "Drunk in Love" at the 56th annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
Celia Woodsmith and her mother, Sybil Smith, in L.A. for the Grammy Awards. Scott Smallin photogaph
I never expected to go to the Grammys. Although I have been known to occasionally buy an Enquirer, and admit to some fascination with reality TV, I am basically not into popular arts. I was raised to think such goings on were a manifestation of all that is shallow and dangerously seductive about American culture. My father would not allow me and my little sister to have Barbies, for example, and we didn’t have a television.
Then my daughter became the singer/songwriter for a “newgrass” band called Della Mae. It had occurred to me, as they began their meteoric rise, (they got a music video on CMT, they sang at the Grand Ole Opry, they won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Best Emerging Artist” award) that they might get a Grammy nod, but I thought that was far in the future. And then, a month ago, Celia called me and said, “Mom, I have the greatest news.”
At first I thought I wouldn’t go. I like my routine; I like the Upper Valley, even when it’s cold; I no longer drink alcohol; my cat has a nervous breakdown when I travel; and my chickens’ welfare is always on my mind. But everyone kept telling me it was a once in a lifetime experience, and that I couldn’t miss it. Most importantly, my daughter seemed to want me to go, so that was the deciding factor. I bought the ticket ($700) that allowed me to sit with my daughter, I bought some swanky clothes at the Powerhouse Mall ($400), Celia got me a ticket to L.A. with her frequent flyer miles ($300) and I was off.
It is a matter of some curiosity to me that my daughter is becoming a minor celebrity. Until I got sober almost 6 years ago, I was the ambitious one. Not to say my daughter wasn’t ambitious, but she didn’t seem to lust after fame the way I had most of my life. She seemed happy just to be who she was, and she followed the proscribed path of bright, pretty young ladies in America; in New England at least: she finished high school and went to college. Sure, she sang in the chorus and sure, she played the guitar, but she never said she wanted to be a model, or an actor, or a singer; she never gave any indication that she wanted to grace the cover of People and be photographed by paparazzi in front of the great step and repeat of the red carpet.
I, on the other hand, freely lamented while she was growing up my lack of success. When I was depressed I would mooch about, saying I was nothing, I was insignificant, I had failed at my one dream of being a writer, etc. Rejections, which came regularly between the occasional success, struck at my very heart and made me doubt my worth as a human being.
When Celia began to sing in public at college, when a handsome young guitar player named Avi formed a band with her and they began to get a reputation in Burlington, I thought it was merely a stage. I could see how talented she was, but I suspected it took more than talent to scramble to the top. And Celia never said she’d like to become well known as a singer and songwriter, she still talked of other, more achievable goals, like getting a degree in permaculture, or helping start sustainable businesses in Costa Rica. “Avi and Celia” became “Hey Mama”; they put out albums; they went to festivals; they toured the country in a hatchback Saab; they gained a small but ardent following.
Finally, two and a half years ago, Celia said she was ready to stop. She began to apply to graduate schools and broke the news to Avi.
And then it happened.
A band called Della Mae, a quartet of talented bluegrass musicians who lacked a lead singer, asked Celia to join them for a few shows. She agreed, the few shows became dozens, and a year later they signed with Rounder Records. And now, a year later, the band was going to the Grammys as a nominee in the bluegrass category.
I suppose it’s possible that she always was ambitious, but, unlike me, did not wear her heart on her sleeve. She hedged her bets, she had her grandiose dreams but kept them to herself, in case she failed. But it didn’t seem that way to me. She seemed fairly happy, other than a rough year after she left college; she seemed to enjoy what seemed to be modest prospects. And even now, as success lands in her lap, she doesn’t seem to glisten with ego; she is calm, and stable and kind to other singers. She very rarely puts anyone down, even when I become mean spirited and pick out some obvious fault of another singer or another band.
I also wonder if, watching my frustration, some deep part of her swore to vindicate me, by becoming a raving success herself. It’s possible, if somewhat egocentric, to imagine that unconsciously she felt she had to achieve fame, since that was what I so obviously wanted. We think we know our motives, but the unconscious is called the unconscious for a reason; we really don’t know what our inner self seeks, be it fame or the recapitulation of some terrible childhood trauma.
The irony is that I’m “so over it,” as kids like to say now. Except for sweet little essays that I write for the Valley News, I’ve barely written since I quit drinking. I’m sure I thought I’d take up writing again, once the great battle of thwarting addiction was over, but instead what happened was that I became content. Once I was happy I wondered why it had all seemed so important to me. I understood that I was a good and worthwhile human being, a kind and authentic woman who had fought addiction and finally won. In the one essay I did publish in The Sun during that time, I reflected that I felt like a Jane Austen heroine. I felt honorable and grounded. I could not be swayed by impostors, people or dreams.
And then, irony on irony, I found myself at the Grammys.
Everyone keeps asking me to “tell them everything.” I’m afraid that’s impossible. If you want to know what happened at this year’s Grammys, you’d do better to watch the show or look it up on your computer.
What stands out in my mind are the golden globes of Beyonce’s butt shimmering in the clouds of faux smoke, and a singer named Pink, who was wearing a sort of sheer, black bathing suit, and who came down from the darkness of the stadium’s ceiling on two stretchy, netlike ropes. She did some acrobatic maneuvers I can’t name, and even, at one point, hung by her ankles and let her hands trail over the crowd below while they reached up to touch her. I remember Katie Perry, singing amidst dancers dressed like vampires and witches, rising high on smoking pillars, jumping through flame and contorting themselves on the stage. They had bright, red LED lights incorporated into their outfits.
I am loath to use the word awesome, because I’m not 16, but that’s the word that comes to mind. Sated as I was by the extravaganza unfolding in front of me, these moments stand out.
If you want to know what the Grammys were like, imagine Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Lorde, Willie Nelson, Madonna, Carole King, Taylor Swift, Katie Perry, Pink, Julia Roberts and yes, even Paris Hilton, all crammed into one space, throwing off sparks of stardom. Imagine 33 couples, of every permutation, being married by Queen Latifah, in front of a church door made of pastel lights that was lowered from the ceiling. Imagine thousands of people, dressed to the nines, holding up iPhones.
Flying home, it occurred to me that people who like this sort of thing, who go to concerts and award ceremonies, are so jaded by the ever more elaborate tricks, illusions and stage sets, that it’s as if the stars are in an arms war with one another, each seeking to outdo the other with outrageous acts and edgy moves. And believe me, it works. While you are there the pounding music, lurid colors and gyrating bodies grab every ounce of your attention.
But when it’s over it blurs and fades, like cheap newsprint.
I’m glad I went to L.A. I liked the people there, more than I thought I would. I liked the Jurassic vegetation and the mild weather. I had coffee alone, at 4 in the morning, in a sketchy part of town, and felt relatively safe. I saw my daughter sing an Everly Brothers tune at The Troubadour in Beverly Hills, and wore false eyelashes.
If Della Mae keeps it up, they’ll probably go again, and this time bring a Grammy back. But in the meantime I won’t buy an iPad or an iPhone. I won’t get Botox or starve myself down to a size 6. I’m a Puritan at heart and I’ll live here in New England for the rest of my life not because I never became famous, but because I chose it.
Sybil Smith lives in Norwich.