Sunday night, as I invented a new dessert, a group of friends sat around my apartment and watched the 86th Academy Awards. This year, there were a lot of things that people were not able to complain about. The orchestra generally did not cut people’s speeches short. The “filler” segments were kept to a minimum. The host was funny with a slight edge. In fact, it would seem to be an almost perfect show, if awards shows are your thing. Even the winners were generally gracious and humble. And ironically, the one thing that really stuck out in my mind about the show this year as a good thing, is the one thing people have decided to complain about the most.
I remember a few years back when there was almost no live music in the show. Slowly, over time, it had just gone away. Performers no longer sang their nominated songs on the broadcast. Sometimes there was musical opening number, and sometimes not. Sometimes there was a medley of nominated songs, and sometimes not. But we certainly did not get an evening with live performances sprinkled liberally throughout. This year, we did. It was a good thing, in my opinion, and yet the nitpickers are out in full force to rip it all apart. So let me say a few things.
The first performance of the night was Pharrell Williams doing his nominated (and hit) song “Happy.” I don’t think anyone is complaining about that one. What a fantastic way to kick off a night of music! High energy, upbeat, and joyous, this audience participation dance number set a high bar for the other performances. And most of the others were…fine. U2 was U2. Karen O. sang a mildly boring song very beautifully. And then we get to the issues.
From Pink’s opening phrase, my Facebook and Twitter were aflame with horror. “Pink has no breath control!” they trumpeted angrily. “Pink breathed in the middle of a word!” they corrected stated. So let me begin by saying, Pink has breath control. Watch the performance again. Pink could have breathed other places. She breathed where she wanted to. I absolutely agree that, if one were going to a classical performance, one would have an absolute right to be angry. But Pink is not a classical singer. Pink is a rock star. The producers knew that when they hired her. Bette Midler was backstage. Liza Minelli was sitting in the audience (that is a separate discussion). There were many options available if the producers wanted to have a traditional version of the tune belted out. But they chose Pink.
Just listen to her! She sounds amazing! And yes, she has chosen to to say o (big dramatic pause, not for breathing purposes) vertherainbow. It’s true. And normally, I would say that you have the right to be angry due to the stylistic incongruities. Like when Michael Bolton put out that opera album. You can listen to his fine voice and say “Wow, those songs should not be sung that way.” And I am very close to allowing you to say the same thing for Pink, but I cannot. “Over the Rainbow” is, at this point, a song that defies genres and styles. It is one of the greatest songs of all time, agreed upon by practically everybody, and it has been, and should be, performed in pretty much every style. Punk, ska, swing, yodeling, kazoo, harmonica quartet, you name it. “Over the Rainbow” does not have to be done “straight.” And when I heard that Pink was going to sing it, I knew that we were in for something different. You have every right not to prefer it, and you can blame the producers if you would have rather heard Kristin Chenoweth sing it, but don’t blame Pink. She was just being Pink, and being awesome at it.
Of course, speaking of the Divine Miss M, she came out after the In Memoriam segment to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” and did, what everyone at my party agreed, was a great, if somewhat exaggerated, Bette Midler impression. She was expected to sound like, well, Bette Midler of 20 years ago, and she did not. I am totally fine with you being disappointed by this performance. It was weird, and that was not the producer’s fault this time.
And so, finally, we come to Adele Dazeem. I had originally heard that Idina Menzel was going to perform, but John Travolta set us all straight on that one. Idina is another one who has her own style, love it or hate it, and she does it well. But maybe not so much on Sunday night. There have been a lot of discussions as to why she biffed the last high note, with some blaming her, and some blaming the orchestra. You can watch the performance here. After some research, investigation, and careful study I have come to some conclusions.
One: the song was sung in the original key, not some weirdly higher key, as some have suggested. Although changing the key on someone at a live performance is a hilarious prank, this is not to blame.
Two: the tempo was possibly an issue. The original recording has a tempo of around 138, according to my metronome. The live tempo started at closer to 132. Not a huge difference, but enough to mess with a performer. You can see in the first half of the song that she is actively trying to speed them up. And it works. By the end of the song, everyone is singing together at a tempo of 138. But by then the flustration may have just been too much.
Three: Idina Menzel is in the middle of tech week for hew new musical If/Then. It opens for previews tomorrow. She flew out from NY to CA basically just to sing that song and then flew home. She was exhausted, stressed, and clearly worried from the first few notes that things were not going to end well. Whatever else you may say about her, she is a successful, professional performer, and she knows her voice. I knew, as she did, that this was not going to be her best. A good performer should not let these things show to the audience (and from what I’ve read, the non-performers out there may not have picked up on it), but to her credit, she finished the song. America loved it. Music got out there to the masses, and all of our lives were slightly improved, even if you can’t see the effects yet. And if you want to really hear Idina Menzel, instead of Adele Dazeem, watch this instead: