Alicia Keys a lonely voice of reason in a typically vapid VMA show

Look. I’m 64. I shouldn’t even be watching the MTV Video Music Awards (it being way past my bedtime), let alone writing about it. No they don’t need me and they sure as hell don’t feed me.

In fact, the last VMAs show that meant anything to me, where I knew the music and the artists, was probably the first one, 32 years ago at Radio City, when I was there and writing extensively about music videos and MTV. In all honesty, I write about them now just to hang on and kid myself into thinking I’m still relevant.

That said, even the commercials last night were lame. I mean, the Taco Bell Foundation? Who knew? And the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children spot got me going until diluting itself with “featuring a new song by Florence + the Machine.”

The show itself can be summed up by the Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj workout on “Side to Side,” as it hardly got anyone worked up. Or speed-swimmer Michael Phelps, who introduced Future after crediting his “Stick Talk” for inspiring him at the Olympics, with Future responding by slowing the proceedings down to a standstill with his single “Commas.” Or Kanye—of course—whose excruciating ramble was matched only by his video premiere for the at least appropriately named “Fade.”

I must qualify my criticism for tweeters Key & Peele and their seeming rip of In Living Color’s “Men on Films,” since while I’ve heard of them, I’ve never seen them and didn’t get the gag until googling them midway. But I’ll stick with my own tweets, i.e.:

Separated at birth: #KanyeWest and Sata

Did I miss it or was there a melody in the #NickJonas song?

#KimKardashian speaks like a Shakespearean scholar

[After Britney’s bit] Gee, that was worth the wait

#Beyonce get to the hook already!

#Beyonce: The performance that never ended

They could have fit in at least five more performers in the time wasted by #Beyonce and #KanyeWest

Wait! #Beyonce sampled Andy Williams “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” on her song! If only he were still alive!

That last one reminds me of the time when I ran into Andy Williams at the Grammys, but I digress. Admittedly, I was happy DNCE won for “Cake by the Ocean” since it’s such a great tune. But then The Chainsmokers could only remind me how much I liked Parliament, The Winstons and even Sopwith Camel. Like I also tweeted: I must be the oldest living person watching this shite. And, after the first five minutes, My God this is awful.

So why do I love Rihanna so much? I thank Naomi Campbell for nailing it: the islands, meaning, she never gave up her Caribbean roots, which makes perfect sense in that I’ve always felt her voice has so much character, flavor, and adaptability to whatever a song needs from it. She was great, her speech was fine, and she even made Drake good.

But really, the true star last night was Alicia Keys, out of place as she was in physical appearance–but naturally stunning nevertheless with her committed no-makeup look (which I didn’t know anything about until reading up on it after the show)–not to mention political stance in noting the 53rd anniversary that day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. And suddenly I didn’t feel so old as arguably the most talented singer-songwriter of her MTV generation recited an antiwar poem harking back to my g-g-generation’s “Make love, not war” slogan.

The poem became a brief a cappella song, also about breaking walls, instead of building them–as the one presidential candidate so desperately wants. With such a pivotal election just weeks away now, Keys provided the one glimpse of reality through the typically overblown VMA glitz, in time-honored topical music fashion.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 14

Like I always say–and told him many times—I wish I’d have carried around a tape recorder whenever I spoke with Nick. Then I wished I ‘d transcribed it all onto rolls of parchment and hidden them in caves along the Dead Sea—though I never told him that.

Someone called him The Black Jesus at his funeral and it was only fitting, for he had the look and the kindness and the love–and the wisdom. Me and Liz Rosenberg would essentially sit at his feet and look up as he passed it down to us supplicants.

For sure Nick would have been the final word on Adele, after I stirred up the Sadducees by trashing both the “Hello” song and video on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sure he’d have liked Adele okay, and appreciated where she’s coming from. But I doubt he’d have been carried away by all the hoopla over “Hello.”

At least Alec Shantzis, keyboardist for the Sugar Bar’s famous Thursday Night Open Mic shows, sided with me.

“I have to chime in here,” Alec wrote on my ever-widening Adele Facebook thread. “As a keyboard player I have performed and/or recorded with Ashford & Simpson, Ben E King, Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, and a host of other artists. Adele is ok, she meets my minimum standard for ok, that’s all. Nothing more.”

“On that list for sure!” I replied, meaning, compared to those names, okay is all–list of those meeting minimum standards. I added, “You know who really would have been able to put her in perspective, of course: Nick!”

“No doubt, Jim, Nick would have said one sentence that ended the discussion lol,” responded Alec, sagely. “Oh, and that was my short list too, I left a lot off because my point was made.”

“I sat with him one night in the [Sugar Bar’s] Cat Lounge and he discussed the relative merits of the great female vocalists,” I said. “It was like listening to a college professor!”

“As a songwriter, creating vehicles for singers, and with his experience, he was as expert as could be,” answered Alec. “We could sure use some creative experts in the music business now.”

I vaguely remember that conversation in the Cat Lounge. I recall volunteering that I didn’t care much for Mariah Carey or Beyonce or even Whitney Houston—in fact, I gave Whitney a lukewarm review at best back in the 1990s when I reviewed her show at Madison Square Garden for The New York Post, prompting Donnie Ienner, then second-in-command at Arista, to take me aside at a label function and respectfully chew me out. But I don’t recall that Nick disagreed with me, or my contention that neither sang with the soul, say, of Val and Aretha.

“My Val?” Nick asked, making sure I didn’t mean a different Val, whereas there could be no other Aretha, of course. I always loved how he said “my Val.”

Aretha, of course, was in a class by herself, though besides Nick’s Val, whom I always put ahead of everyone as the most soulful and spontaneous singer I’ve ever seen, we mentioned Patti LaBelle, obviously, and probably Patti Austin. I don’t think I thought of Darlene Love, or some of the 50s and ’60s r&b vocalists other than those mentioned, or Laura Nyro.

If he were here now I’d ask him to assess the likes of Katy and Rhianna and Miley and especially Taylor, and guess he’d be most supportive of Katy as a vocalist, Miley, maybe, as an artist. I’d love to hear his take on Rihanna.

But there was one female vocalist who stood out among all of them for Nick, and she wasn’t a soul singer as such. In fact, he could hardly talk about Barbra Streisand without losing it.

Nick really adored Barbra, and she knew it. He told me how Val had bought him a ticket to a VIP meet-and-greet with her after a show in Vegas, and how he went–but he pretty much stood bashfully against the wall. Very un-Nick.

“Does she know how you feel about her?” I asked.

“She does,” he said. “But she doesn’t know I’m weak.”

Before he died, Liz got him a Streisand live DVD. I met a Mattel person at Toy Fair and got him a Barbara Streisand Collector Barbie Doll.

The iconic misuse of the word “icon”

Didn’t agree much with the late conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, but he was an excellent writer, and I read his weekly “On Language” column in the Times Magazine regularly. I’m sure he’d agree with me that like the words meme and trope, neither of which I know how to use correctly, icon, which hardly anyone else knows how to use correctly, is likewise a good writer’s overworked, and in its case, wrongly used term.

What rankles me so much about “icon”—and by extension, “iconic”—is how it came suddenly out of nowhere and is now inescapable, such that not a day goes by when I don’t get a PR pitch regarding someone or other who’s an icon or iconic, which, presumably, is why I should give a shit. But i don’t, because they’re invariably neither.

It’s so out of hand that last week I got a release titled “Legacy Lounge Brings Suiteness to Iconic Levels at the London West Hollywood.” Okay, I guess “suiteness” is a clever made-up word, or else a play on “sweetness.” Whatever. But whatever the fuck it is, bringing it to “iconic levels” makes no sense at all, that is, “level” singular or plural can’t be made iconic, that is, unless you stretch the meaning of iconic far beyond its traditional usage.

Okay, so what constitutes the use of “iconic”? Simply put, it has to refer to an unmistakable icon. The word usually means “a usually pictorial representation,” that is, image, or “an object of uncritical devotion,” that is, idol (merriam-webster.com).

But the word “idol” has been so watered down (thanks, to finger one culprit, to American Idol), that it’s lost its connotation of singularity. I mean, not everyone is an icon, or an be, unless we’re allowed to worship a lot of idols equally.

Hence, the only real icon in contemporary music who comes readily to mind is Madonna. Of other highly visible current female pop artists, Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, all are surely superstars, even shining much brighter than Madonna now in terms of airplay and sales, but have a very long way to go before ranking with Madonna as a true cultural icon.

As for other female pop artists, Aretha Franklin comes to mind, as she stands by herself and could rightly be considered an icon. Nancy Sinatra really defines the word, what with her signature look based on her signature song (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin'”) and with an iconic career also defined by acting in the Elvis Presley classic Speedway and with Peter Fonda in the pioneering outlaw biker genre film The Wild Angels, her other landmark hits with songwriter Lee Hazlewood, the James Bond movie theme “You Only Lid Twice” and her chart-topping “Something stupid” duet with her father. Obviously her father was a male pop music and acting icon, as was Presley. Iconic actresses who come to mind include Marilyn Monroe, of course, and Bette Davis, since after all, she had a song written about her eyes.

In country music there are several female vocalists who are icons in the genre, namely Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, though Dolly would be the only one with the mainstream pop recognition to ensure her overall icon status. Likewise, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who, incidentally have another duet album just out, are both male vocal country music icons, but only Willie could be considered an icon in general, and he would pale in iconic level—now I’m using that idiotic construct—next to Johnny Cash, who most certainly was iconic any way you look at it.

My point is, the words “icon” and “iconic” should not be applied so freely if they are to retain the required sense of uniqueness. Me? I tend to use “legendary” in reference to any veteran artist with any kind of history, who’s reached a point where at least some kind of “legend” has been established.