Perhaps there is no better measure of one’s age than the Grammy Awards.
If that provokes a wince of recognition, I suspect you too have seen your sense of what’s cool upended.
For years and years my EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) preferences were arranged in predictable order. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I didn’t even know what the Tony Awards were. A trip to the movies was reserved for the occasional Friday night date, when the latest horror movie usually did the trick (an Oscar nomination notwithstanding). My television-watching hours were primarily devoted to my two favorite shows, “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family.” Emmy worthy? Hardly.
Back in my salad days it was all about music. The Grammys were my generation’s barometer of hip — Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder were gobbling up those diminutive golden phonographs like they were going out of style.
A move in my early 20s, first to London and later to Montana, expanded my musical tastes in unexpected ways. The punk craze brought Adam Ant, the Ramones, and Patti Smith into my Sony Walkman, joining a stable of singers that included troubadours John Denver and James Taylor, rock icons Bruce Springsteen and the Who, alongside the airy pop of Abba and Olivia Newton-John.
In the heyday of Studio 54, pulsating with glitter and excess, I moved to Montana. The honky-tonks of the West, much to my surprise, would transform me into a lifelong country music fan. I fell in love with the warm tones of Vince Gill, the showmanship of Garth Brooks and the swagger of my fellow ginger, Wynonna. Twang took root in my bones during those years and never left.
Maybe that’s when I first began to lose touch with the Grammys, because at that time, country music was far outside of Hollywood’s orbit. The songs I grew up with, and the music I later came to love, were now absent from this archetypal award show. But the disconnect was slow. It crept up on me with the same stealth as my newly emerging gray hair.
Of course I still remember a handful of noteworthy moments from the past few decades. The plunging neckline of J-Lo’s green-print Versace dress. Elton John’s duet with Eminem, during the height of the controversy swirling around the rapper for his perceived homophobia. And who could forget Lady Gaga’s “hatch” from an enormous egg in 2011 or Taylor Swift throwing shade at Kanye’s during her 2016 acceptance speech after winning Album of the Year?
It’s hard to get excited about the Grammys when you feel so hopelessly out of touch. Indeed, when advertisements showcasing Lizzo, Billie Eilish and H.E.R. appear as the Grammys’ air date approaches, I can almost hear my television screen sneer, “OK Boomer…”
Oddly enough, now firmly entrenched in middle age, I have discovered an unexpected partner in my battle with culture relevance. And it has come from the most unusual of places.
These days I serve as a school chaplain at Phillips Academy, a boarding school located about 25 miles northwest of Boston. Better known as Andover, the institution enrolls approximately 1,200 students, including the 37 girls who live in the dormitory where I reside. When I first took the position, my friends seemed equal parts confounded and aghast. They just couldn’t imagine living in a dorm, particularly one filled with teenage girls.
I understood their hesitance. On paper, it didn’t seem like a great idea. After all, 40-plus years separated me from my young charges. But trust me when I tell you, it’s been magical. Indeed I have found more joy being among these wonderfully smart and talented young women than I have experienced in any other job, ministerial or otherwise.
So imagine my surprise when the girls in the dorm were astonished by my encyclopedic knowledge of “their” music. “You know Freddie Mercury?” they inquired incredulously. “Yes,” I assured them, “’Bohemian Rhapsody’ existed before Rami Malek.” Just like Sonny was once bigger than Cher and Steven Tyler was famous before “American Idol,” despite my students’ lingering suspicions.
While I’m not sure exactly how it happened, somehow they have discovered the 1970s and made it their own. And with it, they have given renewed life to the music of my own teenage years.
The Grammys will always be for the young because the awards celebrate the literal voice of an emerging generation. Which is why music has the ability to make all of us young again, every time we hear a song from our own angst-filled adolescence.
My congratulations to the latest round of Grammy nominees. But for this girl, it’s on to the Tony Awards.