‘SNL 40’ reminds us of the power of live performance
“Saturday Night Live” celebrated its 40th anniversary with a star-studded and surprisingly inclusive televised gala on Sunday evening. The show’s legacy in comedy, late-night television, edgy and often surrealist content, and influence on the development of “comedy news” shows like those presided over by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, has been well-documented and is impossible to question.
But what about “SNL’s” effect on popular music? Well, beyond a doubt, that influence has been equally vast. And it all comes down to the “Live” in “SNL.” Yes, for 40 years, the show has offered us warts-and-all performances captured in real time and beamed directly into our living rooms in all their unvarnished glory.
During Sunday’s “SNL 40” broadcast, the significance of this fact was underscored several times by several artists, but most prominent was Paul McCartney in a performance with his regular touring band. McCartney sat at the grand piano flanked by his long-serving musicians and framed in a very cool, shadow-heavy lighting environment that lent spookiness to the proceedings. His choice of tune? Not some new ditty he was pushing, and most thankfully, nothing from his project with Kanye West, but rather, a torrid rendering of an anguished ballad from his first post-Beatles solo album, the elegiac and deeply affecting “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
Seeing aging rockers trotting out classics is commonplace, and often forgettable. (How many times do we need to see the Rolling Stones crank out “Jumping Jack Flash,” for example? Well, OK, one more time … and preferably at Ralph Wilson Stadium during the band’s 2015 tour.) McCartney has been known to offer rather perfunctory versions of classics like “Hey Jude” and more often than not, these versions only serve to remind us how great the original studio recordings were.
But this “SNL 40” performance? This was made of much stronger stuff. Not surprisingly, the band performed impeccably from the beginning, but when McCartney first started singing, there was a moment so genuine, so real and so unaffected as to be hugely moving. McCartney was struggling. His voice sounded like what it is – the well-worn voice of an old man, a once peerless instrument ravaged by the passage of time. It was hard to watch and harder to listen to.
And then, McCartney rose to the occasion. Tackling the difficult tune in what seemed to be its original key, he pushed his voice into its beautiful Little Richard-like screaming range, poured his entire being into his microphone, nailed some heartrending high falsetto runs, and came out the other end with one of the most moving performances I’ve seen on live television in a very long time. Why? Because it was honest. It was real. It was live.
Contrast this performance to the one McCartney took part in exactly one week prior, during the Grammy Awards. That one was kind of sad, too, but not in the poignant “I will not go gently to that good night” manner exhibited by the “SNL 40” slot. During the Grammy gig, McCartney flailed away at a guitar along to prerecorded tracks, while Kanye West and Rihanna strutted about as if they had ever contributed anything to the culture of popular music on par with, say, “Abbey Road.” McCartney’s microphone also appeared to be malfunctioning. Or something. It was awful.
You see, there is something vibrant, thrilling and sometimes even sacred about live music. “Saturday Night Live” always has espoused this notion, even if some of the guest performers on the show failed to do so. We are repeatedly told, of late, that singing along with prerecorded tracks is what “live performance” has evolved into. Wrong. That’s karaoke. Karaoke is fine but it is not live music.
I recall being very young and staying up late enough to catch the Rolling Stones performing three songs from the then-new 1978 album “Some Girls.” The band sounded ragged, rough, like everything might fall apart at any moment. I remember my mother walking into the room right when Jagger sauntered over to Ron Wood, grabbed the guitarist’s cigarette out of his mouth, took a drag, and then proceeded to attempt to engage Wood in a French kiss. I was really embarrassed. It was gross.
And yet, it was completely awesome at the same time. It was unscripted, impromptu and dangerous. You’re not going to get that when everything is running to a click track linked to prerecorded digital files, with choreographed dance moves requiring unwavering precision in the rhythm section, so that the dancers can hit their marks, and the singer doesn’t end up placing a verse where a chorus should be, and so forth. There is very little that is sexy about unwavering metronomical precision. In music that grooves, the rhythm is supposed to fluctuate.
On the same day as the “SNL 40” broadcast, a friend shared an article with me via Facebook, published by the site www.talkingpointsmemo.com, beneath the heading “Face It, Live Music Kinda Sucks.” In this piece, author Channing Kennedy presents the argument that “live music, as a medium, is structurally flawed,” basically because it is too real and too human. It’s a funny piece. But it’s also scary, because it posits the notion that the live music experience is not perfect enough and is, therefore, a waste of time.
Some might see in Kennedy’s observations of guys spilling beer on their neighbors, inept musical replication, and musicians who don’t look as good in person as they do on television the musings of a kindred spirit. But not me. What I see is the death of hope. And a lot more work for DJs who preside over platforms full of equipment designed to play back other people’s music flawlessly, while fans dance, drink, do designer drugs and try to convince themselves that what they’re experiencing is actually “a concert.”
“Saturday Night Live” is to be commended for its commitment to live music. I’d rather hear McCartney break my heart by reaching for notes that once came to him effortlessly than watch some supermodel sing along to backing tracks with the help of massive amounts of Auto-Tune. If “Live Music Kinda Sucks,” as Kennedy claims, well, we’ve only got ourselves to blame.