Monday, August 20, 2007
I didn't forget about this post...I can't believe it's been two weeks since the concert!
So I saw Lauryn Hill perform free in Wingate Park. And I left with a swirl of thoughts. The next day I saw photos and reviews of the concert all over the internet and it made me want to write about how I felt about the concert, the way Lauryn Hill has been treated in the media, and Lauryn Hill herself.
I stayed for only one hour of her performance. She didn't take the stage until 9:44PM and I had to get back home to bed. I have a job. Plenty of people left. This is not uncommon at that time for the Wingate Park concerts or for me. I once left Wingate Park before Cameo hit the stage because I had to go to work the next day. And I LOVE Cameo. But it is true that a lot of people left in disgust and disappointment with Lauryn Hill. With only one opening performer--a young man with one popular song-- many people expected Lauryn to take the stage a LOT earlier than she did. But the crowd was just as prepared to hear she was a no-show. I know I was. Reading all these stories about Lauryn's unusual behavior and performances, I figured anything might happen. I had a book and a magazine. Instead of taking to the field inside the Wingate track, I sat on the bleachers and settled in for the evening. People were getting tired of waiting for her and there was a buzz in the crowd. Eventually, as I said, she took the stage at nearly 10PM.
Her band played an extra long intro, leaving many wondering what they were in for with this show. But she did come out. You could hear the whole crowd kind of pause. She was wearing a leather vest, a high-necked, long-sleeved blouse, and wide leg trousers. Her hair was an auburn-topped afro. When she started singing, it was a mixture of scratchiness and the deep, velvet tone that I remember. But her delivery was staccato and the arrangements furious, fast, and barely recognizable. She attacked the songs and rapped like she had somewhere else to go--hard, angry and so fast, so fast. Even when she sang familiar songs, the arrangements were so unfamiliar that the crowd couldn't recognize much less join in with her as they had been waiting to do.
Like I said, people leave the Wingate Park concerts early all the time. But many of the people who left were aggravated, confused and disappointed. I noticed that all the people who remained on the bleachers were women about my age. Their heads tilted, their mouths set in perplexed faces. You could almost see their thoughts...What is this?
I'm sure you've heard some of the stories about Lauryn Hill's personal life as she skyrocketed to critical acclaim and popular success with the Fugees and as a solo artist. I'm not going to rehash them. Suffice it to say, many people have been concerned about Lauryn Hill. Her most recent tour dates have allegedly been difficult. Depending on who you ask she has sung poorly, acted bizarrely, and dressed outlandishly...Everything about Lauryn has been picked apart and the consensus has not been positive. If you believe what you hear and read, Lauryn Hill has become an aloof, tempermental, disconnected woman. People brought all that to Wingate Park. In many ways, it distorted what they saw. Many people expected that Lauryn Hill would be terrible and that's the show they came to see and felt they got. Others came hoping that she would prove the rumors wrong. But the truth is somewhere in the middle.
I don't know Lauryn Hill. And I certainly don't know for sure that some of the stories about her are true. But I saw on that stage a woman who was disconnected. Her band seemed tense and obviously under her complete control. I couldn't help but wonder if a more experienced set of musicians might have resisted some of the arrangements she chose or encouraged her to edit or question aspects of her performance. As it was, the show came off, in my view, like her own private jam session. Unedited, uncritiqued, unchecked. If the stories are true, then Lauryn may not feel as if she can trust her peer musicians or be willing to share the creative process of her work with anyone. And that is too bad because every creative person needs not only an audience, but also a community. Art cannot be made in isolation. And you cannot perform in front of an audience, yet not invite them in to share. Whatever the reason for the unusual arrangements, the audience was so alienated and frustrated that they could not connect. And they desperately wanted to...The women in the bleachers came looking to see their Lauryn, the one whose voice narrated their love, their life. They wanted if she was hurt to help heal her with their love and support. But the Lauryn we saw, didn't want or couldn't accept the love. She was surrounded by protective armor and ready for battle. She didn't even realize that she was the one picking the fight. There were moments though when you could hear the power of her voice and glancingly touch her song.
A lot is made of Lauryn Hill's appearance. When her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released nine (!) years ago, she was on fire. Her skin glowed, her makeup was fierce. She was undeniably that chick. She was so hot that she rocked locks on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. She mixed couture and street effortlessly...in printed interviews, she has said that she grew weary, anxious and uncomfortable about being on display.
So I find myself ambivalent about what she is doing now. On the one hand, her choice of stage wardrobe was odd--it was August and she was wearing a leather vest and long trousers-- and her makeup in photos seemed garish, almost grotesque. But is this because she's unhinged or because she is trying to make a statement about how she was commodified before? I wondered if her attire was an attempt to be defiantly modest. Only her face and hands were not covered. And her make-up, was it deliberately over the top? Or was it simply exaggerated stage application taken out of context by close-up photographers. From our spots in the bleachers, we would have never guessed that her makeup was as it was. Even on the jumbo screens, she seemed at worse a bit heavy-handed. But those photographs. I questioned whether some of them weren't enhanced to make her look clownish and weird. And when I read the reviews of the concert I had attended, I couldn't help but put myself in her shoes. What it must be like to have so many people ready to throw dirt and negativity at you. To call you crazy. To say you are terrible. I would find it surreal, it might even infuriate me. Maybe make me defensive and indignant. So while I didn't agree with her aesthetic choices, I certainly could understand how, even why she might have made them. If I had my creative integrity challenged and undermined, I might be resistant to collaboration and assert my right as a diva...be the HBIC.
I think so many women my age stayed, perplexed with Lauryn because, even though they were pissed off with Lauryn, deep down they understood how she got to that point. I think they also realized how easy it is to slip over the edge. If Lauryn Hill, with all the fame and fortune in the world could be laid low by love and life, can't we all so easily fly apart?
I hear Anita Baker gave a similarly perplexing performance the next week. When I was growing up, I remember my parents talking about Chaka Khan's volatility. And it wasn't too long ago that Mary J. Blige was the one we all worried about and spoke about in hushed tones. Billie Holiday. Every black woman has an artist of her generation who seems to embody their hurt, their struggle. I guess now it's Lauryn's turn. As aggravated, as alienated as we may be with her now, I also know we are also waiting for her renewal and return. We'll be there, ready with open arms.