Friday, July 6, 2018

NBC Fourth of July Celebration (NBC-TV, aired July 4, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Given that Cox Cable’s horrible change to “all-digital” signals has made it impossible for me to record shows for later viewing (I could do that, but only in “the cloud” and only by paying Cox yet more money on an already astronomical bill) about all I can do with the conflicting Fourth of July programs is to do what I did both last year and this — watch the first hour and a half of NBC’s show, which includes all the musical performers, then just before they begin their display of fireworks over the New York sky switch to the PBS A Capitol Fourth and watch their entire show, including the fireworks over the Washington, D.C. sky. The NBC telecast was clearly aimed at a younger demographic than the PBS one (no surprise there!) and featured Kelly Clarkson holding forth at a big venue in New York City, Blake Shelton from the Grand Old Opry stage in Nashville, a rock band I’d never heard of called American Authors from a rooftop concert in New York City (I inevitably joked, “Do they think that if they play on a rooftop people will think they’re the next Beatles?” — and later, when a banjo featured prominently in their sound, “Do they think that if they have a banjo people will think they’re the next Mumford and Sons?”), Keith Urban (who sounded even less “country” than Blake Shelton did; with his long dirty-blond hair he both looked and sounded like he was trying to take over Tom Petty’s market slot now that the original is dead) from a venue in Clarkston, Michigan (and no, I’d never heard of it before either!), Ricky Martin from Las Vegas, and a show-closer from that rooftop with Hamilton cast member Brandon Victor Dixon and the Harlem Gospel Choir (they were billed in the opening as the “World-Famous Harlem Gospel Choir,” which led Charles and I to the same kinds of jokes we’d made about the “World-Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra,” until we realized that in this case “World-Famous” was simply a hyped designation and not part of the Harlem Gospel Choir’s actual name).

The music was generally appealing but not great; it began with arguably the greatest song of the night, Kelly Clarkson’s Nietzschean anthem “Stronger” (as in “What doesn’t kill you makes you … ”), which came out a few years ago and seemed to have a gutsiness missing in most pop music these days. Then the show cut to Blake Shelton (his ability to get the affections of far more charismatic, talented and sexy women than he — first Miranda Lambert and now Gwen Stefani — never ceases to amaze me) and his song “Honey Bee,” a nice novelty but also one whose rather sexist attitude towards male-female relationships makes me think that’s why Miranda left him. Next up was American Authors with a song called “The Best Day of My Life” that if they’d used a synthesizer would have sounded like 1980’s pop-rock — in a way it came off as The Knack redux, which wasn’t a bad thing except that, like The Knack, it meant the song was pure ear candy, a pleasant set of sounds that didn’t really compel or move. After that they showed Keith Urban with one of his neo-Tom Petty numbers called “Never Coming Down,” and then they trotted out Ricky Martin for his signature hit “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” It’s still a fun song, and though Ricky Martin is stouter than he was in his prime, his voice is more gravelly and he doesn’t move as well, that didn’t matter much because he was surrounded by an excellent chorus line in a quite spectacular Vegas production that actually jump-started this old song into some life.

The next song was a nondescript piece by Blake Shelton called “Gonna,” and then it was back to the New York City rooftop for American Authors and a song called “Deep Water,” considerably better than “The Best Day of My Life” largely because they added some Black background singers (perhaps members of the Harlem Gospel Choir waiting to perform “America, the Beautiful” later in the show?) and achieved a beautiful church-rooted feel that helped their song rank with Clarkson’s quite different “Stronger” as the best music of the night. Just about anything would have seemed like an anticlimax, and in fact the show cut back to Clarkston, Michigan for Keith Urban doing a song called “Going Home” that was sort of a duet with Julia Michaels. I say “sort of a duet” because Michaels sang with Urban on his record of it, so his live audiences would expect to hear her, but since she’s apparently too big a star actually to tour with her (though I’ll have to take that on faith since I’ve never heard of her before) Urban sang his part live but hers came via a recorded voice and a film clip shown above the stage. Then Clarkson — whom I admire not only for the strength of her voice and the gutsiness of her songs but her willingness, like Adele, to appear as a full-figured woman instead of starving herself to look like a concentration-camp survivor — sang a song I originally thought I heard as “Hate” (which I can imagine as a song title, especially about a breakup) but actually turned out to be “Heat.” The show then cut back to Las Vegas for Ricky Martin doing his other big hit, “Shake Your Bon Bon,” which got cut off early as the technical people at NBC faded it out during the coda to his song to hurry up and get the commercials in. After that it was back to Nashville for Blake Shelton to sing a song reflecting someone else’s sexism — Jerry Reed’s “She Got the Gold Mine (I Got the Shaft)” — an odd song choice for someone who’s recently been through a highly publicized divorce.

That wrapped up the musical portions of the special, though there were also some supposedly “inspirational” segments in which various ordinary people (including the Italian-born inventor of the Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwich) talked about what America meant to them — if President Trump was watching he probably would have regarded these segments as more examples of the “fake news media”’s bias against him, since they emphasized how immigrants have built this country and made positive contributions to America. A decade ago these would have been relatively uncontroversial sentiments for a Fourth of July TV special, but in the modern era in which a regime fundamentally opposed to this vision of America reigns supreme and high-handedly separates children from their parents and threatens to reunite the families only if they self-deport, run by a President who wants his Homeland Security Secretary to tell prospective immigrants, “We’re closed,” the idea that immigrants — especially immigrants of color — are actually good for this country and don’t constitute, as this President has unforgettably called them, an “infestation” (the sort of language that’s usually the first step towards demonizing a minority group so the majority can be built up to hate them — the final step in that process is all too often a genocide), is a classic example of what George Orwell called oldthink, the sort of lingering trace of humanity the current rulers are trying to eliminate from the population once and for all. Aside from the traces of an older, more humanistic attitude towards immigrants as helping rather than hurting America, the NBC Fourth of July special (the three-fourths of it I saw, anyway) was an engaging series of contemporary music performances, none of it downright annoying (at least partly because they blessedly avoided contaminating their program with any rappers, thank goodness; is there anyone out there, aside from the shrinking number of guilt-ridden white liberals with self-hatred complexes, who actually likes Kendrick Lamar?) but only two of which, Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” and American Authors’ “Deep Water,” even approached greatness.