The other day, I was watching the Chipotle ad that aired during the Grammys. You remember—the ad in which Willie Nelson sings a verse of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” The farmer is packing pigs and cattle into cages and shipping them off to factories. Then, he has a change of heart and converts his farm to free-range animal happiness land.
I had heard some snippets of “The Scientist” cover, and I had seen my friends post links to the ad and the song on Facebook. Articles discussing the ad called the performance “genius” and said that it overshadowed any of the performances on Grammy night.
While I don’t doubt that the Grammy performances of our manufactured cadre of so-called artists didn’t quite pass muster, I feel hesitant to call Willie’s performance “genius.” That strong and confident voice has grown wobbly and old, raspy and cumbersome. I have to preface this by saying that I adore Willie Nelson. I think that Stardust was one of the first records (yes, those big black grooved things that look like floppy dinner plates) that my parents ever bought me.
Willie’s songs now live on my iPhone instead of on those grooved dinner plates. I have Willie from the studio, Willie live, Willie and Waylon and pretty much almost anything that he recorded, even his first recording of “The Night Life” and his cover of “Midnight Rider.” I love the sound of that twangy yet buttery guitar of his, but most of all, I love his voice. I think he’s such a smart singer, and I love his sense of timing.
Willie is one of those few singers who presents a unique voice with a true sense of musical authority. Sure, it’s nasal, and the vowels haven’t lost their Texas drawl. But he’s like country’s answer to Dean Martin. He knows what to do with what he’s got. He’s still doing his best with what he’s got, but the voice is a shadow of what it used to be. I feel glum when I think of that inevitable day, closer all the time, when that voice will only exist on iPhones and iPods because its maker has been silenced.
When all of these artists with old wobbly voices comes out with a record, Americans proclaim it “genius.” Some of them sound great, like Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. She could still give a lot of today’s female country singers an education on how to actually sing a country song. Others sound, well, bad. Levon Helm’s last albums were billed as the height of artistry, even though his voice sounded dreadful (no fault of his—the man had throat cancer). Listening to Bob Dylan these days is about as pleasant as listening to a broken circular saw (sorry to all of you fans out there who worship the man and who would bronze his feces if you could).
Willie’s “The Scientist” is a great idea. I like the idea of him covering the song more than I like the actual cover. I felt the same when Johnny Cash covered “Hurt.” However, people who proclaim these late recordings to be the height of these artists’ achievements obviously never listened to them during their heyday. I don’t want to hear artists that I have loved since my childhood called “genius” by people who never loved these voices when they were remarkable and who only love them now because it’s part of the zeitgeist.
How many people who actually listen to “The Scientist” download the song because are moved by the performance and not because downloading it increases their perception of their musical cred? I resent the people who’ve arrived at the party late and who are trying to pass themselves off as always having been fans, maybe because they love Willie’s cannabis connections more than they care about his artistry. I loved Willie when he was on 8-track. I guess I’m feeling territorial.
Personally, I think Willie should have sung “The Scientist” about two steps lower. He would have sounded less strained and would have had better command of the voice that he has left. However, just because I don’t love “The Scientist” doesn’t make me any less of a Willie Nelson fan. I’m just admitting to myself—sadly—that his powers are waning, although I’m sure he’s still more than capable of moments of genius.
We’re all getting older, and our lives aren’t a constant crescendo. We may not get to end life at the top of our powers. It doesn’t diminish the things that we accomplished if we can’t communicate our genius as well as we used to because our physical facilities are fading. While no one piece of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings strikes me as genius (although I do love “The Man Comes Around”), I think the project as a whole is great, and I understand his desire to record as much as possible before he passed on. But if you’re getting to the Johnny Cash party late, then don’t slobber on about his genius as though you’ve been there the whole time. Instead, shut up and learn about him. Genius takes a while to grasp.