It doesn't get much more Americana than writing for a national Sunday newspaper magazine: Amanda Brown covers this latest season of NBC's The Voice from the insider's angle Amanda's Voice Blog for Parade Magazine, where. Insider is an understatement. She was the breakout star of the show. But this is about the music, not the writing and the making of what I'll call New Americana.
I was met on the street by Amanda Brown -- W. 3rd street, just outside of The Village Underground, a few steps from "The Cage" -- NYC's iconic basketball court. In an instant graceful twist, she changed the axis from "city scene" to "country inn," stepping one foot out and gesturing me forward with a wave that led back to a smile, intercepting my search for the right door.
We'd never met, but in New York City, the hesitation of lostness is a giveaway. To that, the native New Yorker (she is that) is quick to approach you with a sharp, "Where ya trying to go?" That's New York for, "Why, you look lost. May I help you?" Amanda offered a kinder arrest and a welcome surprise to my 12+ years in NYC.
We look for a comfortable place to sit. The problem is that there are too many comfortable places in this tight clutter of Victorian chairs and sofas. If you know (or remember) anything of nightlife, then you know the most awful awakening in that world can be the sight of fully lit club. But there's no gum on the velvet here.
Where to start an interview? With the craft, of course, and maybe a couple of background questions. But they don't reveal an easy place to categorize Amanda. My quick takeaway was only that Amanda Brown sings Amanda Brown. Having floored millions with a giant stage presence backed by real notes, it's not normal to see an artist go this far without an easy labeling of what she does. As she progressed through The Voice, occupying her own space fit easily with a fast reputation as a risk-taker. She was introduced over and over as such.
She didn't make the finals, to the shock of the nation (and Rolling Stone as they declared "a star is born"), but I'll leave that version of success behind in favor of another. The point that jumped out at me after the first few minutes was this concept of Amanda as a risk-taker. In this, I discovered a new take on "Americana." When America is admired, we're admired first as a population of risk-takers.
She could have opted away from the producers' suggestion that she sing Adele's "Someone Like You," but agreed to sing it "only if I could alter the version to make it more comfortable for me to tell the story."
This was a song that had Billboard nearly stumped trying to remember the last time a piano-only ballad topped the Hot 100. The vicious number of plays less than a year prior to Amanda's performance means that this song was not just another one of the hits you know. Every second of that song would be stitched into the world's immediate pop memory by the time Amanda took the stage with it; so, raging judgment looms on a couple of big fronts. You can mess up a good song by a beloved new icon, Adele, or be rejected out-of-hand by making changes to the the version the world just learned. That's a two-blow gauntlet with a knock-out on either side. Even doing OK with the song means we would "get it" and give credit, and then call it great for the bowling alley talent show -- not something worthy of a new talent on a world stage.
You've got to put your own identity on a song like that and make us notice. In this case, that's something like scribbling "this is mine" on the side of the Empire State Building and meaning it.
There's a lot to say about artists who would take on this kind of Apollo-styled risk. I refer to Harlem's Showtime At The Apollo, where singers must test their mettle not with just popular songs, but ones to which the audience has visceral attachment. It's not just the words and music they know, but also the meaning of the slightest aspirations. (If you were to sing "Butterflies," for example, don't even try to sing the "Michael" word at 1:45. You'll have to bring your own word.) Similarly, there's nowhere to hide in Adele's "Someone Like You."
But Amanda steps up, sings a different version of "Someone Like You," and walks a giant step onto the American stage.
On the other side of this Apollo metaphor are artists who wouldn't dare take risks head-on, often calling them clichés that are "beneath" the originality of their own art. CS Lewis opens minds on this point: "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."
Here is where Amanda goes to work: with a simple approach that neither stalks risk nor runs from it. She's just singing. Thus, the risk has nothing to do with choosing "this song" in light of what it can do to ruin a particular "big break" on The Voice. That would shift the focus away from just doing the art. "They say it's risk-taking, " she notes, "but for me, it doesn't even get that far. It would be a lie to sing what people told me was a 'sure thing' if it's just wasn't me."
This is an attitude that began in high school when she decided to pursue music and not make room for any other option. This is what risk looks like, especially considering that she doesn't have the musical background you may expect of a modern singer. "My family listened to music when I was growing up. It was just mostly gospel music. I had one Mariah Carey cassette tape when I was 6, that I listened to religiously."
Later, it would be Radiohead to make a "huge impression."
So, we have a fast musical mind that, in a twist on brownian motion, wends its way through many new influences, just loving music, with no thought of what she's "supposed" to sing. "There are so many nights in the studio when all I can do is lean back and be almost giddy," she says. "We can stay up all night just talking music." It's easy to imagine her having a buzzing conversation, trading thoughts with Stevie Wonder, as she did in preparation for a show at his House of Toys benefit. Her vernacular in performance or conversation is her own and not easily typecast.
Putting this all together resulted in jaws dropping across the country and among the roughest critics as they noted the mix of simple joy of music with grit and rock to deliver on a true piece of modern Americana: "Dream On" by Aerosmith.
Gritty joy. Sort of like a smiley face, but substituting that simple curved smile with a rebel yell and fist pump... if it weren't just a face. That's what Americans love and what the world loves about America in its people, politics apart. It's also Americana: the stuff that becomes part of the country's fabric.
So, it's fitting that we don't yet have a box for Amanda. As far as what I'm proposing here, "Americana" as a genre itself isn't even an option for boxing her in. On that point, I like Bonnie Raitt's definition: "Who cares what kind of music it is? It's great music."
The "Youtube Test" is the most revealing, where we all know the real action is in the comments. There, we get unfiltered opinion, with the courage that only comes with internet anonymity or with Mr. T at your back. In a typical youtube scenario, it only takes a few comments before somebody morphs any odd topic into a race war, grammar and usage beat-down or some other set of slurs. But, in this, the rawest of judgmental arenas, Amanda has fans of all cultures, acting like rabidly civilized... fans. I looked for controversy and couldn't find it.
So, where's Americana in all of this? Syrupy patriotism aside, opportunity remains the resilient definition of "America" -- the ideal that we live up to. And Americana is the expression of that ideal: the working out of opportunity into a stain-resistant "fabric" of the country. When I think of Amanda Brown in this light, it isn't about a television show, but about presence that embodies the evolving dimensions of America and Americana. While our textbook definition of Americana doesn't change quickly, it does begin to look like a caricature next to the asymmetric realities that define it on the ground and in our neighborhoods.
So we have a singer who comes from out of the blue to land in the middle of the country, gaining ground in the ill-named "fly-over" states as well as on the coasts and beyond. We have a risk-taker who is determined to push the whole stack of chips on just being herself. I could go on, but you get it. If she keeps the pace, she'll write new policy, policy as defined by the way we live and move in this country. Whitney was in that space for a moment. I personally think it's a vacuum, waiting for a voice the whole country can sing with -- a vacuum that resists people being anointed to fill it, but we can't say she's not on the road.
Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher notes the weight of that: "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws."
As of this writing, Amanda is in the studio, working on her debut release and looking forward to performing some of her new music live. Next up: Ben Vereen Gala - May 20, Meeker Days Festival - June 22