Luis López Levi NAJ 2020) is a former arts reporter, avid podcast listener, vinyl enthusiast, and lover of folk music. He never turns down free chips and guacamole.
Illustration by Chanina Katz
In a video published on March 31, rapper Residente and his touring band recorded a from-home version of his hit song “Latinoamérica,” from his Calle 13 days. The song, an anthem for Latin American unity and resilience in the face of all manner of adversities, is already a crowd pleaser. But it takes on a different meaning when it’s performed by Residente and his nine musicians, each of them sequestered in their own homes.
The first thing I thought of when I saw this performance was Playing for Change, an ongoing music project that is most famous for its “Song Around The World” series. In it, producers record musicians from dozens of different countries and mix them together in a single track, often producing well-known songs such as Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” or Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Each of these songs are meant to celebrate what musicians can accomplish together while thousands of miles away from each other.
Here, however, the distance is not the point to make, but the obstacle to overcome. Residente’s video performance inevitably has a homemade feeling: awkward backlighting, different audio room tones, a mic boom in the way of the shot, the occasional unflattering angle from below. And the video can’t avoid certain hierarchies – Residente himself is shot in beautiful high definition, while some of his musicians are at the mercy of their own spotty WiFi and poor living room lighting. But that’s the reality which this performance navigates: a world of artists making something together with whatever they have on-hand.
The 2020 quarantine has artists, performers, and instructors experimenting with ways to reach their audiences and continue to pursue their practices online. Needless to say, everyone has had to adjust, from dance and pilates instructors finding the right spot in their living rooms for class, to late night talk shows doing their best to remain funny without the help of a live audience. Larger cultural institutions such as the Met Opera and the Bolshoi Theatre are offering free streaming of some of their classic ballets and operas, while DJ collectives are spinning on social media platforms such as Instagram or Twitch, often sharing their Venmo accounts and asking for donations at a time when no money can be made from live performances.
The 2020 quarantine has artists experimenting with ways to reach their audiences and continue to pursue their practices online.
But what I find most fascinating about these efforts, particularly those by musicians, is the way that this new video format creates a new aesthetic for artists to explore. Some content creators, notably video essayists and podcasters, are so used to creating from home that they’ve had little to no need to change their way of working. Writers have taken to Zoom and organized readings and panels for online audiences. But a key thing musicians have against them is internet lag. It’s simply impossible, or at least ridiculously difficult, for two or more musicians to perform together live and in sync through the internet. So recording and mixing in post is elemental to a good final product.
Much has been said about Gal Gadot’s now infamous celeb-relay version, uploaded to Instagram, of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” In his piece about this cover, New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica didn’t mince his words, calling it a “clusterclump of hyperfamous people with five seconds’ too much time on their hands,” as well as “proof that even if no one meets up in person, horribleness can spread.” And plenty of reasons exist to criticize this particularly unwelcome rendition of “Imagine,” from the lyrics that aren’t as uplifting as those involved might think, to the fact that many of the celebrities involved preached the #StayHome gospel while luxuriating in the comforts of upper class living.
But an equally important reason why this doesn’t work is, simply, that it’s poorly done. While there are some professional singers who immediately stand out as the only ones there who can actually carry a tune, most celebrities involved picked up the song on whatever key they felt most comfortable with and in a slightly different tempo. When Zoë Kravitz sings “and no religion too,” it feels like she couldn’t have known that Natalie Portman was singing “nothing to kill or die for” before her. There is no harmony, and not only in the musical sense. There is no honest attempt to convey unity.
Which is why it’s so rewarding when musicians manage to communicate that unity, particularly when separated from each other. Whether performing onstage, recording in a studio, or working at a distance, the sign of good musicianship has always been to aspire towards harmony in every sense. Musicians tune, they sync up, they listen to each other, and they allow each other to shine, knowing they will get their turn in time. And if this can’t happen in the same room, they do what they can to make it work. They not only overcome the limitations, but they have fun with them as well. For The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon and the Roots did a pretty uplifting cover of “Stuck in the Middle with You,” complete with slightly awkward head bobbing and hand clapping. James Corden invited Dua Lipa to perform “Don’t Start Now” with her band, as well as her backup dancers doing their choreography from their living rooms, in his Late Late Show segment #HomeFest. There are no stage lights, no imposing presences, no hierarchy. It feels like everyone on a Zoom call just started singing and dancing out of the blue, and they have so much fun with it that it's easy to get over the initial clunkiness and applaud the effort to keep the show going.
And then, of course, there’s the other option: to perform music on one’s own, or with whoever else happens to be at home. Country musicians Margo Price and Jeremy Ivey recorded the first ever NPR Tiny Desk concert not from the tiny desk itself, resulting in a heartwarming, stripped down folk guitar session. And my personal favorite musical event to come out of this is jazz musician Jacob Collier’s absolute tear-jerker cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as part of Stream Aid 2020. In efforts like these, the connections aren’t necessarily with other musicians but with their listeners, showing that even in times of great financial uncertainty, they still need to fulfill their artistic role, and still strive to share their talents and their words of healing. f