Macy Gray channels her inner Billie Holiday inside The Bear’s Den (2014)


I finally got around to reading New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s lambasted profile of Shonda Rhimes and found it to be exactly what everyone said it was: An ill-advised attempt at praising Ms. Rhimes’s small screen empire through the use of tongue-in-cheek stereotypes guaranteed to offend not only black women but also any women for whom labeling has caused lifelong irritation.

You would assume that someone with Stanley’s imposing past and present within the traditionally male-dominated journalistic community would be more sensitive to issues surrounding female empowerment in the workplace, but her thoughts read more like someone resorting to the same old ad hominem song when legitimate criticisms are either feeble or nonexistent altogether.

She writes that Rhimes’s autobiography should be titled “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman,” throws actress Viola Davis a back-handed compliment by noting that she is sexy “in a slightly menacing way,” and, to top it all off, showers Rhimes with praise for allegedly inserting her characters in a world where race doesn’t matter only to have just constructed an entire 1,500-word feature around the opposite point-of-view.

Only in The New York Times could such verbal grandstanding be encouraged, because you have a newsroom full of Ivy League-educated writers out to show the world how much they love the sound of their own voice. In an era of talking-head television where everyone professes to be an expert, this kind of uppity approach often sneaks by unnoticed due to the skill of the critic, but, as much as ego can assist a writer in finally leaving the kids’ table, it can also alienate them from readers if too much leeway is given.

If Stanley’s intent all along was to honor Rhimes for her Thursday night dominance, she should have done so without jazzing up her one-dimensional premise with remarks that could easily be taken to suggest something more contemptuous than intended.

I’ve seen enough of both “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder” to ascertain that Rhimes’s female protagonists defy the distinction of being “angry black women.” They deserve more than that, plain and simple. The way in which Kerry Washington and the aforementioned Davis inhabit their characters each week is a source of some of the most electrifying moments we’re currently experiencing on television, because each peels back the layers of emotional freefall with every ounce of energy they can muster.

Nothing about either performance leads me to believe that Rhimes is somehow unleashing an agenda predicated on making the image of the “angry black woman” enviable, and I’d like to think that our status as a constantly evolving society has rendered such baloney intolerable.

You may be wondering why I’ve addressed a seemingly unrelated controversy within the confines of a music column, but I just couldn’t ignore it.

As I sat inside The Bear’s Den at Seneca Niagara Casino watching Macy Gray remind everyone why she became an early 2000s smash, I began to wonder why someone couldn’t do for her what Rhimes has accomplished for Washington and Davis. Her voice is so resilient and dripping with an infinite Billie Holiday-esque sadness that she deserves to be given a platform on which she can be remembered for being the talent that she is.

Industry executives are so concerned with marketability that they often lose sight of the incandescent beauty lying right under their nose, which is exactly what I believe happened in Gray’s case. She’s a sultry throwback to an era of smoke-enveloped jazz clubs and raspy seductiveness said to be incompatible with the current musical climate, but her voice is too piquant and her attitude too rife with positivity to be blackballed into obscurity.

The only reason Gray fell out of mainstream favor in the years after “I Try” took the charts by storm is that she let supposed pop know-it-alls dictate her direction instead of demanding that her extraordinary voice lead the way. If she had focused more intently on seeking out material worthy of her gifts, we’d be talking about an entirely different narrative, indeed.

Despite a crowd of people who were either unsure of how to dance or too willing to let loose as if they had been under house arrest for weeks, Gray’s performance was stellar in all phases. Her band was tight, she was in good spirits, and the arrangements straddled the line between jazz and rhythm and blues in a way that never strained credibility.

“Bang Bang” gripped with its noir-era air of mystery which grew stronger with every breath, while “Stoned” and “Let You Win” acted as conduits for Gray’s intrinsic ability to stir the soul without pummeling the audience over the head with her message. She simply lets the metaphorical makeup of her lyrics speak for itself and entrusts that the listener will use their gray matter to fill in the rest, which is often easier said than done.

Other highlights of her comeback set included a funky spin on Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” a rapturously received “Beauty in the World,” and a reworking of biggest hit that caused everyone’s inner chanteuse to be released in unison. I’ll be the first to admit that “I Try” has never been my favorite track of hers, but being so far removed its round-the-clock radio days served it well in the live setting.

As I write this, reports are coming out that Gray is slated to appear in an upcoming episode of Oprah’s “Where Are They Now?” series dedicated to celebrities whose time in the limelight came to a premature halt. I understand her inclusion in the report from an outsider’s perspective, but, coming from someone who was at the casino and can grasp how stardom often has more to do with politics than talent, I know that the Grammy-winning singer never left.



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