Tuesday night at the YouTube Theater in Inglewood, CA, R&B star HER absolutely showed out on the first night of ‘Back Of My Mind’ tour for her debut album of the same name<. You would think, given the multi-instrumentalist’s status as an awards show fixture, that this wouldn’t be a surprise. But somehow, even though I knew going in what kind of a performer she is, I was still unprepared for just how much I’d catch myself getting into the performance.
Maybe there’s something to not letting small glimpses feel like the big picture. Although we’ve all “seen” HER going for broke in at least a dozen televised broadcasts over the past three years, the constraints of a single song performance just don’t do her justice. Her vocal range will blow you away. Her mastery of the stage is truly astonishing. The way she oozes charisma and easygoing NorCal charm when she interacts with the audience is inspiring. Even her laid-back tour uniform — an oversized silk shirt and Nikes — seems aimed at putting the star in her element, like we’re all just hanging out in her living room (her 6,000-plus capacity living room) enjoying a jam session.
And jam she does. In addition to playing both her established hits like “Damage” and “Focus,” she displays a staggering wealth of musical appreciation. In the course of her 90-minute set, she reeled off a medley of rock hits including Joan Jett’s, “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” played portions of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On suite, and delivered thrilling renditions of Ed Sheeran’s “Make It Rain” and Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” (the latter of which she performed with the man himself at the recent Grammys ceremony). “Virtuoso” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word. But in recalling that Grammy’s ceremony, HER’s performance highlighted something that feels like a growing problem within the music industry.
In the days since the 64th annual Grammy Awards last Sunday, there has been a lot of cynical derisive chatter online about so-called “Grammy-core.” You probably know that snobby music writer appellative used to deride a certain kind of prestigious and popular musician. It suggests that some artists — perhaps the ones favored by the “Grammys audience,” whatever that is — aren’t cool or edgy or gritty enough just because your mom likes them or something.
The thing about that line of thinking is that, aside from being completely juvenile in origin (seriously, most of you ARE the uncool parents, so pipe down), it is totally disrespectful of those artists who actually care about the art. Maybe they’re popular and respected by their peers because they care. Because they put in the work. Because they’re professional and polished and practiced (an underrated, too often overlooked quality) or because they had the dedication to toil quietly behind the scenes before taking the hard-won spotlight they worked so hard to deserve.
The thing about a career artist like HER is that she’s not some fly-by-night, devil-may-care newcomer — and that’s a good thing, not a bad one. Maybe that’s not rebellious enough for some folks but I would contend that this makes her more of a rebel than any number of viral success stories who affect a cavalier air of indifference toward their art and careers. Personally, I never trust an artist who works harder to convince their audience that they don’t care how they’re perceived… Usually, they care the most, but never enough to actually put in the work.
HER does. She loves music. And, for what it’s worth, people actually love her back. Throughout the show, the diverse audience didn’t just sing along, they straight-up belted just about every song. HER’s genuine appreciation for music was reflected in the crowd around her. It was reflected in the way she was happy to cede the spotlight to her 17-year-old backup singer during her Daniel Caesar duet “Best Part,” beaming like a proud auntie. It was reflected in how she acknowledged her Grammys success with a lighthearted flex but insisted — sincerely — that she loved performing for the people at the YouTube Theater more.
That sincerity, I think, isn’t just what makes her an awesome performer… It makes her cool, much cooler than the people who performatively slag off anything too popular or sincere. She’s comfortable in herself, in her talent, in her skill, and in the relationship between artists and their audience. She’s comfortable enough that she doesn’t feel compelled to do anything more than play for the love of playing, sing for the love of singing, and humbly accept the accolades and adoration that come her way as a result. HER isn’t just one of the best performers in music today, she’s one of the coolest, and she deserves to be acknowledged as such.