-The Little Engine That Did-
Late night talk show host, Jimmy Kimmel, often describe those singing competition shows like The Voice and American Idol as karaoke singing contests. And while NBC’s America’s Got Talent is more than a singing competition show, in its eleventh season, it anointed twelve year old singing sensation, Grace Vanderwaal, the grand prize winner. If you have no interest in these types of talent competition, sometimes it is hard to watch people demonstrate an ability that you find questionable and maybe not talent worthy, you are not alone. Having to sit through any of American Idol’s singing challenges is often brutal after you listen through a parade of individuals who have deluded themselves into thinking that they can sing just as good as Celine Dion or the late Marvin Gaye. My ears are too sensitive to endure the shattered vocals of someone like a William Hung, one of the more notable bad singers who has graced the stage and yet found stardom in being a lousy singer. Ah, fame, thy mistress is cruel.
But for Grace Vanderwaal, her time was now as the stars were in perfect alignment as she sauntered out on stage, this tiny wisp of a young lady. She introduced herself in polite accord to the panel of judges and she began to sing. And as the camera panned to the faces of each judges, their faces registered a sense of astonishment. Here was this twelve year old girl, playing her ukulele, and belting out some very poignant lyrics to a song she had written. And as the audience members responded positively to her song, it threw her off momentarily. She quickly recovered and finished the song to uproarious applause.
America has just witness a musical prodigy. Judge Howie Mandel was the first to speak and he began to heap praise on this twelve year old phenom. And after about a couple of minutes of talking with her about her talent, he hit this button that automatically moved her forward through the competition. Simon Cowell, judge and creator of the show, commented that he wished he was able to hit the button first that gave Grace the opportunity to move forward. And you can understand the sentiment as she had just demonstrated the power in the lyrics to her first song, I Don’t Know Your Name, and this sense of maturity that came within this twelve year old body. Adding to all of this was her vocal range and the haunting sense that you’ve heard it before from someone much older.
What Grace had demonstrated was pure raw talent on this night. There was no mixing, there was no retake, there was just this purity of an untrained voice, a musician who had just learned how to play the ukulele a year ago, an innocence to the surreal and contentious world that is the music industry.
And as she has enjoyed the accolades from people from within the music industry and enjoyed the popularity from her new fan base and absorbed the social media whirlpool, how will that raw and unfiltered talent be channeled into something more mainstream? With winning comes capitalization of the artist. Time is essential and she has come out with her debut album. It perhaps was easy for her to do as all of the songs she had performed on America’s Got Talent were her original compositions.
As I listened to these songs, you hear what the studio performance has done for her voice and her instrumentation. I Don’t Know My Name, Beautiful Thing, Clay, Light the Sky and an all together new one, Gossip Girl, is the collection. Each song seems as if they are an anthem of empowerment for little girls, teenage girls and even adult women. So let’s go through each one and examine them closely.
I Don’t Know My Name was her debut song that started the ball rolling. On America’s Got Talent, she sang with an uptempo rhythm in it’s rawest of forms. The studio version is a bit slower and the acoustics with her voice has been brought out where you can now hear every word that she says. She does keep the intent of the song intact in the same manner as the first time she performed it however, as the song gets closer to the end, we here a cello come in to give it some more depth and as it continues, a full orchestra sound comes in that builds up to a crescendo which gives it a more fuller sound. The only thing I found not to my liking is the abrupt end with the ukulele chord. It needed to linger just a bit and it seemed like it was cut off too soon.
Beautiful Thing, a song she wrote about her relationship with her sister, is a ballad with a solo piano accompaniment to her voice. It’s one of those songs that you could listen to over and over again for a long time and not get easily bored with it. You don;t know if this song was always meant to be accompanied with a piano because she performed it on ukulele. I found this to be a favorite selection. I predict that this song will be played at a lot of weddings and during a pivotal scene on Grey’s Anatomy.
Clay is a powerful song about bullying. In the video below, you are grateful for adding the lyrics because some of the words were hard to understand until you read them. This is a string and piano composition performed effectively and not overpowering as the lyrics drive this piece. More teens should listen to this song and not feel the pressure that they endure from peer pressure and bullying.
Light The Sky reminds me of a song that came out of the folk song era during the 60’s. It starts off slow for a few measures then it picks up the tempo mainly performed on the ukulele with a little orchestration and percussion. It’s one of those songs where you don’t care who is around you while you , as the lyrics say, dance like no one is around. Ah, now I remember who this song reminds me of, Donovan. He is a Scottish singer who blended folk, jazz, pop, psychedelia, and world music into his own unique sound. Grace has embraced the folk side of her talent for a new generation.
Gossip Girl is a song that wasn’t performed on America’s Got Talent. This song is new to her fans. This song is a definite pop ballad in it’s arrangement with background vocals and uptempo beats. It will eventually make its way up the music charts and expand Grace’s repertoire of styles.
It will be interesting to see how Grace develops her music and her lyrics as she gets older. Will they be more weighty, more introspective with subtle nuances, more relevant, who knows? What I do know is that she does have a sound, her own unique voice that I have dubbed the VanderWaal Sound. Some people would say that an old soul inhabits her body. Maybe, maybe not. How could a person so young write such powerful lyrics with such an understanding? I wish you well young Padawan and may the force be with you.