Taylor By Decision
We went out to a sports bar last night to catch the Taylor-Hopkins rematch, whose late rounds were just as tense and dramatic as you've come to expect from Hopkins. It'll be a shame to lose him, though he really should retire — he's 40 years old, which is too old to keep getting punched in the head — since he's one of few boxers working who's more interested in chopping his opponent down like a tree than in crushing him with one blow. He also has a great backstory, and his quips are press gold. If you aren't at least somewhat charmed by his bio's list of likes and dislikes ("Westerns, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, Dirty Harry, Roman gladiator movies, Hercules movies, science fiction"), especially in light of what he wears into the ring, then you are probably past charming.
What all this has to do with music: as you know, somebody's gotta sing the national anthem before a boxing match. As you may also know, I really like to spend a lot of time thinking about national anthems. I got Catholic blood: rituals reel me in faster than a frog's tongue catches flies. Now, I used to think a whole lot about R Kelly, though I didn't line up at the "Trapped In the Closet" critical feeding trough this year; not that it isn't bizarre and fantastic and laudably ambitious, but I think I drank too hard at the You Saved Me party, and I needed a rest.
My rest ended when R Kelly got into the ring last night. Jermain Taylor was on one side of him, and Bernard Hopkins was still in his executioner's hood on the other. Kelly brought with him a couple of dancers — and not tired-ass bikini-wearing bump-n-grind girls, either. He brought in a couple of steppers, dressed to the nines, and proceeded to deliver the most compelling, exhilarating version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" I have ever heard.
The beat, naturally, was a steppers' groove: straight, easy 4/4 with a soft, lilting flow to it, like particularly elegant disco. The chords and the melody — well, we all know how the song goes. But you should live so long as to see someone sing it like this. Kelly dove lightly and happily into the song as though it really meant something: a huge smile on his face, addressing the audience and acknowledging by gesture and expression the infectious grace of the couple as they stepped gracefully around the ring, bowing and dipping, engaging the song the way all great dancing does — not just by moving in response, but by moving in accord. The delivery wasn't portentious or weighty; it was jubilant, high, breezy, and free. Because we sing this song, or we claim to, by way of celebrating our freedom; its lyrics may be awful (they are) and its melody may be cribbed from an old English drinking song, but as an anthem it takes on cultural weight. That weight sags when it's delivered with ecclesiastical reverence; too little reverence and you wind up with those awful melisma-drenched versions that're the norm at baseball games now. What R Kelly did was to split the difference by taking it personally, singing the song as though he'd really taken it home with him and lived with it for a while, testing out its notes to see how he related to them and how they, over time and distance, related to him. And as he does when he's at his best, he did so in a way that seemed almost weightless. His artistry continues to amaze me.
So does Hopkins, even though he got beat, but I talk about that kind of stuff elsewhere. It's when connections get made between one world and another that I get excited, and last night, before any of the action even started, I got goosebumps. At a sports bar in Durham. While eating nachos. It's a good life.
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