I recently rode in my boss’s car for the first time, which was kind of a big deal. Somehow when you get in someone’s car, you’re invited into a uniquely personal space, and you’re able to get a glimpse into that person’s life that you probably wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. A car has its own smell, its own little dashboard ornaments, its own leftover Burger King cups. It’s the antithesis of the office, really, a place where we spend hours on end with our coworkers and yet never really seem to get to know them.
So we get in, and on our drive to a conference a couple miles from my office, it turns out my boss is really into pop music. I’m talking about stuff on the radio right now, artists whose names I barely recognize and I presume only teenagers are fans of. Stuff that makes me feel old. He cranks up the volume and is literally dancing behind the wheel.
One of the first songs in his playlist, it turns out, is Andy Grammer’s Honey I’m Good. And there is my boss — a British guy deep into his 40s, whom I’ve never seen without a necktie, singing along delightfully, without missing a single word. Nah nah honey, I’m good, I could have another but I probably should not. And then a great epiphany hits me: Holy crap, Andy Grammer is blowing up.
I’m probably one of the last people to recognize this, I realize. In fairness, Andy Grammer has been steadily making his way to the top for a while now. I kinda got that impression when, about a year ago when my wife and I were slumped on the couch half-watching the Bachelorette one evening, he randomly appeared on the screen and started serenading a couple of the show contestants.
Why do I care about this? Well, the main thing is that Andy Grammer is a Baha’i, and his stardom now vaults him at least into the top two of famous Baha’is currently in showbiz, along with actor Rainn Wilson. We Baha’is are few in number, but have nonetheless had our fair share of noteworthy artists and celebrities. Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz virtuoso and a much more deeply spiritual and complicated man than most appreciate, is the most famous name, of course, but he was a bit before my time. I do, however, remember Alex Rocco (better known as “Moe Green” to fans of the Godfather movies) emphatically exclaiming “Thank you, Baha’u’llah!” on national TV as he accepted an Emmy in 1990. For a kid already feeling the double-awkwardness of both puberty and a weird ethnic and religious background, it was a powerful moment.
The reason I felt compelled to write this post, however, wasn’t simply to celebrate Andy Grammer’s success and growing fame. It’s that, from everything I can tell, he’s been able to pull off something that few pop musicians seem inclined even to attempt: make a living in a hyper-competitive artistic landscape, all while doing it his way.
I had the good fortune of meeting Andy several years ago, when I was a grad student in Cambridge, MA and he was passing through for a gig there. I suppose he was on his way to having a successful music career at that point, though nothing like the success he’s enjoying now. Many of my Baha’i friends, especially ones a few years younger, were already in love with his music, having heard him perform at various Baha’i venues. I knew his name but that was about it.
He was staying with a friend in Cambridge, and came to a meeting of Baha’is in the area while he was there. He brought his guitar and played for the small crowd. Instantly, the buzz around Andy Grammer made sense. His music had beauty, soul, and color. But it was also positive and real, with a sense of truth that a more disingenuous artist would find impossible to fake. One of the songs he sang that night, I remember, was a clever musical satire on all the ways we tend to size each other up by physical appearance, a sort of tongue-in-cheek rejection of the culture of “hot or not” and “perfect ten”. As it turns out, that song is called “Numbers”, a predictably upbeat tune but one that displays a subtle depth in its lyrics:
The value of personality seems to be dead / All walkin’ around with numbered halos on our heads, well
Threes want fours and fours want fives / Eights think nines have much better lives
And it’s a reasonable question to ask / I guess it’s all how ya doing the math
And I can sit and I can lie to you / And say this somethin’ that I don’t do
But I’m another number crunchin’ fool / Who’s calculators’ way overused
Over the next couple of days, as Andy hung around after his gig, a few of us got to know him a bit better in an everyday setting — a pickup basketball game here, a late night diner meal there. And what I gleaned from that experience is that Andy’s happy-go-lucky, mega-positive musical motif and high-voltage smile are far from a contrivance. Andy Grammer, both the musician and the guy, is in fact quite the opposite of the bubble-gum, built-from-the-ground-up-in-an-air-conditioned-studio pop stars that regularly accompany him on the top-40 airwaves. His music and personality stem from loss, introspection, and personal discovery, not naivety and blissful ignorance. That his two most popular songs are about staying positive in the face of adversity and resisting adultery, respectively, are not reflective of some calculated marketing strategy. And yet, if you weren’t paying close attention, that’s exactly what you’d assume.
I should be honest with myself: If I hadn’t been fortunate enough to meet Andy in person, I’d care, but probably only as much as I do about the arc of Alex Rocco’s career. I’m not a big consumer of pop music these days, as you’d probably guess. Since hip hop and R&B changed irreparably starting in the late 90s, I’ve been more or less a music orphan. I don’t own any of Andy Grammer’s music. But then again, I haven’t bought an album in years.
Nonetheless, I reserve the right to get excited about all Baha’i celebrities, both pseudo and legitimate. (Did I mention that that dude from South Carolina who survived 66 days at sea is a Baha’i? Seriously, look it up.) I really don’t know exactly how religious Andy Grammer is, of course. I don’t know how he’s grappling with his newfound fame, money, and legion of young female fans. It’s not my business, anyway. What I do know is that Andy’s not afraid to acknowledge his Baha’i identity and upbringing, a simple fact that gives me a great deal of pride. That should come as no surprise for an artist who’s thus far managed to avoid the sticky cynicism of his industry, while remaining true to his own style and sound.