The Silent, Stickless Award Show Protest

This is a true story, one I would normally have saved for a Friday but it works too well not to use right now. In the 7th grade, I joined the middle school band. I wasn’t anything special but I could hold my own, and when we went to pick our classes for high school, I decided to stick with it. My freshman year was uneventful and I must have gotten a pretty good grade because I decided to re-up as a sophomore. It didn’t go well, though. Despite my best efforts, when report cards came out in late November or early December, I was given a C — which isn’t a good grade at all, and certainly not something you want to see from one of your “easier” classes. I also had no idea why. I went to all the classes and pull-out lessons, practiced (somewhat) at home, learned all the music, etc. At no point during the marking period had I received anything other than positive feedback.

My mom decided to investigate on her own, asking my guidance counselor what happened, but the guidance counselor had no idea either. The two of them went to speak with band director — coincidentally, and embarrassingly, during my class — and the conversation didn’t go well. As my mom would later tell me, when she asked the band director about my grade, he told her I hadn’t been practicing. And, he had evidence. My embouchure wasn’t great and had I been practicing, it would have shown improvement — but it didn’t.

If you don’t know what the word “embouchure” means, don’t worry, you’re not alone — my mom didn’t either. She asked the band director and he replied by grabbing himself by the mouth and squeezing lightly, saying “it’s how he holds his mouth when he plays his instrument.” Makes sense, in most cases, but my mom was still at a loss. Half in awe and half confused, she looked at him and said, “but my son plays the drums.”

That was my last day in the high school band.

The real takeaway from the story is that teachers should probably know who their students are (and, in the interest of self-improvement, students should make sure, constructively that their teachers know who they are). But the reason I share today is a lot simply: drummers can’t do much without drumsticks.

Except for protest, if the 1994 Academy of Country Music Awards was any indication.

The ACM Awards are an annual event honoring — you guessed it — some of the best country music of the year. The 1994 ceremony took place on May 3rd in Los Angeles and was co-hosted by Reba Mcentire and Alan Jackson, which is a bit weird because they were both nominees for various awards. But the real weirdness happened when Jackson and his band took the stage to play “Gone Country,” a chart-topping song they released a few months earlier. Here’s the performance, via YouTube, and see if you can tell what’s wrong. (A hint: I kind of gave it away a couple of paragraphs above.)*

(Can’t play the video above? Click here.)

Didn’t see anything amiss? Take another look and pay special attention to the drummer — he doesn’t have any drumsticks in his hands. And that’s kind of weird because there are definitely some drum sounds being made. That’s not an accident: it’s proof that something’s amiss. And that’s the entire point. Live television can be dicey, and producers typically don’t like having to control for too many variables. The ACM Awards were no exception. The production team didn’t want to have to worry about what could go wrong with so many performers playing so many songs live, so they decided that each act would use pre-recorded instrumentals and vocals. Jackson — who was nominated for six awards and ended up winning two — wasn’t too happy about it, but he also wasn’t in a position to make much of a stink. So instead, he came up with a subtle way to tell his fans that the performance was a sham. explains

Before the show, producers had told Alan that he had to play to a pre-recorded track, which Jackson clearly felt was tantamount to lying to both his fans and the audience. So instead of playing along with the charade, Jackson tipped off the audience to the subterfuge by telling his drummer Bruce Rutherford to play without sticks. So as the performance transpires and everything sounds perfect, there is Alan Jackson’s drummer, swinging his arms like he’s playing the drums, but with no sticks in his hand.

The producers didn’t do anything about it — few people noticed in real time and there weren’t many, if any, press reports about the stunt. In a world where the Internet barely existed and YouTube hadn’t been imagined, no one could fathom that anyone who noticed would have had the opportunity to share the clip ever again. But the world changed, so today, we can bask in the hilarity of Alan Jackson’s prank protest. And you don’t need a good embouchure to appreciate it.

Bonus fact: As noted above, it’s not unusual for television shows featuring “live” musical performances to use pre-recorded music; as noted below, that’s been the rule in the Super Bowl for decades. And that’s not limited to American television. For most of its run, the BBC’s live music show, Top of the Pops, featured artists performing their most popular songs. Before the mid-1960s, those performances were pre-recorded and the bands would mime them on stage, but many artists objected. Top of the Pops came up with a compromise — the instrumentals would be pre-recorded but the singer would sing live. That policy came and went and came back again, and in 1991, Nirvana used it to make fun of the very show they were invited to be on. As Far Out Magazine explained, “Nirvana [was] instructed to mime when they arrived on British mainstream television. The production staff had relented somewhat on their strict regulations and allowed [lead singer Kurt] Cobain’s vocals to be performed live” while the rest of the band had to pretend to play their instruments. And the three of them made that fact crystal clear. You can watch the performance here and you’ll see Cobain barely pretending to play his guitar, bassist Krist Novoselic throwing his guitar over his head and not even bothering to fake it, and drummer Dave Grohl barely doing anything. And Cobain, instead of singing like he normally does, drones in a deep monotone voice instead. The crowd, which started off incredibly excited, is standing around in disbelief toward the end.

From the Archives: The Super Bowl’s Musical Secret: Before every Super Bowl, a famous singer performs the National Anthem. It’s a lip-synched version, though — and for good reason. Here’s the reason.