This article was first published in our online discussion forum. Come on over to https://vandervault.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=750 to join the conversation about this article.

 

Let’s break down last night’s performance of “I Don’t Like You” on The Late Late Show with James Cordon.

Lighting: On fleek x 10.

Camera/editing: Beautiful work on the part of the show’s crew. Really, really well done.

Set Design: Cool and chic without being precious, just like Grace.

The Band: Ben wasn’t there, but that drummer who showed up loved those high hats and cymbals and gave the song an entirely fresh and different take on the rock underpinnings of the song. Nolan brought back the trumpet! Yes! Melissa also amped up the rock aspects of the track. SOLID.

Grace’s outfit, hair and makeup: The glittering gold eyeshadow was a bit much for her little exchange with James at the beginning of the show, but it worked perfectly for the dramatically lit performance. The first glimpse I had of the outfit she wore wasn’t a flattering one (the first IG story shared by the show), but in close up and under the stage lights that Chanel number looked really cool and moved well on stage, though I have to admit I would have dug that white Chanel dress Grace teased earlier this week even more. I guess I’m old, because I did breathe a sigh of relief that the makeup artist had painted some eyebrows onto her for the show last night. The braids seemed even longer than usual, and I dug it.

I first watched the performance last night at 2:20am after having been up since 5:00am the previous day, so I was a bit punchy and grouchy and it tainted my appreciation of the performance.

Re-watching it moments ago was an entirely different experience. What seemed like a breathless vocal last night seemed toned down by only about 15% of Grace’s normal voice. She also didn’t seem as robotic as I’d remembered.

Having said that I’ll discuss the only aspect of the performance that wasn’t perfect, because everything else pretty much was…Hold on, let me get my helmet and flack jacket on…Okay…

Last night was a big night for Grace and no one knew it, or felt it, more than Grace. Here’s a reply she left last night on Instagram to a fan saying how big a night it was for her…

“I KNOW I WAS VERY NERVOUS SO KINDA MESSED IT UP BUT YES VERY BIG STILL VERY GOOD THO”

Know that what I’m about to write is not a criticism of Grace, it’s just an elaboration/more detailed explanation of what Grace already hinted at above, but in terms that the rest of us can perhaps more easily wrap our heads around.

Grace’s only “mistake” last night was being so ambitious, which is a good thing, because without stepping out of our comfort zones we’ll never grow, so I really commend her on trying to pull off her first true choreographed routine on what may be her biggest televised appearance since AGT, or at least the one with the highest stakes.

What Grace tackled last night was out of her wheelhouse. Now, I’m not saying she can’t dance, because she can, she really really can, but her dancing is instinctual and occurs naturally. It takes years of dedicated effort to be able to perform a choreographed dance routine that doesn’t come across as stiff in a stressful situation (such as relaunching your career as a young woman with a goal toward achieving an avant-garde aesthetic and sound on one of the most popular late night shows that caters to an audience beyond most of your existing fanbase).

Before we continue, let’s take a look at exactly how well, how extraordinarily well, Grace has become at expressing herself on stage through instinctual dance. Not coincidentally, these two performances are the ones I featured in the trailer for our documentary on her, and both, interestingly, were also performed in Los Angeles and one of them was of the same song.

“The City” – Grace Vanderwaal – Ur So Beautiful Tour El Rey Theater LA (28.08.2019)
“I Don’t Like You” – Grace Vanderwaal – Ur So Beautiful Tour El Rey Theater LA (27.08.2019)
Those two captures were provided by Kelly Swanholm who was also in attendance at last night’s taping of Corden’s show.

Both of the performances above were epic and looked like something only someone with decades of experience as a seasoned rock star could pull off; the supreme confidence, the ease and comfort of being on stage, the audience engagement and the connection with the music and lyrics. Grace was on fire those two nights; just look at her!

Let’s also take a look at last week’s performance of “I Don’t Like You” on MTV TRL, where the performance was far more subtle, but again Grace was really feeling the song with impeccable vocals that blended new jazzy nuances that only added to an already excellent song, and her movements and facial expressions were heartfelt and “cool”…

 

Why? Because Grace wasn’t thinking about what she was doing, she was just feeling the music and letting it flow through her and was expressing it with her movements.

What she tried to pull off last night was the complete opposite. It was the same song, the same city, and only a few months apart, or in the last example’s case, just the week before (and in New York). The difference? She was asked, or asked of herself, to follow a pre-planned sequence of movements that didn’t flow from a place of emotion, but strategy.

Don’t get me wrong, ballets are beautiful, Broadway and movie musicals can be rousing and emotionally impactful, but the difference between a natural artist, like Grace, who normally operates (exquisitely) on instinct, and a ballerina, or artists like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish, is formal dance training. Grande and Eilish had many years of dance classes, drills, and rehearsals, sometimes for 20-40 hours a week, as well as applied experience, under their belts before either of those artists ever tried pulling off dance as an aspect of one of their vocal performances.

Ariana was on Broadway for years as a child before becoming a Disney star and then a pop princess, hitting marks and cues to tenths of a second to ensure she was in sync with the music and the other dancers and singers around her. Eilish, home-schooled, spent most of her days in dance classes and recitals. She recounted the time she heard that her first song “Ocean Eyes”, recorded at age 13, had racked up 1,000 views, saying that she was on her way to her third dance class of the day when her brother called her to tell her.

If you’ll allow me a bit of self-indulgence for a moment…

I used to teach full-contact Kempo Karate many, many years ago, but before I taught I was, of course, a student. Like Grace I had natural talent. I picked up martial arts very quickly and could execute moves in class with ease, but the first time I stepped in front of an opponent at a tournament and had to call on those skills in a real world situation, the guy who seemed very clumsy and plodding in class absolutely mopped the floor with me. Why? Because while his technique was sloppy, he was a full-grown man with years of experience getting into actual street-fights. While I was busy trying to “think” of what kind of slick kick, punch, or sweep I should execute he was already punching me in the face.

That’s kind of what happened to Grace last night, to a far lesser extent, for the first half of the song where she seemed at times a bit stiff and unsure. While she has the moves in her back pocket, if she’s called on to execute them according to a script she has to “think” about doing that, and what happens when you have to think about what you’re doing rather than relying on muscle memory that thousands of hours of practice have instilled? You find yourself suddenly out of sync with reality unfolding around you.

Now, no one was in front of Grace looking to do her physical harm, but she had the very real stress of the event weighing heavily on her, and of trying to remember her dance cues and marks on the stage; where she was supposed to position herself, standing, sitting, or crouching, while also performing the movements that she had rehearsed for a few days. While she was thinking about all of that choreography the band was on fire behind her, playing their hearts out, and she suddenly found herself having to sing her song with all of the nuance, emotion, and edge of her previous concert performances, but also following “the plan”. It was just too much to process and have it presented in a way that felt natural.

I applaud Grace for tackling such an ambitious routine to debut her new single to a nationwide audience. I know I wouldn’t have the guts to even consider it. That she completely pulled it off for anyone who isn’t already intimately familiar with just how well she can sing that song, is even more impressive.

My only thought going forward would be to leave the “performance art” style of singing her songs to a later date until she’s studied dance for a quite a bit longer, or simply do as she did on tour and let her natural talent shine through unconsciously. Let her “sass” come out as she herself described it last week on an IG live announcing/teasing the brilliant music video for “I Don’t Like You”…

 

She could have simply sung the song like she did on tour, sitting, standing, or jumping on the couch and coffee table as the mood moved her. Professionally executing choreographed dance routines while singing are a hard won skill that has to be learned and drilled beyond the point of exhaustion, and quite frankly, Grace doesn’t need it.

She is so naturally gifted at stagecraft, and if I’m going to be honest, her “moves” are already way better than Jagger’s and Jim Morrison’s ever were. She just needs to trust herself and not worry about following scripted routines. Go and look at those performances at the El Rey again. She sang the hell out of those songs, and she moved better while doing it than last night.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think she in any way bombed last night. I feel that she left a very solid impression on general audiences who’ve never seen her, or who haven’t seen her since her audition on AGT went viral when she was just a kid. I just know of what she’s capable and feel she doesn’t need to be hamstrung by the contrivance of “routines”. If she wants to invest dozens of hours per week into dance classes to make the unnatural appear natural, she can, but again that seems pointless when she already has the innate skills to command any stage onto which she decides to step.

Congratulations, Grace. You did so well last night and I’m sure you won over tonnes of new fans and made even more curious enough to explore your other work.