On listening to Alabama Shakes frontwoman and three-time Grammy winner Brittany Howard’s “Stay High,” an early release from her debut solo album Jamie due out next Friday, I thought of Matsuo Bansho’s sixteenth-century haiku: “Beginning of all art / a song when planting a rice field / in the country’s inmost part.” Perhaps implied in those three lines is the fulfillment of work done not just in the natural world, but in harmony with it. Bansho’s voice calls from a vanished time before our separation from that world.
The title of Howard’s “Stay High” might suggest an ode to drugs. However irresistible, even addictive the song is, the Sacklers of Purdue Pharma aren’t likely to try and buy the rights to it. The song is about the joys of living, not with opioids, but thanks to work and family and community—that last word so abused by politicians and pundits that its rehabilitation in this song can only be partial.
Effortlessly it seems, the song makes its irrepressible case for good feeling. But it is the video that brightens away any possible ambiguity that might creep past the music’s glowing enchantments.
The video, shot on location in Howard’s home town of Athens, Alabama, will be seen and heard by many as a corrective to visions of a racially divided south that are projected not just by the current president but by many of his critics. Howard is the child of a mixed marriage that made her the sometime target of bigotry as a child. She has certainly earned the right to loft a hymn to unity in her hometown and beyond it.
The video, which as of this morning had tallied six million hits, begins with a close-up of a mid-century clock. Alongside, it employee time cards await punching. Ambient sounds of a factory accompany blurry background images of hard-hatted workers. Shots of long-armed robots working at super-human speed are intercut with humans at their tasks. One machine fills up fifty-pound sacks of poultry feed next to a man who seals the bags. Another worker sweeps the floor. All these jobs are a few ticks away from being automated out of existence. Even the happy music can’t allay these ominous visual tones. The robots don’t quit for the evening.
The clock goes five: a reasonable, even old-fashioned nine-to-five, plenty-long-enough-already workday.
Quitting time is the cue for the music to start. Rhythmic guitar chords start us off at a pleasant pace, not running from the job site but ambling towards evening above a friendly bass line. Above this plush, a tiny bells ring out a precious melody. Only the hard-hearted will be able to suppress a smile.
Shuffling towards the camera, saying goodbye to boss and co-workers, comes the video’s central figure, based on Howard’s father. According to Howard, he’s the unofficial mayor of Athens, beloved by all, a font of humor and goodwill, a man who loves to dance. This warmth is confirmed by his cheery cameo in the video.
The actor playing this central part is middle-aged, powerful and fit. He looks like an NFL linebacker because he was one: Terry Crews, retired football player turned actor, former host of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire and more recently, emcee of America’s Got Talent, in addition to various dramatic roles. I’ve always found it odd that the first of these shows chops the question mark from its title. Why? The answer is too obvious: almost everyone who isn’t one already. Crews, too, is a generous onscreen presence, though it might grate on some that this winner in the celebrity economy, a man who presides over the plucking of those other precious few to share in some of the spoils, should be the one having a jolly time at his work: he can afford it.
After punching and saying his goodbyes, Crews makes it to the daylight beyond the factory door and begins lip-synching to Howard’s singing. Crews’ bonafides as master of the art come in the form of his championship belt from Lip Sync Battle.
He breaks into song in a euphoric falsetto: it’s an endearing ploy, the burly worker’s voice rising like a feather above the industrial fray. What he/she sings as he passes by the foreman (played by Howard in one of many of her own cameos in the video) on the way to his pick-up is another witty inversion—unlikely praise of the wage-slave slog just concluded: “I already feel like doing it again, honey.”
The factory’s three enormous silos of the facility dwarf him. It belongs to Aviagen, a corporation claiming itself as “the world’s leading poultry meat science company”; the facility in Athens “is the only bio-secure feed mill in the United States,” one committed to “pathogen-free’ production.” That explains the guy sweeping in the video. The only thing that’s contagious at this chicken coop is Crews’ joie-de-job.
Later Howard/Crews qualifies this declaration of love:
We work hard and grind and hustle all day
(Yes, we do)
There comes a time, there comes a time
At night, where we get to play.
In the gig economy of today’s America that time gets ever shorter. The unhurried rapture of the song works in dissonant counterpoint to the harried, cacophonic pace of millions trying to make ends meet.
Crews must suffer no teeth-grinding traffic and nerve-fraying encounters as he makes his way. To the chorus, “I just want to stay high with you,” he crosses the steel frame bridge over the coffined Tennessee River. As presented in this video the landscape is not much blighted, though the skeletal remains of a wooden barn alongside rusty silos capture the state to which agro-biz giants like Aviagen have pushed the American family farm, already receding into a past as mythic Bansho’s rice paddy.
Still behind the wheel, he/she meows disapprovingly at the dark and downcast—presumably those without Aviagen jobs:
‘Cause where I come from
Everybody frowns and walks around
With that ugly thing on their face.
We do not see any of these people in the video’s images of this very place of frowns: in the song’s Athens there are only smiles elicited by Howard’s euphoric melodies.
Crews stops by the Hometown Grocery. In the parking lot, black and white kids hang out and get the beat; mom and daughter sing along while loading their food into their trunk. Inside the well-lit, well-stocked store more folks join in: these are the real townsfolk putting their best face and voice forward for these precious seconds of celebrity. The cashier lane lights flash to the ding of those happy bells. There’s not a food stamp in sight.
Every spirit is raised: every grave in the city cemetery sighted from the pick-up window is adorned with fresh carnations. A personalized green light waves the pick-up into main street with its lovely brick facades. There’s a song line outside the soft-serve ice cream place. The coffee shop where Crews picks up pastries is filled with jolly customers even after five o’clock; out front Howard’s dad is greeted by the actor who plays him with a neighborly dance move.
The singing pick-up driver continues past folks not sequestered from the sultry summer evening inside in the air conditioning, but instead enjoying the street view from their porches. Come twilight even the cops have joined the dance party outside the ice cream shop.
The coda keeps cycling through “I just want to stay high,” like a prayer for that feeling to endure in eternity, Crews drives past a row of cottages with weather-beaten siding and patched up roofs, finally pulling up alongside a chain-link fence. Brown paper grocery bag under his arm like an inflate-gate football, his kids run to hug him. On the porch his white wife smiles at his return. Never mind that Crews lives in a vast McMansion in Santa Clarita as well as a fortress in the sky in downtown L.A.
Stay High is a utopian song, Panglossian pop that artfully, ecstatically, evades reality. But there is truth in it, too. The voice of the rice planter is still in us. On rare occasions it sings.