You’ve Just Got To See This…
By Michael Aronovitz
We think our children are superstars. We honestly believe they are phenoms sometimes, and then we get together with friends at a barbecue where we’ve all had too many Michelob Ultra’s, and we actually claim our kids could be prodigies.
Newsflash. Ninety-nine percent of them aren’t.
In high school, or more frequently during that awkward first year of college, our little darlings go to real auditions for elaborate undergraduate productions, or downtown coffee houses that provide no more than a stool, a mic, and a stationary spot with no color gels, or comedy clubs that can flash the lights on and off if you suck, or dive bars with clientele who will boo you faster than a football fan giving Santa Claus a Philadelphia welcome. All those wonderful living room performances for Mommy’s scrap-booking club, Daddy’s golf buddies, and the Cleveland cousins with Aunt Ida and Grandma Fanny have to be re-evaluated, along with the bi annual elementary and middle school choir extravaganzas where our star in the making (oh my Gawd, isn’t she just precious?) sings with incredible gusto, dances with spectacular passion and chutzpah, yet soon becomes the high school understudy and campus non-factor when talent starts counting more than bravado.
I fell into being one of these obsessed parents. At age nine, my son was batting .834 in township little league, .730 in travel all-star ball, and .629 in those amazingly difficult and regionally competitive A.A.U tournaments. I made him hit a ball off a tee a hundred times a night. I filmed him and made him study his micromechanics. I got him lessons with a guy who played second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates in their double-A system, and bragged that my boy was the best hitter in Southeastern Pennsylvania. When he was ten, they started throwing sweeping curve balls at him. When he was eleven, he was exposed to exploding sliders, fastballs clocked at eighty miles per hour, cutters that could break a bat on the grips in the wooden bat league. He made JV in tenth grade. By the time he was a junior he realized he wasn’t going to interest even the most remote of the D-3 schools, and he took up volunteering to coach special ed. children learning to play sports.
He wasn’t a prodigy.
Indulge me. I want to tell you about one.
Mia Morris, age fourteen is no joke, and mark my words, if I am going to make such a bold claim, calling a performer a “prodigy,” I want to explain exactly what I mean by the term and quickly provide you the proof. I’m not really a bio-guy, so I’ll get to that later. Primarily, I care far more about current tangible facts that I can compare with other tangible facts, so that I can illustrate with absolute credibility the idea that Mia Morris is, frankly, a miracle.
I watch music videos for relaxation at the end of the day, around 4:00 PM to be exact. I like classic rock and metal, because these genres, for me, are the most significant templates for musical excellence. Of late, I have been fascinated with new and established musicians playing along with prior recorded tracks, mostly because I get to see the given artist in clear and uninterrupted view, pulling off superior tricks. A fine example by an established musician would be “Zakk Wylde rips amazing guitar solo over Andy James track EMGtv.” A raucous version showing us a famous shredder professionally recording a live take with the prior recorded tracks in his ears and ours, would be “Paul Gilbert – Technical Difficulties (Racer X),” and the type of recording that completes the paradigm would be a new artist performing an original composition to pre-recorded background, like Sophie Lloyd with “After Insanity (Original Song).”
I was watching the aforementioned Gilbert video the other night, since that and “Scarified” are two of my faves, and I noticed that there in my “Recommended” section was a video marked “Van Halen – Hot For Teacher / Mia Morris 13 Years Old / Nashville Drummer, Musician Songwriter.”
Well…yeah…ok…I guess…what could it hurt…
Clicked it on. Yeah, sure, kid sitting behind a kit that has drum pads for the toms. For fourteen seconds or so she plays the beginning licks of “Hot For Teacher.” Hmm, yeah, ok, she’s good; it seems so at least. There’s a fade-out of the playing right into the kid sitting at the same kit, doing the verbal self-intro thing, “Hey, its Mia, and this song is a beast.” She does a bit more of a thirteen-year-old’s dissertation that is entertaining in a way that is parentally endearing, sort of like being in the living room with Aunt Ida and Grandma Fanny, and thirty-six seconds in, she starts the performance with that opening lick again. Hmm once more. Yes, it’s good. Really good. Ok, I’m in…and at about the thirty-nine second mark, I notice that there’s something bizarre, almost as if the playing seems extra-full, I mean, really fat, like Twinkie’s and chocolate milk, and I have an epiphany. It can’t be electronically enhanced, because part of the charm of the video is the simplistic production value versus the high level of performance.
But no. She couldn’t be.
But hell yes. She’s playing along with the record, not with the drum track removed, but playing along with Alex Van Halen.
Are you fucking kidding me?
It’s not just hard to do, folks, it’s nearly impossible. If she is not spot-on, and I mean SPOT-ON, this becomes what she calls a “muddy, terrible sounding flam fest.”
This was not muddy. It was note for note, right on the money, executing her own feel morphed with Alex Van Halen’s groove, creating what I would have no problem calling a super-sound.
I’ve gone bonkers at Kiss concerts multiple times, and on television I’ve seen David Copperfield make an airplane disappear, but Mia Morris playing “Hot For Teacher” on a low budget home video, channeling Alex Van Halen like she had become one with his bio-rhythms, was better than the pyro and the abra kadabra. Far better.
I am going to pause the blow-by-blow here to briefly revisit a concept I’ve talked about before, mainly in discussions I have initiated about the aspect of performance art that transcends even the most ornate demonstrations of technical superiority offered us in the past, and by those we see in the next generation, making their marks on the world. It is the “X” factor to which I am referring, that intangible element that wows us, hooks us, and turns us into believers. Michael Jackson had the “X” factor. Within weeks of the release of Thriller there were thousands of kids (and grown-ups) doing his dance moves, but no one could sell it like him. Thousands of authors write horror, but none that snare you like Stephen King. Same with Shakespeare. Go ahead, read some of the work of his contemporaries in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, and even if you aren’t a lit. geek like me, you’ll notice the difference. It wasn’t even close.
Mia Morris has the “X” factor. When I describe it to you here, I won’t do it justice, for an “X” factor has magic in it, and I am no prodigy. I am a published novelist, but really a journeyman, a worker-bee, solid, even considered elite the world of small market literary stuff, but there really is no way to “describe” Mia Morris. You have to see it, so that she can share her bio-rhythms and let you morph in on the magic that way.
This is exemplified in the next sequence on the “Hot For Teacher” video, though you can enjoy the same effect over and again in all of her various covers. In this case, when she brings in the kick drums and clips of the video are spliced in behind her, she gives a signature smile, not fake, truly genuine. It gives off an unusual warming effect, offering you two distinct hallmarks, honesty and credible joy, and that is the mainstay of the manner by which she captures her viewer. The technical ability becomes the accent in a way, and this reversal of fortune is Mia Morris’s version of the coveted intangible that separates those who master the mechanics from those who can definitively translate a potent aesthetic.
Of course, I would be foolish to claim that a performer’s prowess could be defined by a smile, so I want to describe another element in what I might call “The Mia Factor.” She is no ham. Let’s get that straight, Mia Morris is not some sort of poser. Still, I would argue she is the ultimate front-person; absolutely selfless and at the same time spectacularly welcoming, constructing the vision of the song with subtle yet charming execution that in turn, makes us the ones who are smiling. Let me be clear. In my glam band back in the 80’s, we played a club that had so small a stage we couldn’t fit everything up there (ironically, I was the drummer for this project). Lou, our guitar player, stuck his Marshall on the floor in front of the riser and promptly had every pool shooter, pinball player, and bar hound standing around him in a semi-circle cheering themselves hoarse. I asked him later why he did it. He claimed, “I just wanted to be with the people.” In the “Hot For Teacher” video, there is that small break at the 1:33 mark, and Mia casually moves the hair off her forehead, spins the stick with a Hollywood smile, mouths David Lee saying, “Wait a second,” miming it with a sweep of the hand, and she then does a subtle version of the Egyptian head-juke side to side during the “What do you think the teacher’s gonna look like this year?” I know. It sounds rather trivial when I say it, but it effectively illustrates the idea that the song is so easy for Mia, that she can bring us into her semi-circle.
The rest of the song is simply astounding. And again, it is not so much that she hits every beat and accent right on the money, and not even the absolute ease with which she unleashes the skilled labor so to speak. Watch the video. Please. Note her groove and the way she interprets the various parts. My favorite is the verse kick. She nails it and frames it, making a portrait. I would pay to see her on stage anytime, anywhere, because she makes it so I’m up there with her. And plainly, her technique is absolutely and unequivocally bad-ass.
The second video I had the pleasure to stumble upon, was her version of “Good Times Bad Times” by Zeppelin. Uh…wait, stop right there. I played in a cover group back in high school, and we were the number-one house party band in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania my whole senior year. That summer, we were the outdoor festival band for The Hells Angels, so we were happening in our own small way in our own small chunk of rock n roll Americana. One of our highlights was John, our drummer, showing off his ability to play the above-mentioned Zep tune, since that particular song is and was so amazingly difficult. Trust me, it was almost a religious experience back then to watch him practice it and then pull it off live.
Watch Mia Morris do it. Make it into a meme, make it “a thing,” make it into an office challenge to watch and shout about from the rooftops, any way you can join the celebration. What a blast. First, Mia gives a tutorial concerning the way she learned the Zep song, and in this, she inadvertently demonstrates the reason rockers love rock and metalheads worship metal. In the end, it has nothing to do with the pomp and the circumstance, the fancy album covers, the glitz, the tattoos, the hair, or the volume. Especially the latter. Heavy has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with volume. Mia proves it, showing us in her own pleasant, unassuming, youthful, and prodigal way, that it is the beauty of the beat in terms of its intricate complexity and groove that brings us back to the gritty glory of the garage, the bar stage, the theater, the arena.
Let me put it in these terms. My wife is not a metal fan. She likes alternative. That’s cool, but she doesn’t listen to music to dissect the parts. She absorbs herself in the whole, and I respect that. To make a point, however, in defense of closer analysis, I asked her to watch Mia’s “Good Times Bad Times” video. My wife replied that she didn’t like that song…too whiney, monotonous, and droning with Plant’s vocal, too “scratchy” with Jimmy’s Page’s guitar. I begged, and so she rolled her eyes and watched Mia’s interpretation. During the tutorial section, when Mia slowed it down and demonstrated the kick pedal, my wife said, “Play that back.” She watched again. “Oh, my Lord,” she said. She watched the whole video. Then she said the most important thing that I could possibly write in the entire review.
“That Mia person made me like drums. And she showed me why to like Zeppelin.”
Ladies and gentleman. Not to overuse a theme, but that is the way a prodigy broadens her semi-circle.
In terms of Mia Morris and her personal history, it reads like the very beginning of a journey since she is only in the eighth grade at this point. A reflection of her generation, she went through early childhood thinking television and YouTube videos were synonymous. Music was a part of the household, and she first took piano lessons with a teacher that actually left a session crying! When it came to reading music and learning in a traditional manner, Mia reacted in a way that most young kids would, with dulled eyes and listless obedience, but when the teacher played it live, Mia perked up and nailed it after one listen. Hence, the tears of the teacher. Could have been joy. I’d say it was jealousy.
Mia created her own platform for an education in music, and studied YouTube to learn about the discipline in general, recording goofy sketches and dance moves with a thirty-five-dollar unit, and comparing what she created with what she observed. Being a practical parent trying to protect his daughter from the “Aunt Ida, Granny Fanny” syndrome, Dad would show her YouTubers that were supposedly singer-prodigies, hoping to give her a dose of reality mom thought she might be too young to accept. Nope. Mia went up in her room, practicing harder. At a campfire block party, she convinced a neighbor to give her his old drum set from the garage, that which had no high- hat cymbals (she used a folding chair). She showed immediate ability and Dad got her an electronic Roland kit with a volume knob, then a more standard set. Soon she was playing the songs she loved on her own YouTube channel, and I still find it rather hard to believe that the videos I recently watched have been no more than the result of a loving mother and father encouraging their child to basically make home movies for fun.
Don’t get me wrong, she has gained a lot of followers. According to her dad, the recording she did of Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” was a “tipping point” along with the aforementioned “Hot For Teacher,” and her Vlogs are becoming more and more popular. In January of 2016, Mia did a cover of G. Love’s “Cold Beverages,” which led to his invitation that she come up on stage during one of his tour stops in a college town, in an all-ages venue, to play with the band. In June of 2017, The Ataris reached out to her after viewing her videos, and asked her to play with them on their Warped Tour stops.
At this point, Mia Morris is branching out by writing her own songs and playing every instrument. She likes hard rock and metal for obvious reasons, but enjoys an eclectic mix of genres and styles. I get it. Shakespeare didn’t just pen tragedies, even though Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth are considered his mainstays by most experts making the decisions that form the grand pedagogical canon. Of course, he also wrote comedies and history plays as well as various poems and sonnets. Mia finds influence in all styles of music, and she studies them, deeply and in her own way…maybe not like some old traditional piano teacher might, but in a manner that most suits her. T.S. Eliot once said, and I am paraphrasing, that an artist can not reach full potential simply joining in with the content and style of the current mainstream. To reach actualization, he or she must be a student of multiple timelines in order to know where in the big wheel there is a fit and a position to engineer a campaign.
Mia Morris is a student of the art. She doesn’t mind being the supporting part of someone else’s vision, because her own is so very advanced, but make no mistake, this talented young performer is a visionary.
It is easy for us to see Mia’s star-power. For me, it is as clear as one of those spring days where the sky is a broad canopy of the lightest blue that fills us all with hope and leisure images of sailboats inching along sun-spangled waters, picnics, barbecues, graduations, promises. Like Salieri, who only had mediocre talent himself, he recognized the brilliance of Mozart. The difference is that I, and others who have been afforded the rare opportunity to see this bright young performer in her formative years, do not curse our own desire to contribute to the grand scheme of the world on our own respective levels and in our own spaces. Mia celebrates us, we see it in her amazing expertise, and in return we are grateful, not jealous like stuffy old court composers or jealous piano teachers.
We get to see Mia Morris develop as an icon in live time.
And there is no greater magic than that.
Michael Aronovitz is a college professor, rock reviewer, and horror novelist.
MHF Magazine/Michael Aronovitz