Mark Hoppus said it best: “Isn’t it great to see the Jonas Brothers and Stevie Wonder back together again?”
After previous years were hindered by decrepit reality-show styled conceits (My Grammy Moment, anyone?), the producers for the Grammys decided to keep it simple for the 2009 edition of music’s most drawn-out glitz marathon: this time around, there would be no host and no games. Just three-and-a-half bloated hours of anemic performances and half-hearted, sometimes downright bizarre collaborations. If the Grammy Awards are really supposed to be “Music’s Biggest Night” (as its numerous ads have claimed), then what does the 2009 ceremony say about the state of sonic entertainment right now?
Pulling Names from a Hat: The 2009 Grammy Awards
Not much, really.
The show’s opening should have been spectacular: U2 performing their new single “Get Your Boots On”. It should have been a rallying cry, a band for everyone to get behind and sing along with; after all, U2 singles are—by and large—anthemic and crowd-pleasing, which are words that absolutely cannot be applied towards the chugging, toothless “Boots”. Bono tried to strike artistic poses while wearing gigantic boots, his voice barely audible, the song’s chorus instantly forgettable, and, with that, the show’s first real opportunity to strike a chord with viewers was missed.
Next thing we know, we’re already handing out awards, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is giving a painfully unfunny monologue, and Justin Timberlake managed to deliver an even worse one right after. We have no thesis statement, no grand introduction to the proceedings: we just have an awards show that’s fueled by spectacle, star-power, and little else. Some of the celebrity appearances were absolutely meaningless (what was the musical significance of getting CSI cast members as presenters, pray tell?), while others simply did not make any coherent sense whatsoever (Kate Beckinsale introducing Paul McCartney? Really?).
Grammy president Neil Portnow—who has embarrassed himself in the past by using his token speech to unveil supposedly “hip” anti-downloading campaigns (and let’s not forget that whole “My Grammy Moment” fiasco)—continued his losing streak by asking fellow Grammy-winner Barack Obama to create a cabinet-level position of Secretary for the Arts, Portnow’s not-so-subtle intention being to have powerful government backing when it comes to backing anti-piracy laws and making sure artists are compensated for the distribution of their music. Though his intentions are noble, the irony is inescapable: Lil’ Wayne—whose success can be attributed to the intimidating mass of music he releases for free, online, each year—won the Rap Album of the Year Grammy only moments later.
In fact, Lil’ Wayne had one of the best moments of the night, singing his powerful New Orleans anthem “Tie My Hands” near the close of the evening, the song soon transforming into a full-on celebration of the Big Easy with Alan Toussaint and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in tow. It was one of the broadcast’s few moments of genuine emotion, which is more than can be said for a majority of the performances, in which artists appeared to be matched up by the studied methodology of having their names pulled out of a hat at random. Keith Urban and Al Green? Miley Cyrus overperforming her way through Taylor Swift’s sensitive ballad “Fifteen”? The Jonas Brothers mumbling their way through “Superstition” with Stevie Wonder himself in tow? Coldplay’s Chris Martin delivering a sensitive piano rendition of “Lost!” only to have Jay-Z barge in half-way through in order to move more copies of the Prospekt’s March EP?
It was almost funny, even, that right in the middle of “Chasing Pavements”—the trademark song by Best New Artist winner Adele—Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles stopped by and managed to actually outsing Adele herself. During a night in which country music was both forgettable (Kenny Chesney’s snore-inducing rendition of “Better as a Memory”) and overstimulated (Carrie Underwood lurched her way through “Last Name” only to be upstaged by her own sultry female guitarist), leave it to Nettles to bring the best, most coherent performance of the entire night with a powerful rendition of Sugarland’s sparse ballad “Stay”. As American Idol has proved to us over the years, bucketloads of people have stadium-filling voices—only a blessed few have the ability to actually sell a song (and Nettles, thankfully, is one of them).
Some performances were downright terrible (as if the world actually needed more proof that Katy Perry couldn’t sing), and the most left-field one of them all (Radiohead performing “15 Step” with the USC Trojan Marching Band) was absolutely transcendent. The night’s saddest moment, however, was the deliberate manipulation of Jennifer Hudson—a genuinely talented performer in her own right—here singing the heartstring-pulling ballad “You Pulled Me Through”, and, given the meaning of the song and the much-publicized losses that she’s suffered in recent months, her climax brought her own self to tears and the entire Staples Center audience to its feet. It’s a moment that, despite all good intentions, felt deliberately, coldly calculated, mining the suffering of others for mass televised catharsis. As great as it is to see Hudson performing again (and winning a few well-deserved awards), the nagging feeling looms in the background: couldn’t have there been a better way to go about it?
Then again, if this is truly “Music’s Biggest Night”, then there could’ve been a better way to go about everything. For starters, having T.I., Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil’ Wayne become the Sinatra-aping “Rap Pack” wasn’t a good idea from the get-go. Having people collaborate with seemingly unrelated artists all Girl Talk-styled isn’t doing any favors for anyone either (this “mash-up performance” craze has plagued the broadcast for the past couple of years). And finally, if the Grammys want to be daring and actually reach a younger audience (instead of facing diminishing ratings returns with each passing year), then perhaps they can stop doling out Album of the Year trophies to releases that so safely pander to soft-rock constituents (will 2008 truly be remembered as the year that Raising Sand swept our hearts away?).
Grammy Night 2009 was not a night of surprises—just disappointments. We, as viewers, show up each year expecting an unbridled celebration of music, and instead are treated to an overbudget production of “Top of the Pops” with movie stars inserted in between songs. Are all of our classically trained musicians going to be relegated to string section work for T.I.‘s latest single? Was jazz a genre not worth representing at the ceremony this year? Why did Mark Hoppus’ cynical, offhand remark about the Jonas/Wonder collaboration feel like the most truthful thing said all night?
Perhaps amidst all the spectacle, we’ve forgotten that the reason we’re all here is to celebrate music in all its forms—not just to move units and discourage down loaders year after year. To reiterate: what, exactly, do the Grammy Awards say about the state of our current music industry? Simply this: at a time when our economy is in flux and people (and artists especially) are looking upwards for help, support, and encouragement, not having anything significant to say is a very bad state to be in.
// Notes from the Road
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