The Grammys: our window into the corporate music world. A sprawling three-hour-plus event featuring remote possibilities of: copyright lawsuits on stage, sentenced criminals performing, performers (possibly) giving birth, artists guarding against the unfortunate live music swears, and the usual array of winners.
I think you have to take the Grammys for what they are worth and move on. As MTV channeled music award producing to a more successful platform, the Grammys were sloshing through poor attempts at being like the Oscars. However, the Grammys are taking a stand and producing unexpected moments for TV drama. A reality show of sorts; made up of mash ups between performers, wacky musical numbers, odd costumes, and fastening to whatever is legendary for these times. Yes, the Grammys want you to believe they are living on the edge!
The 51st Annual Grammy Awards took place in the Staple Center in Los Angeles to a host of music big wigs and celebrity glitz. Chief amongst these celebrities was the rapper M.I.A. The story goes that she is nine months pregnant and, in a Grammy moment that will live on for some time, she performed one simple verse from her internet turned radio hit “Paper Planes” before turning over the reigns to the Queen Latifah named “Rap Pack”: Kanye West, T.I., Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne (in honor of Dean Martin who was being honored with a lifetime achievement award) and their performance of “Swagga Like Us”.
To say M.I.A. is proud of her pregnancy is the understatement of the year. The woman flashed a polka dotted meshed “Preg-kini” during the entire performance. The act was decent with the apparent disgust between Kanye and Jay-Z in full display on stage as they jockeyed for the home court advantage (NOTE: there are financial dealings to be worked out for the four rappers). Kanye was smooth; he’s always smooth. And, Lil Wayne…didn’t swear. T.I.? Didn’t go to jail either. I guess the performance went off without a hitch. I don’t know, maybe the Grammys wanted the swear, the baby, and the walk to prison during the performance?
Coldplay was easily the early show’s ‘on-air’ (NOTE: only 10 of the actual Grammys were awarded on air) winner. Their album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends won two on air awards for Song of the Year for the self titled track “Viva La Vida” and then later for the Rock Album of the year. All the while the beats of Joe Satriani’s lawsuit against the band for copyright infringement danced in the heads of the band and their audience. Their performance of “Lost” featured Chris Martin on piano and Jay-Z doing freestyle rap; it was a fine early moment of the evening. The boys, in what they termed were their Sgt. Pepper’s Suits, finished the set with their hit “Viva La Vida” from an album that later won the Rock Album of the Year. Funny: the title track from the album featured timpani, a giant bell, electronic strings, and no guitar. Carrie Underwood rocked harder than these guys!
The performance hits of the night were easy to spot. Radiohead absolutely stole the night. Playing “15 Step” from their latest album In Rainbows was a fantastic moment for the band. They brought with them a portion of the University of Southern California band to perform percussion and some brass. With the help of the deeply moving guitar of Johnny Greenwood, Thom Yorke flailed and jerked through the performance. The visual and sonic fills by the USC Marching Band were jarring and added another dimension to a song filled with so many that it’s hard to keep track.
A nod also needs to go to Lil Wayne and his performance with Allen Toussaint and Robin Thicke. The performance of Lil Wayne’s “Tie My Hands” as a dedication to New Orleans was trumped only a moment later by Allen Toussaint’s performance of his song “Big Chief” with the New Orleans’ brass outfit the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the aforementioned Lil Wayne. It was a spectacular moment that bridged the musical landscape of New Orleans. A humbled Lil Wayne only gave a small thanks to his family and fans a moment later when he received his award for Rap Album of the Year. I believe there is no coincidence to the idea that he just was accepted in the New Orleans’ musical heritage. Playing with Allen Toussaint and other New Orleans’ musicians gives Lil Wayne credibility beyond the hip-hop community
But in the end, the big awards went to Allison Krauss and Robert Plant. They won on air awards for “Rich Woman” in the Pop Collaboration with Vocals and their album Raising Sand won Album of the Year. The awards were not a shock and although their performance was solid, I was taken by Robert Plant’s assertion that “In the past this would be considered selling out, but it’s just a nice Sunday.” upon receiving the Album of the Year award. I guess when you win, it’s not selling out.
To borrow a phrase from former Arizona Cardinals’ head coach Dennis Green, “They (The Grammys) are what we thought they would be.” Now, honestly, I hope no one lets them off the hook for delivering to us another year of produced unexpected moments packaged as an award’s show. In the end, the show lacks any sort of punch. But this is what you get when you consistently shoot for the middle. Occasionally you will hit a winner (like Radiohead), but most of the time you will reward stage space to guys like Kid Rock whose awful performance of what seemed like three separate songs and a throw in of the “Sweet Home Alabama” rift was awful in execution. Good thing for Kid Rock that after the commercial break, the Grammys threw on stage Katy Perry’ terrible working of “I Kissed a Girl”. Terrible not so much for the overdub and lip sync, but that it featured some of the worst excuse for performance dancing of the night. Oh. Ironically, Katy didn’t kiss a girl in the performance (which I would have thought would have been something Ms. Perry would have wanted to do after singing about it 50 times in the song).
In the end, the Grammys are industry slop. When Neil Portnow, President of the Recording Industry and Chief Grammy guy, arrived on stage to announce that he “wants to get all performers compensated for their performances” while desiring Barack Obama to appoint a cabinet level position called “Secretary of the Arts”. I’m wondering if this guy really understands the economic situation of the country. Trillions of dollars in debt and Mr. Portnow wants to have a government official to provide oversight to stop grandma and 13-year-olds from downloading songs from the Internet. The fact that Mr. Portnow gave his little speech the segment immediately after Radiohead, the anti-industry superstars who made a ton of sales and money while thumbing their noses at men and women like Mr. Portnow, is an irony that everyone but Mr. Portnow seemed to be aware of during his speech. I suppose the Captain doesn’t think he’s sinking into the ocean while we all saw the iceberg from miles away.
// Notes from the Road
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