Survivor: Grammy Night
The Grammy Awards, the hip, grand dame of all other music awards shows, has reached the point when, as a family, we should all agree to sign the do not resuscitate order. For starters, The Police opened this year’s Grammy’s, a best foot forward approach that could have resulted in millions of curious people feeling totally comfortable changing the channel right then. I’m only interested in reunions that result from unfinished artistic business and The Police have none. But like Cheap Trick and The English Beat, The Police probably have unfinished guest houses to bankroll; consequently they have set aside their differences for a quick frisk of “Roxanne”, with Sting adding his ad libbed asides in the same way that Lou Reed did for the disastrous and embarrassing Velvet Underground reunion.
Rather than drag you through the list of winners, something even The Grammys avoids by running many of the award winners as a Headline News flash at the bottom corner of your screen, I’ll try to convey the pinprick highlights and hopefully help lessen the pain of reiterating all about one of the tackiest, Jabba-sized bores on television.
In its defense, The Grammys took a few of my insults from last year to heart. Though Jamie Foxx introduced the night with a crippled joke about Snoop Dogg leaving to do the “perp walk” when he heard The Police were playing, at least no one had to suffer through an evening of robotically churned out one-liners that were long discarded by Jay Leno. This certainly trimmed out the gristle, though it accentuated the inevitably agonizing attribute of all awards shows: the list. The list of thank you’s, the list of nominees, the list of performers and on and on—Awards shows like The Grammys are built around a torturous rhythm much like a faucet dripping in the middle of the night.
Nowhere does that torture become more apparent than during those segments that honor the contributions from dead artists. That’s what I thought when silly little Christina Aguilera strolled out for the tribute to James Brown. Justin Timberlake covered Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine”, a song he probably heard on the Notting Hill soundtrack. The Grammys loves to make this kind of poisoned conjecture about musical bloodlines. Surely Justin Timberlake is just Bill Withers without all that substance and talent weighing down his dockers.
By far the most egregious perversion of the evening was having American Idol dollie, Carrie Underwood, do the tribute to Bob Wills. I bet the producers had to explain to her who he was, and explain that country music existed before Nashville decided that it should sound like what Celene Dion would write in a deer blind. Of course, only one Bob Wills song made it into the mix as the tribute segued into a worshipful back and forth medley of Eagles songs done by Rascal Flats and Underwood. I could care less who covers The Eagles. Actually, anyone but The Eagles works for me. Incidentally, Underwood won for best new “artist”. That’s the word they use with sincerity because irony would require more expensive writers. She was also nominated for her song “Jesus Take the Wheel”, which I think begs for parentheses like (I just dropped the ketchup packet for my fries on the floor).
The Grammys always seem to have a tone deaf and desperate way of feigning relevance. When you think about what people have actually listened to this year, the advent of MySpace and Facebook and the MP3 altering the context and genre of how music is absorbed, The Grammys seem outmoded and quaint. What’s more, the cult of celebrity has taken on a malicious and degrading pathology over the last several years. One would think that we would much rather see famous people expose one of their boobs or vomit on themselves on TMZ than watch them accept awards—but (sigh) watch them, we do.
The creators, at some level, seem to understand our true desires, as evidenced by their pathetic Grammy contest (brought to you by Cingular) to determine which lucky person with no musical career would get to perform with Justin Timberlake at the ceremony supposedly designed to honor the accomplishments of musicians and their careers. Amidst that American Idol contest thievery, introduced by loser-cum-winner, Jennifer Hudson no less, aesthetic conservatism permeates the Grammys.
Even when the performances are flamboyant, they’re razzle-dazzle of the predictable Vegas variety; the kind that would go over well with acrobats spinning gingerly while audience members hold pails of quarters in their laps. Shakira’s gold lamé hip vibration session with Wyclef Jean could have easily been spiced up with white tigers.
One of the most hilarious conceits of phony grandeur came in the form of framing nearly every performance with an orchestra. Does “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, a song that I love and never want to hear again, benefit from a philharmonic remix? No, it’s just another failed attempt at making false and unnecessary lineages. Is Cee-Lo just Beethoven with breakbeats? I don’t know enough about Beethoven to answer that, but neither does Gnarls Barkeley. Beyonce similarly floated amid a Lawrence Welk bath of strings, though she might want to have in her contract that Mary J. Blige not be allowed to perform in the same show because the contrast is like an unflattering tan line. While she made the furtive arm fan movements of vocal exertion, Blige actually connects the dots between appearance and reality.
The Dixie Chicks came away the big winners of the evening, having milked an insult to President Bush into a documentary, an album, and now a veiled sense of political approval from the sheepish recording industry. I have absolutely nothing against the Dixie Chicks; I’m glad that they fought back against the knuckle dragging right wing hordes of their, um, fans. But if The Grammys really wanted to take a political stand against George Bush, why not give the statuette to Neil Young’s Living with War?
I fear the Dixie Chicks’ Grammy is really just a metaphorical tombstone for hard-core artistic morality. We’ve long since passed the days when being an artist actually meant taking a strong stance against wrongs in the world. These days, every indie artist and their brother can’t wait to rent their barkers out to every commercial that comes their way.
While popular music once provided the soundtrack to everything from labor to civil rights movements to the playful hedonism of the hippies, it’s now, one would surmise from watching The Grammys, little more than a consumer item; barely intellectually distinguishable from a pack of gum or a toilet brush. Given the erosion of what once was a formidable cultural force, it’s hard to imagine that The Grammys will continue to have relevance to anyone except the musicians who have fireplace mantels to decorate—and we suckers who set aside our Sunday evening to watch it, every year.