Dead Grammy Walking

[11 February 2008]

By Terry Sawyer

In the interests of accentuating the positive, this year’s Grammys, its 50th anniversary, could have done much worse. It could have been last year’s Grammys. The finest moments surely had much to do with the accidental epiphanies of a cherry-picked past, the beautiful blindness that accompanies the milestones of our most venerated and venal institutions. There’s nothing so useful to an anniversary as using the honorable dead to justify the dishonorably alive. The introductory reels and spiels emphasized the Grammys as an archivist of cultural impact, name-dropping Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. Even the opening performance exhumed the Grammy graveyard to have a grainy IMAX Frank Sinatra duet with Alicia Keys, an oft-pulled trick that never ceases to amaze me in its creepy cutout treatment of the deceased.

This heavy emphasis on the past provided several moments of stately grandeur, as surely as almost every moment of the Grammys present provided an opportunity of ghastly contrast. Sinatra might be seanced into the proceedings, but I can’t let myself forget that Ace of Base are still polishing the Grammy on their mantelpiece. Some of the performers took the Anniversary night as an opportunity for visual homage. Carrie Underwood appeared like a Nancy Sinatra, complete with the banana flip hair, except that she was surrounded by a dance troupe banging on items in a junkyard. Apparently, that’s what pop-country singers do. They put on Daisy Dukes and Go Go boots and make the band see if they can pull something together from the cars in their front yard. I felt this way last year about the Grammy backdropping of Dolly Parton. Even millionaire country singers are often framed in imagery that implies they probably perform in bars while simultaneously breast-feeding their flocks of children.

Carrie Underwood

Credit should be lavishly given to the Grammys for allowing so many full performances this year. So much of last year’s telecast involved the chop-socky medley approach that you expect from the Amusement Park variety shows your parents attend while you’re on the roller coasters. They seemed to have learned this lesson well enough to allow full, even extravagantly displayed place settings for the alleged star: music. Of course, the exceptions stand out as weeping wounds.

Jimmy Jam, now President of the Recording Academy, walked onto the stage for what at first seemed like it was going to be the equivalent of the Deloitte & Touche guys assuring us that however these awards are calculated, it’s done by people in tailored clothing, so we can rest easily. Instead, he launched into an impromptu reunion of the Time, with Morris Day gauntly straining to make the sexual allusions of “Jungle Love” seem less like a Law & Order: SVU episode with a skeevy grandparent. Keeping with the hastily contrived glorious past, please meet inglorious present theme, Rhianna interrupted the Time to bring us bits and pieces of her exhaustively played hit “Umbrella”. Even she finds this exercise, one that displays both the limits of umbrella dancing and the diminishing returns of a fantastically popular hit single, eye glazing. I feel her. Really-illy-illy-illy.

Some of the most ambitious nods to past greatness also seemed more mausoleum than monument. The Cirque du Soleil dance troupe interpretation of “A Day in the Life” does nothing but add rote surrealism and acrobatics to the music. Surely listening to the Beatles album will always be superior to the Broadway bloat shamelessly trying to squeeze out the last golden egg. While breathing new creative energy into the past constitutes the momentum and lifeblood of art, this is not the same thing as finding a new marketing medium to generate new revenue streams.

Cirque du Soleil

Similarly, the performance adapted from Julie Taylor’s movie Across the Universe had a grandiosity so warped and worn that it nearly reached the status of a punch line. The black choir is one of the most played-out ploys of sentimentality ever to be used on television—reprised by P. Diddy for the an endless array or aural eulogies for Biggie—and here to make “Let It Be” into something emptily religious and amorphously anti-war. After all, how does the advice “Let it be” apply to Vietnam, death and destruction? Like much of the Grammy symbolism, we are supposed to be lulled by the pomp and pyrotechnics taking away feelings that are only generically associational. “Let It Be” = happy-sad, war is bad. These big top overkills prove to me conclusively that something can be both spectacular and unmoving.

The Grammy coordinators are bad bartenders, never quite getting the cocktail right no matter how many times they make it. While the mix of classic style with the new school could have been enormously energizing, their choices proved perpetually watered down.

I was excited to hear John Legend, but flabbergasted to see that he would simply tinkle back up to Fergie. Reverse order, please, and by that I mean she would better serve the evening as the piano bench. While I couldn’t have been more pleased to see the Grammys honor the indomitable, playful, and sexy duets of Louis Prima and Keely Smith, to see Kid Rock act as the contemporary stand-in for Prima was simply face-slashing. Thank God Nina Simone is dead or she’d be forced into singing Porgy & Bess with Dave Navarro. It also proves the timeless logic of the Grammys: If they get it right, it’s simply by virtue of luck’s promiscuity. This garish mis-match happens over and over as people like Josh Groban turn a Pavarotti tribute into something that sounds like The Little Mermaid‘s “Part of Your World”, and Beyonce played bending blonde pipe cleaner to Tina Turner’s liquid groove moves. It’s almost as if the past-meet-future theme was intended to show us how dystopian our lives have become. The future is necrophilia.

Fergie and John Legend

A few of the performances stood out. Kanye’s glow-in-the-dark “Stronger” managed a potent kind of energy, coupled with the stunning outlines of bright, rhythmic, neon-lit instruments and costumes. The performance works far better than his bratty stage antics and egomaniacal rebelliousness. I have nothing but sympathy for the death of his mother, but his imagined affronts to his assumed entitlements can be completely obnoxious. Hip-hop bravado needs an imaginative facelift lest it sound more and more like Donald Trump boring trapped party guests. Then there are the issues of artistry involved (“Stronger” is more Daft Punk’s than Kanye’s), since few, if any, major hip-hop talents get represented at the Grammys where, as Chris Brown tells us, DJ Jazzy Jeff first introduced the genre to the Recording Academy.

I’d say that’s a fairly doomed birth. Will.i.am performs a song that’s more of a wrap-up of the night’s winners and past luminaries, making him the greatest living mad lib. These moments expose the cracks in the institutional narrative of the Grammys. It is not some Smithsonian curator of pop treasure, but rather a bad skim, getting worse and worse as new mediums push the best artists up through non-traditional methods of exposure. The best you can hope for with the Grammys is that Jean Grae will be on 20 years from now performing with Miley Cyrus’s daughter.

Other than Kid Rock coming out to do a Louis Prima impression that begged for Old Yeller mercy, the most inane Grammy experiment involved having three amateur musicians play 30-second segments in order to join the illustrious orchestral backdrop of an outdoors Foo Fighter’s performance. That is, after home viewers texted in their votes. The gimmickry of it all was made worse only by the aesthetic thoughtlessness. There was no musical dialogue between the Foo Fighters and the orchestra, alternately grinding atop one another mindlessly or going silent so each half could have a few untrammeled moments of mediocrity. Once again, old and new meet in a death match where the viewers have the most to lose: their time.

Even the Amy Winehouse performance reeked of ironic purposeless. It wasn’t so much her live set that people waited for, but for the titillation of her personal problems splayed in public. She seemed dazed, k-holed, frozen out of herself, and so out of touch with her voice that she misshaped around every awkward line. But this is probably the most potent remnant of the Grammy mystique, the hope for a TMZ-worthy moment of inappropriate behavior. And she did “Rehab”. Get it? She’s a talented drug addict in an abusive relationship singing about how she refuses to get help. I have only suicide to recommend to people who still find entertainment in scoffing at their own condemned idols.

Amy Winehouse

The best moments of the evening came from simpler performances, proving that music’s power and influence in our lives does not depend on women spinning from the ceiling, volcanoes of smoke gushing into the air, or slapdash partnerships of classic acts with “never gonna’s”. However much you might think yourself too hip to like Feist because your mom likes her too, her performance was enthralling in its Spartan honesty. Every crack, every lilted note, and the ramshackle rhythm of her backing horns made the performance of “1,2,3,4” childishly magical. Similarly, Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock’s duet of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” left me utterly speechless. To hear such attentive interplay, such hugeness, such coy and sensual majesty pulled out of mad motions of fingers and air couldn’t have been a greater testament to the power of music, the way it is emotionally absorbed in ways far vaster than it can ever be understood.

I’m convinced that award shows have ceased to have a compelling rationale, if the thinnest of one ever existed. The Grammys acknowledge this by doing so few of the awards live and scrolling the majority in a stream of what look like music video headers in the bottom corner of your screen. Our current fascinations with celebrity are more prurient than transfixing, our obsessions with music hyper-narcissist and fleeting. The last remaining emotional stand of music, its refusal of a corporate ethos (many times feigned) has all but disappeared. The Grammys are a tradition whose bottom has fallen out, a relic still standing only because people are too bored to say otherwise.

Herbie Hancock (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

Herbie Hancock (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/MCT)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/dead-grammy-walking/