I would be surprised if, in its current incarnation, the Grammys survive into another decade. Like network television, the Grammys seem ossified and caught in a cultural shift that they are not prepared to transform through. Even NPR ran a puzzled story “If You Could Vote, Who Would Win a Grammy? NPR that questioned the award’s wishy-washy Goldilocks merits: not just album sales, clearly not just artistry. The Grammy hails from a time when wizard’s curtains reigned and a mysterious cabal of industry executives and their accountants could invent an award whole cloth and with a little showbiz razzle dazzle suffuse it with significance. It’s just that sort of quaint old world hierarchy that makes the Grammys seem like a festering boomer leftover, far removed from the present where major labels live in post-apocalyptic decline and the music world is ruled by a Thunderdome of tech-savvy thieves and homebound bloggers. Ours is the anarchic age of the shut in.
The Grammys can’t be held entirely responsible for the worse-than-golf suffering of sitting through the positively obese telecast — only made tolerable for me by the live, hilariously skewering coverage of tech writer, Xeni Jardin’s Xeni Jardin Twitter feed on my laptop. Maybe it’s the old man in me, but it seems like they just don’t make generic pop stars like they used to; or rather, they make the exactly like they used to. The problem comes from the fact that the common denominators that made Michael Jackson part of a generation’s childhood simply don”t exist anymore. The internet has decentralized taste and microscopically particularized desire and collective identification. The secular sainthood (a term borrowed from author, Samantha Barbas) that made Elvis pelvis’ a force of history has no traction in a world where you get your friend’s relationship status, your new music and your news in the same user-obsessed medium. In the words of Fergie, everything is so “two thousand and late”.
Watching the Grammys, it’s hard to imagine pop music was ever a threat to the social order. Sure, someone might be unnerved by Lady Gaga’s Madonna Antoinette iconography, but it’s pure stunt shock in a culture totally saturated with images far more intensely pornographic. Didn’t Samantha Fox and Björk already do this in separated non-mash up form? Lady Gaga is a derivative throwback, a checklist of simulated allure and hollow mystery, despite the fact that several seemingly credible music writers strain to argue for her searing relevance. This overdetermination of Gaga is the unused Liberal Arts degree version of the Madonna Studies phenomena; itself a brief home of the unused PhD. She also seems like the only person on the stage that has the husk of a pop star surrounding her, desperately conceived, but still a recognizable ghost of a shell.
With the exception of the Drake, Lil Wayne and Eminem performance, the Grammys dragged with a bleeding limp. I fully understand the rich tradition of pop music employing the spectacle to invoke the sense of the mythic that comes from being emotionally swept into the musical moment. To be even handed with the Grammys, it has produced some pretty inspiring stage shows, even with one-hit pretty boy, Ricky Martin. While I admired her athleticism, Pink’s performance was a yawning Cirque du Flashdance. The Grammys already did a Cirque du Soleil tribute in 2008 to celebrate the Beatles. Michael Jackson’s music will also touring the country under the Cirque du Soleil brand, making this the new old standby.
Expect the next Rotary Club meeting to be chicken breast served plate-for-plate by trapeze artists. If, as the indefatigable Cintra Wilson argues, Vegas is the graveyard of pop culture, perhaps the bankruptcy of Las Vegas is producing this kind of new zombieland space where pop dies right before our eyes instead of being politely pastured for us when we become grandparents spending our children’s inheritance. Maybe this is an acknowledgment that there will be no more inheritance. That’s about how I feel when the Grammys makes it’s not-so-subtle lineage arguments by putting Stevie Nicks and Taylor Swift together for a duet.
I know all the fashion attention of the Grammys will rightfully center around Lady Gaga’s sci-fi burlesque, but Pink deserves accolades for debuting the stripper-burka with its pleasure trail neckline rendering of traditional Islamic dress, even if it ends up earning her a Salman Rushdie-style fatwa. Performances like this represent the quiet neutering of awe. The Plasmatics used to blow up cars in dingy clubs and lead singer, Wendy O. Williams once drove a school bus into a wall of televisions, jumping to a helicopter ladder with a sprained ankle before impact. Not to mention she had more fierce sexy appeal than Lady Gaga and Pink combined, and did it all on a pinched nickel. That’s entertainment, people.
Beyoncé’s stage, by contrast, looked unnervingly empty in her medley that was strangely bereft of physical grace. She jogged from one stage to the next, punctuating the sprints with an inexplicable whip-fan neck move that forced her to keep pulling her hair off of her sweaty face. She just seems bigger than the desert of her background which only foregrounded the relative weakness of her voice. Being able to sing has never been particularly important in pop music (nor should it be). Absent the necessary distraction (even her dress sheared in a backwards diagonal that spotlit attention squarely on her), she couldn’t even hold up the edges of an Alanis Morrissette cover. Beyoncé has mastered the hook, the clean glamor girl image and inspires the kind of cultish fanaticism that hallmarks great pop art. I just wish there was more visual power in any of her performances, which tend to run in the opposite Gaga extreme, almost devoid of any palpable musical touchstones.
Every year I lament the craven calculations of the Grammys lifetime achievement awards where tremendous talents get to smile from their chairs or, worse, have their legacy crammed into washed out compliments delivered by Chris O Donnell? What is that, the budgeter’s Jason Bateman? No, actually it was just a way for CBS to plug the Los Angeles branch of the CSIfranchise, a crushing and tacky disservice. If older artists do appear, they get Frankensteined with some younger nominee who has absolutely no relationship to their music. Why would anyone even think to have Taylor Swift sing with Stevie Nicks? They have no plausible artistic dialogue.
I guess we should just be thankful that they didn’t make Stevie juggle flaming bowling pins. It would add a level of class to the proceeding if they didn’t simply pass over winners like Leonard Cohen (who is still alive and performing) as if they are tombstones. This could be done without resorting to cheaply grandiose ideas of spectacularity. One of the least annoying performances of the evening was from a band I had never heard (Lady Antebellum). They, wait for it, played their song live. Sure, it was that dessicated contemporary Nashville sound and the choreography was shades of Grease, but they seemed to be “all in”, just a working band admirably giving it up for the amphitheater.
Two performances stood out for their raking egregiousness, but there’s no need to heap too much scorn on Jamie Foxx. He just isn’t a musical force and joins a long line of actors deluded into believing in the interchangeability of artistic craft. His “keep adding performers to the stage” method never erased the fact that he looked perpetually on the verge of laughing at this indulgence in persona and couldn’t dilute his own absence in the bum rush of betters.
By far the most ridiculous point in the evening came from the S&M career day embarrassment of the Black Eyed Peas. They have one of the saddest musical trajectories I’ve ever witnessed. I was complicit in this garish conspiracy until the ground got shaky in the prophetic “Let’s Get Retarded” era of their catalog. Hopefully, demonstrating the obvious won’t get me assaulted by their entourage who were previously deployed, secret police style, against inter-gnat, Perez Hilton — because that’s how you work for Target and maintain street cred. One has to admit the delicious irony of the gay bash by proxy given how much the band that began sounding like they could be the next incarnation of Tribe Called Quest but ended up more like our generation’s Village People. Will.i.am came out dressed as the gimp from Pulp Fiction and Fergie appeared as a Tron umpire. This performance was visually catastrophic, though honestly, a flooding bit of comic relief, even campier than Elton John with Lady Gaga.
Was the Michael Jackson tribute some kind of Avatar tie-in? Everybody had 3-D glasses on and the video accompanying the all star tribute had shades of Navi foliage in the lush jungle plant life. The performance was devotedly solid, even if the material was some of his weakest. Michael Jackson is the kind of singularly remarkable figure in music history that shows how pop music can resonate and reverberate with a miraculous global span. Still, the segment reeked of the family’s ghoulish, grave-robbing opportunism. Using his children on the podium was morally repulsive. It would be easy to argue that Fame on the scale Michael Jackson experienced dehumanized and deformed his existence, preventing him from becoming an adult and breaking his spirit in a tragic cycle of narcotic numbing out. I have a feeling that the Jackson’s would allow his body to lie in state, Lenin style, if they thought it’d pay Jermaine’s electric bill.
Those children deserve a life without fame and some semblance of normalcy, not a life as spokespeople for this half-baked notion that Michael Jackson had some posthumous political and cultural program that we should try to implement. If you had any doubts that this “tribute” was little more than a collection plate, the telecast immediately cut to a commercial for the just released, This Is It on DVD.
Even Quentin Tarantino, doing audio blackface in mumu polka dots couldn’t ruin the highlight of the evening. Eminem, Lil Wayne, and to a much lesser extent, Drake, absolutely dominated the stage, projecting confidence and skill that could only be measured by the megaton. This is the kind of kinetic kismet that makes a show like this worth watching, by experimenting with the brightest lights in the genre, putting them together in an explosive performative concoction. Their performance also showcases how talent obviates the need for overcompensating window dressing. Both Eminem and Lil Wayne hold the center of attention with furious clenched fists, their bodies moving in martial, definitive jolts. For one fleeting moment, you could almost feel the connection to the crowd and the stage, an oasis in three hours plus of excessively walk throughs.
It wouldn’t take a genius to revamp this ceremony, especially since the nomination process itself is so fluid. The Grammys could be simultaneously cutting edge and curatorial, letting the legends perform alongside the best of the year’s tastemakers. There’s no shortage of great musical acts. In fact, I can remember no time in my adult life when I’ve heard so many artists in a given year that sounded groundbreaking, fascinating and worthy of recognition. The Kings of Leon’s nod was a step in the right direction, though, honestly, does it matter?
Musicians have more artificial honors bestowed upon them than any other form of the arts (e.g., the American Music Awards, the Grammys, the CMAs, the People’s Choice Awards, the MTV Awards) In the grand scheme of the entertainment world, the Grammys deeply creeping obsolescence means very little to very few. And as many of us know, there is a certain kung fu honor in being appropriately insignificant.