PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Events

Oh, We're Supposed to Give Awards, Too?: The 2011 Grammy Awards

Amidst all the tributes, over-the-top performances, and CBS-centric presenters, the Grammy ceremony only occasionally remembered to hand out an award or two. But when it did, the results were often surprising ...

It all started with a giant egg ... being paraded down the red carpet.

Yes, the 2011 Grammy Awards were slated to be an epic pop-culture event, no doubt, what with the Lady Gaga -- the defining pop star of this decade -- doing a live performance of her new song "Born This Way" for the first time ever, all while the announcers going into commercial breaks kept reminding us that this will be "the performance everyone will be talking about tomorrow!" And, lo and behold, we're talking ... about the egg she emerged from more than the performance itself, her pointy-shouldered dance spectacle being completely upstaged by a futuristic R&B singer and an unexpectedly gorgeous Dolly Parton cover from a very unlikely trio. That said, this performance-heavy evening (only nine awards were handed out during the telecast) wound up gaining some traction only when some very surprising upsets began happening in late in the game, but by then, we had already had our senses overloaded not with the best music of the year, no, but a showcase of what was the most popular. In other words, Now That's What I Call a Grammy Broadcast!

In years previous, the Grammy Awards have been focused on giving a whole wide swath of artists from all genres equal chance to shine on stage, sometimes pairing up-and-comers with seasoned veterans for unexpected (and only occasionally pleasing) results. In last year's broadcast, however, the Grammy show producers realized that by just letting popular artists play their hits, people tune in, which is why this year's broadcast felt even more performance-centric than last year's. While last year at least had a few oddball categories presented here and there (Best Comedy Album was presented live? Sweet!), 2011's most outrageous award presentation went to ... Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Yes, this is truly daring television.

Country was represented strongly this evening (see: Lady Antebellum was represented strongly this evening), as was rap and pop, but, as with last year's broadcast, all other genres fell by the wayside. Classical was completely non-existent, the only Latin artist we heard singing was when Marc Anthony painfully reminded us what "Moon River" sounds like as he presented an award, and jazz was reduced to mere "background music" status so as to make Grammy President Neal Portnow's perpetually-boring speeches seem somewhat classy this time out (though as with every year, his annual speech proved to be a broadcast lowlight). Although Esperanza Spalding stunned with her upset victory in the Best New Artist category (essentially doing what Shelby Lynne did a decade ago at the same ceremony), fewer people would've been scratching their heads as to why she (deservedly) took the prize had she, ya know, been able to perform during the ceremony (other Best New Artist nominees Mumford & Sons, Drake, Justin Bieber, and Florence Welch from Florence & the Machine all performed during the broadcast). In her place, we got stars from all sorts of CBS shows delivering their usual batch of hackneyed jokes as they presented more Technicolor spectacles. So much for diversity.

Tribute performances dominated the evening, the show opening with a decent if too-long Aretha Franklin tribute wherein Christina Aguilera (hitting high notes that she wasn't able to at the Super Bowl), Martina McBride, Florence Welch, Jennifer Hudson, and Yolanda Adams did their vocal-acrobatic warbling to Aretha's big hits, the ceremony nearly ending the evening with Mick Jagger amusingly working his way through Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" (what Lady Antebellum were doing covering "If You Don't Know Me By Now", however, is anybody's guess). Although Bob Dylan's gravel-soaked voice was barely able to eke out a performance of "Maggie's Farm" halfway through the broadcast, it was obvious that his backing band (in the form of the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, the latter of whom gave an extraordinary performance mere moments before) were having the times of their life, amazed smiles fueling their energy all the way through.

The two best performances, however, came from two very unexpected sources. No, it wasn't from Rihanna, who performed with both Eminem and Drake at various points in the evening to a relatively passive audience response (rap has never translated very well on the Grammy stage, what with the dirty lines being beeped out completely, making our TV speakers totally mute at times); nor was it from Cee-Lo, who -- performing alongside Gwenyth Paltrow -- dressed up as Elton John dressed up as the NBC mascot in a quasi-lively rendition of "Fuck You" (or, as it was called during the Record of the Year portion of the broadcast, "The Song Otherwise Known as 'Forget You'") where he frequently missed the chorus of his hit song as a budget-basement Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem played behind him (and the less said about Barbra Streisand's snooze-inducing performance of "Evergreen" or the BMX-bikers who rode around pointlessly during the Arcade Fire's epilepsy-inducing rendition of "Month of May", the better).

No, the first stunning performance came from Janelle Monaé, the pint-sized R&B futurist who followed B.o.B.'s string-laden take on "Nothin' on You" and Bruno Mars' surprisingly-savvy doo-wop rendition of "Grenade" with a high-energy run through of her single "Cold War", complete with crowd surfing, wild electric guitar solos (with Mars taking over on drums), and her note-perfect vocal wailing. While othere people merely performed, she set the stage on fire with her unbridled energy, and the audience responded in kind, Mars & B.o.B. (on guitar) completely grooving on what was transpiring. Ultimately, that small stretch of songs turned out to be one of the most enjoyable moments of the whole evening, Monaé proving to be the perfect climax to the whole she-bang (she did make PopMatters' Album of the Year, let's not forget).

The second stunner came from a very unexpected source: Keith Urban, Norah Jones, and John Mayer (having looked like he just barely walked off the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) stood in front of a mic stand with only two acoustic guitars between them, and they gave a fiery, soulful version of Dolly Parton's already-fiery classic "Jolene", the whole thing coming off as not only one of the most soulful moments of the evening, but also one of the most high-energy (no dancing was involved, but you could clearly see how invested they all were in the tune). The performance was way too short, but it left an indelible impression, proving that perhaps instead of hyping of Lady Gaga's surprisingly straightforward performance to the high heavens, perhaps injecting sweetly unexpected surprises into the broadcast are just what this this ceremony needs to keep things interesting.

However, interesting appeared to be the last thing on the Grammy Award agenda as the evening finally built up to the big headlining awards. Lady Antebellum wound up walking away with both Record & Song of the Year for their drunk dial tale "Need You Now", the band becoming even more flustered with each subsequent win (although come to think of it, does Dave Haywood even speak? Is he the Harpo Marx of the band?). Things seemed to be set up for them to take Album of the Year as well, pulling off the rare three-peat, but at the last possible moment, Striesand opened the envelope and announced one of the most unexpected upsets in recent Grammy memory: Canada's the Arcade Fire pulled away with the win.

You have to take this into perspective: this year, instead of tossing out the Album of the Year to Robert Plant or Sade or another predictably "safe" Grammy nominee, this year the AOTY nominees were Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum, Katy Perry, Eminem, and the Arcade Fire -- all very young, relatively new artists who represent very different parts of the pop music climate. The Arcade Fire's win marks the first time in recent memory that the Album of the Year Grammy has gone to a band on a wholly independent label in some time, and while it's assuredly not an indication of where the Grammy Awards will be heading in the future, it is a massively reassuring gesture to the music community at large, showing that even without major radio play or even a true hit single to boot, independent music can still be recognized right along side its major-label brethren without anyone's feelings getting hurt, much to the delight of fans from all walks of life. If this win indicates anything, it's that the definition of "mainstream music" has never been as broad as it is right now -- and that's just damn fantastic.

After a quick bi-lingual speech to a still-stunned crowd, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler soon gave the quote of the evening, saying "We're going to play another song because we like music", immediately taking the stage behind them so that they could finish off the ceremont with their excellent rocker "Ready to Start", Win noting beforehand that they were about to play the song that people leave to. Sure, there were whole stretches of time where you forgot it was an awards ceremony, several genres were considered too slight to even be represented this year, and the whole television broadcast was poorly directed from a technical standpoint (often you'd see prop pieces or crew members move right into performance shots, sometimes even in the foreground), but with a few knockout performances and a delightfully unexpected ending, this year's Grammy Awards proved to be only a slight step down from last year's excessive-to-the-point-of-entertaining broadcast, proving that even at 53 years old, this Awards Show has still got some surprises left in it ...

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.