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

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 …