Good Grammys

There’s one thing that most music fans or any casual observer of pop culture can usually agree on, no matter what kind of music they listen to: the Grammys suck. It’s an easy mark- none or most of your favorite artists ever win, it’s run by old fogies, it’s rigged to favor the stars, it doesn’t really mean anything. Most of your friends don’t watch it, wouldn’t be caught dead watching it and they’d probably think that you’re weird if you tune in. So at the risk of appearing powerfully uncool, I have to admit something- I watched the Grammys and I actually liked them. Oh, the shame…

At this point, you might have stopped reading because you’re so opposed to the Grammys that anyone who’s going to defend them has to be insane and believe me, I understand. I’ve thought the same thing for years. I’ve hated the Grammys for the longest time for the simple reason that like for many people, they don’t reflect my tastes. In my own musical universe, I would have loved to have seen Chris Knight, Kinky, DJ Drama, Ghostface Killah, Sloan, Grandaddy, Sonic Youth, Exene Cervanka, Tim Hecker and other favorites get their props for their ’06 albums but they didn’t (though Dion got nominated and composer Osvaldo Golijov did win). By now, I understand that my personal favorites aren’t likely to be Grammy nominees much less winners and I’m not alone- compare the Pazz & Jop poll to the NARAS listing any year and you’ll find pretty wide discrepancies too. Figure that almost all of the 11,000 voting Grammy members are insiders who keep annointing their own but even so, in that rarefied group, there are still always some admirable folks now and then.

As for the significance of the Grammys themselves, if you want to think of them as a big congratulatory party for the industry or a popularity contest that almost always rewards (or at least nominates) the biggest shots in each field, then you’re not too far off the mark either. Some acts do get a sales bounce after picking up some awards and they can figure that their peers gave them a big pat on the back. Also, it looks good on their resume (promo sheets) and gives them some bragging rights. Then again, just like the Oscars, many deserving artists never bagged a Grammy (I don’t seem to remember any for Swamp Dogg, La Monte Young or Captain Beefheart) and plenty have gotten them that shouldn’t have (need I mention Milli… you know…).

OK, so once you can get past the unfairness of it all and in the insider, cliquishness of it and see that it’s just another awards show, you realize “so why the hell should I care or bother?” The reason for me nowadays isn’t necessarily to hear about the winners. Many of the notable ones weren’t even part of the three-hour plus televised section- The Flaming Lips, the Fat Waller box set, Randy Newman, comedian Lewis Black, former prez Jimmy Carter, the Klezmatics, Irma Thomas, Ike Turner, Nancy Wilson, Slayer, Wolfmother and Madonna all won awards. Hell, Peter Frampton and George Benson did too. You might not have known it but so did Bob Dylan and Gnarls Barkley, both of whom got turned away from several televised awards. You can see the whole list here.

And with a few exceptions, you’re not going to be remembering the acceptance speeches. God, Jesus, family, managers, friends et all get thanked again and again as the winner blathers until the house band drowns them out as if to say “Get the hell off the stage- we got a lot of other stuff to do.” This year though, the first televised award was pretty moving with both Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett breaking down (SW for his late mom). Also, Mary J. Blige did have a lot to be grateful for. Still, you have to wonder if uber-producer Rick Rubin (who was thanked from the stage numerous times and won a bunch of awards) had the right idea by staying away from the whole thing.

So what’s left to care about or watch at the Grammys? A: the performances. Granted that even on good years, these are uneven and look better on paper than they do in execution but I really thought they did a decent job this year. I switched off for while during the Eagles tribute and the Police tribute was mostly notable just for happening but otherwise, it was a good show, which is the least you could ask for during an awards show- you don’t see any scenes acted out during the Oscars, do you?

It was nice and appropriate to see Joan Baez introduce the Dixie Chicks and good that Booker T and the MG’s were honored (even if Fergie was tripping over her words). Justin Timberlake’s performance of “What Goes Around” convinced me that it’s a really good song (which I didn’t think before). The Mayer/Rae/Legend trio performance was decent if not exactly moving. Shakira and Wyclef Jean were though and so was the bolero version of “Crazy” that Gnarls B did. Ludacris (who I used to hate) did a good performance with Mary J and you gotta love how he dedicated his award to bigmouth cable host Bill O’Reilly (who led a boycott against Luda). Even though I couldn’t stand her tribute with Rascal Flats to Henley and friends, Carrie Underwood did a nice Bob Wills tribute. And who’s gonna deny Smokey Robinson going up there to sing a song (screw the people making jokes about how his face looks nowadays)? Could have done without Lionel Ritchie’s ballad after that though… As for Chris Brown, the guy’s acrobatic set was memorable at the very least. The “American Idol” style unknown-singer contest was hokey but Robyn Troup did do a good job crooning with Timberlake later. Chili Peppers’ performance was notable mostly for all the confetti showed on the crowd and a banner honoring one of the Lifetime Achievement winners: when they won for best rock album, it was cute to hear the drummer say “We need more rock bands!” like they’re an endangered species. And though it was nice to see Al Gore up there getting his enviro props, you had to wonder if his wife Tipper shared his embrace of the music industry. And Scarlett Johansson presenting an award at the end ’cause she’s beginning her recording career (with an album of Tom Waits songs)? So while it was uneven, it was always interesting at least.

The honoree part was both strange and gratifying. Among others, NARAS finally decided to salute the Grateful Dead (represented there only by their drummers), the Doors (represented by Robbie Krieger) and… Ornette Coleman?? There he was in the flesh, not only being toasted by Natalie Cole but also doing his work as a presenter. Fifty years plus in the biz and he finally gets his due. Even the Chilli Peppers toasted him with a banner during their set (best thing about it). During the recently-deceased film clip segment, all sorts of great cult artists got tapped- Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, J. Dilla, Ali Farka Toure. Plus of course they had to note James Brown and while it was appropriate to have his cape brought out and left on a mike stand (by Bobby Byrd?) and interesting to have Christina sing “This is A Man’s World,” they should have had something much more extensive worthy of the man: remember the tribute to Joe Strummer they did with Springsteen and Costello?

And while it was gratifying to see the Dixie Chicks sweep the place clean for awards, what wasn’t said was as important as what was said. Note that they didn’t make any overt political speeches during the awards- at this point, they didn’t need to. Also, though someone like Henley let out a “YESSS!” at the end when they took home the big prize of album of the year, I wondered if they truly earned it because of their music or their sass, not just at Dubya but the country industry that shunned them during their own award ceremony and on the radio.

At the very least, I was really grateful that NARAS head Neil Portnow didn’t take a sanctimonious swipe at Apple over DRM or beat up on downloaders, instead promoting youth programs that gives the organization a better public image.

So yeah, I did enjoy the show. I wouldn’t have scolded anyone for missing it but it was pretty good quality TV at the very least, which is more than you can say for most of network TV.

NARAS wised up about getting beat down by American Idol by not competing with them head-to-head this year but if they’re smart, they’ll still worry about how relevant and how watched they are. They’ve been such a bad joke for so many years that even a good telecast isn’t going to wipe away that perception.