Trophy Case: The 2008 Grammy Awards

For the first time in a long time, the Grammy Awards were thrilling.

The actual broadcast, meanwhile, remained as bloated and overlong as usual, featuring a handful of genuinely emotional moments that were drowned out by an onslaught of choreographed routines that were rehearsed within an inch of their own lives. It wasn’t long before we were introduced to the on-screen graphics which featured each nominee, all dressed up as a hip iPod-styled playlist; a true sign that the Recording Academy was embracing digital media while also playing down its own illegal downloading ads that were premiered just a few years prior. The performances ranged from purely nostalgic (John Fogerty playing with Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis) to utterly charming (Feist re-doing “1 2 3 4” with just her guitar and a brass section), totally dispensable (Fergie and John Legend) to surprisingly potent (Lang Lang & Herbie Hancock playing dual piano to the complete “Rhapsody in Blue”), and everywhere in between.

Yet, somehow, Kanye West was able to make the entire evening about himself.

It wasn’t just because the rapper had made it well known that this would be his year for winning the coveted Album of the Year award (this was his third nomination for it), but it’s also because he — of all people — wound up delivering the most soulful performance of the evening. Following a commercial break, Kanye — fitted with more electric lights than any one person should wear at any given time — broke into “Stronger”, filling the stage with the energy of a true performer, all while Daft Punk did their sonic trickery from their Devo-styled pyramid. It was a spectacle filled with flashing lights and lots of glitz, but as soon as the song was finished, we were treated with a genuine surprise. Kanye stood on a nearly-bare stage, an unseen string section backing him very faintly while he delivered a surprisingly heartfelt, meaningful rendition of his classic track “Hey Mama”, a song that had even more poignancy now, given how it was only a few months ago that his mother passed away following surgery. Though West didn’t cry onstage, it was obvious that he was going to at any given moment, his anguish genuine and his love sincere. The second the song ended, the house exploded with applause and for good reason: rarely is actual emotion put forth during a televised awards ceremony.

It’s a lesson that many people need to learn: even though Carrie Underwood appeared to be aided by the cast of STOMP! at the beginning of her own “Before He Cheats”, she often mistook Aguilera-styled octave chasing for genuine human emotion (a problem that also dogs all of Fergie’s performances). Yet Underwood was not the only artist to have a less-than-stellar showing. The cast of LOVE — a.k.a. the Cirque de Soleil tribute to the Beatles — wound up doing a mildly confusing interpretive dance of “A Day in the Life” in which a VW Beetle exploded into pieces that wound up smacking an aerial acrobatic performer like a fly on a windshield. This was immediately followed by a gospel-affected take on “Let It Be”, which doubled-over as a nice advertisement for the Across the Universe DVD released only a few days prior.

Yet if that wasn’t enough to satisfy your commercialized Beatles fix, then fret not. One of the most frequent ads that popped up during the commercial breaks was for Target’s “Goodbuy” campaign, in which the Fab Four’s “Hello Goodbye” is redone in a myriad of styles so that you associate all of your good Magical Mystery Tour memories with buying six-packs of Pepsi at your local Target Supercenter.

Yes, pilfering musical memories seemed to be the top priority at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards. After all, few things invoke as much terror as the phrase “ rapping over ‘Mack the Knife'”… which (unfortunately) is exactly what happened. A pointless time-filler if there ever was one, the Black Eyed Peas producer rapped about the “Jammies” at the “Grammy’s” over the original recordings of “Mack”, “Strangers in the Night”, and even “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.

Yet for being such a cringe-worthy moment, it was somewhat offset by the surprisingly classy show opener in which Alicia Keys did a “digital duet” with Frank Sinatra that was remarkably sophisticated and genuinely respectful. Then, shortly after Prince presented an award, the most unlikely reunion of the year transpired: Morris Day & the Time took to the stage, performing “Jungle Love” — complete with original Purple Rain choreography — before turning into Rhianna’s backing band. With “Umbrella” suddenly recast as a top-notch Prince track, it never sounded better. Of course, this off-kilter magic was immediately bulldozed when the backing track of her current hit “Please Don’t Stop the Music” came pulsing through the speakers, soon devolving into another choreographed dumbshow that was littered with breakdancing white boys and only the remnants of actual talent.

Is this really what the Grammy has slowly devolved into: a glammed-up pyrotechnic festival that panders to the industry’s top pop purveyors for maximum advertising space?

Absolutely. Nowhere else will you see the nuances of the big-budget award show get meshed with the instant-satisfaction interaction of a reality show, which is all encapsulated with “My Grammy Moment”. Last year, you could vote or text for one of three singers to share the stage with Justin Timberlake — and they even got to duet with him (how innovative!). This year, three young string musicians vied for the opportunity to play with the “My Grammy Moment Orchestra” as they accompanied the Foo Fighters during their performance of “The Pretender” (a Record of the Year nominee). The Foo’s brought their A-game as per usual, but the orchestrations didn’t really kick in until the end of the song, soon transforming the rock hit into a Bond theme. Oh, and the young violinist who was voted to play onstage for her “Grammy Moment”? Completely drowned out by the Foo’s amps. You couldn’t hear a note she played. The situation was made somewhat less awkward by having the “Grammy Moment” segment hosted by Jason Bateman. His quick-witted and self-deprecating humor was what made all that pointless buildup at least somewhat tolerable.

Of course, so little has been mentioned of the actual awards up to this point, but for such a spectacle-driven evening, does it really matter who won the Rap/Sung Collaboration Grammy (it was Rhianna, by the way)? Or that the aforementioned LOVE soundtrack beat out Across the Universe and Once for the Best Soundtrack Grammy?

No, we’re here to have Beyonce duet with Tina Turner, to have Brad Paisley drop another litany of innuendos onto a somewhat-suspecting populace, and to watch as Amy Winehouse spends about six minutes flirting with the “via satellite” camera before she is stunned speechless by the announcement of “Rehab” taking home the Record of the Year award. We’re here to see if Kanye gets upset for not winning the Album of the Year award (which both Usher and Vince Gill wound up teasing him about). We’re here to see our favorite music personalities clash together for better and for worse, all in the name of Nielsen viewer totals. Yet, perhaps we’re all motivated by a more intriguing notion: what if we’re all here to see if something will happen… something truly unexpected, profoundly interesting, or even “water-cooler worthy” in the end. Yes, it’s all becoming clear now…

… we’re here for Herbie Hancock.

When the aging jazz pianist was announced as winner for Album of the Year, the look on Hancock’s face was that of the most surprised man in the world. Going into the ceremony, Vegas bet-takers were counting their piles of cash that people had foisted on both Kanye and Winehouse: a true battle of cutting-edge vs. forced nostalgia. For Herbie Hancock to have his little Joni Mitchell tribute album River take home the top prize is nothing short of a miracle. Upon taking the stage, the stunned Hancock noted how it was 43 years since a jazz artist had won an Album of the Year statue, and suddenly — with that one statement — he brought it all into focus.

The years since then, the albums that had come and gone: the Grammy lineage suddenly had some weight to it. Had it really been that long since a jazz album had taken that prize? Does such a notion imply that jazz simply hadn’t involved in the years since that album… what was it called again? Hancock unfortunately failed to mention what that specific album was, but for those of you who have a copy of the 1964 Stan Getz/João Gilberto classic Getz/Gilberto (awarded the statue the following year), you know full well that that album was truly an innovation in music: it was what ultimately brought the bossa nova style to a worldwide audience, opening up tired-and-true American jazz music to an infinitive number of international styles.

River: The Joni Letters is nowhere near as revolutionary, but that’s only to be expected: in recent years, the Grammys have truly been more about the spectacle than the actual awards. If we truly are using the Album of the Year Grammy as the measuring stick of great musical achievements, then exactly where does Toto IV fit into the scale of things? Or Christopher Cross’ debut, for that matter? More importantly: do we still even own those records? Anyone?

The line between artistic acceptance and commercial viability is a fine one. It’s just unfortunate that such a line has been blurred by the Grammy committee so frequently in recent years. The catchphrase for this year’s ceremony was “Here’s to the next 50 years”. At this rate, however, the 100th Grammy Awards is going to be another batch of vapid, aural pornography: meant to titillate and nothing more. Whether or not we still have standard television by then, the results will be the same: it’ll still be one hell of a sad sight.