February 1st, 2010
Oh, Grammys. What is it about your mix of mediocrity and occasional awe that I find so irresistible?
Yes, I watched them, partially out of desire for the cheap thrill I get in predicting awards in the arts, but also for that time-tested disparity in quality. Actually, I think I have watched them for the last few years, though most of the shows are so forgettable and disjointed that I have a hard time remembering anything notable related to the festivities. That’s in contrast to, say, the Academy Awards, which, regardless of whether or not I agree with the award winners, usually have at least one memorable comedy bit, as well as a host who can bring the show cohesion.
The Grammys don’t have that, but luckily, they do have live music, and sometimes that makes it worth sitting through. Some of it was great, actually, and as usual the collaborations (Lady Gaga and Elton John, who despite their differences are both weird enough that a duet record would be sorta neat) managed to bring together artists I don’t mentally pair up (or listen to) and eke out some really nice performances. Even the curmudgeon in me who disliked the 3D novelty of the Michael Jackson tribute “mini-film” was able to enjoy the song that accompanied it, which was solidly performed1. That’s the Grammys’ appeal, and easily their best asset: big, grandiose live performances and interesting musician pairings. Cheap thrills, and that’s not a bad thing.
But the awards themselves are, and this year they continued to highlight the ignorance that defines the nominating committee. I mean, that the the winners are mostly determined by Billboard chartings and popularity is nothing new, but some of the choices this year brushed with absurdity. Let’s consider the “Record of the Year” award, which apparently is different than “Song of the Year” because “record” implies “single,” which itself means “song that was released in 2008 but can be rereleased in 2009 and qualify for the 2010 awards.” Maybe that’s being unfair to the idea of singles, but it’s probably how the Grammys select winners so expertly. Consider this: of the five songs that were nominated for Record of the Year, only one was actually recorded in 2009 — the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” It didn’t win, either; that was Kings of Leon, whose song “Use Somebody” came out in September of 2008. Really, guys?
Even if one were to defend the selections for the awards, the ones that are granted placement in the three-hour block aren’t a fair representation of the diversity of music awarded. Why two country performances and two rap performances, when it’s possible to take out one of each and replace them with world or jazz selections? The argument, I’m sure, involves ratings and demographics. I argue classing the Grammys up to cater to a more diverse set of musical interests would help, not hurt, their popularity, and that most people aren’t actually aware in advance of who plays at the show, watching it anyway out of hope they’ll see someone they like. Then again, I’m not the Grammy board.
Whine about it or not though, nothing is going to convince the committee to change their criteria for awards, barring some massive anti-pop sentiment. But if they’re not going to do that, then they should still play up their strengths and improve the presentations and performances. Again, they’re good, sometimes great, but never outstanding. Musically, some of them were, but none were particularly shocking or humorous. That Stephen Colbert won an award for “Best Comedy Album” and didn’t perform seems like an oversight considering how dry the show was. And the brief moments of opera that followed Robert Downey Jr’s appearance were faint but promising traces of what the Grammys could be, if jacked up with humor. For a show that takes itself so seriously, a degree of unorthodox thinking could go a long way in making the non-musical aspects much more enjoyable.
That being said, unorthodox thinking could probably help the musical aspects as well. Consider the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute from last October. Yes, another case of music industry self-indulgence, but a damned well performed one at that. Famous bands backed other singers’ songs, performances naturally segued in and out of each other, and there were surprise veteran musicians joining in for effective pairings2. It’s true that the Grammys and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame look in two different directions — one celebrating recent accomplishments with newer artists, the other lauding its past ones with older acts — but rock and roll has a history of stealing and borrowing from its past to help give it a gentle push. Now’s the time that the Grammys got a good, hard shove.
The occasional moment of brilliance: Smokey Robinson. The man turns 70 years old this month — at least 40 years the senior of some of his fellow musicians onstage — and he sang the living hell out of that song.
Guaranteed best way for the surprise musical guest to make people gasp? Two words: Mick Jagger.