On February 10, the Grammy Awards marked their fiftieth anniversary with a program so misguided and wrongheaded that it perfectly encapsulated all of the music industry's current woes. Following a suitably embalmed duet with the thoroughly dead Frank Sinatra, appearing in stock footage, Alicia Keys declared, "We honor our past, celebrate our present and always look to the future." But of these three options, the first got the lion's share of attention, suggesting that nostalgia for the good old days, when executives were making mountains of moolah, has superceded the quest to find and laud anything new or fresh.
The main headlines about the evening centered on Amy Winehouse, who racked up five Grammy wins despite being denied entry into the U.S. -- apparently because she's so unstable she qualifies as a weapon of mass destruction. But while her album, Back to Black, and mondo-ironic single, "Rehab," are actually way better than most Grammy magnets, she didn't triumph based on quality. Rather, she owes her success to the fact that she fits a certain Grammy archetype: the new (or newish) artist whose music is essentially retro. When viewed from that perspective, she's essentially Norah Jones, except that her most significant personality attribute is a self-destructive streak as wide as the Atlantic instead of girl-next-door niceness.
Plenty of other stereotypes stayed true to form, too -- including the pairings of veteran artists with younger, contemporary sorts. Granted, this technique works on occassion -- think of the sparks set off by Prince and Beyonce a few years back. But the Grammy producers are too in love with the format, which all too often spurs agony, not ecstasy.
Examples? The juxtaposition of Rihanna and a reunited Time made absolutely no sense and failed to enhance either act. Shortly thereafter, a stunning intro by Beyonce, who looked as if she had been sculpted by the gods, gave way to an awkward set by Tina Turner, who sounded decent but looked scary in a fright wig and an outfit that no woman her age could have pulled off. The whole debacle ended with Beyonce and Turner teaming on a version of "Proud Mary" in which the younger singer was cast, sort of, as Tina's late ex-husband, mad-handing Ike Turner. Betcha Laurence Fishburne was as confused as the rest of America by that.
It only got worse from there. A clunk-clunk-clunky version of "That Old Black Magic" by Keely Smith and Kid Rock? Pathetic. An appearance by Jerry Lee Lewis, who looks so much like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies that Peter Jackson has grounds for a lawsuit? Beyond sad. Luciano Pavarotti eulogizers Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban endeavoring to out-bellow each other? Painful in the extreme. And that's not to mention an extended Beatles tribute featuring Cirque du Soleil performers and cast members from Across the Universe (now available on DVD!) that blew big-time despite receiving the de facto endorsements of Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono, who sat beaming in the audience -- perhaps dreaming of ever-bigger royalty checks.
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Predictably, the Grammy's few attempts to seem au currant proved equally embarrassing. Poor Jason Bateman, who was made to emcee a viewer vote for a string player to join the Foo Fighters for a song. (The playing samples on which folks got to vote ran ten seconds or less...) And while the nods to country weren't quite that bad, they hardly stirred much excitement. Carrie Underwood's showcase was such a "These Boots Were Made For Walking" flashback that it's a wonder Nancy Sinatra didn't wander out at mid-song (thank goodness for small favors), while Brad Paisley's ditty could have passed for a truck commercial -- which it'll probably become before the week's out.
Then again, these missteps pale in comparison to Herbie Hancock's victory in the Best Album category for River: The Joni Letters. Don't get me wrong: I'm a big Herbie Hancock fan. But over his long and noteworthy career, he's either led or appeared on dozens of recording projects more worthy of recognition than this one. So why did he win? In retrospect, River also fits a certain cliched Grammy template: the all-star project with a tony pedigree overseen by a well-respected veteran artist. Think of Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company, which swept the awards in 2006.
What's any of this say about music in 2008? Damn little. As a result, Grammy watchers were left with just two moments that felt surprising and satisfying. The first came when Kanye West, accepting a trophy for Best Hip-Hop Album, suggested that the director using underscored music to play him off the stage before he could pay tribute to his late mother was exhibiting poor taste. An instant later, the music stopped. The second centered on Winehouse's victory in the Record of the Year category. During her previous performance, seen live via satellite from the U.K., she'd exhibited more than her share of nerves; she jerked like a marionette, her spindly arms and thighs, which were roughly the same width, shuddering spasmodically. But when she was announced the winner, she stood in place, slack-jawed, for a moment that got funnier the longer it lasted. Her crazed acceptance speech, in which she offered a poetic shout-out to her husband -- "my Blake incarcerated," she declared -- proved far more genuine than the figurative gravedigging that had preceded it.
Moments like this one have been few and far between during the Grammy's first fifty years -- and the ceremony's less-than-sparkling golden anniversary doesn't bode well for the future. -- Michael Roberts