Tuesday, February 12, 2013

55th Annual Grammy Awards (CBS/National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, February 11, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was able to watch most of the Grammy Awards with Charles — a testament to what’s wrong with music today: virtually all the pop songs in all the major genres (except rap, which remains mired in its relentless ugliness) have settled into a formula of gooey romantic (or equally gooey anti-romantic) sentiments, mated to bland pop noises in the background and used as little more than the backing for highly spectacular, pyrotechnic performances. I give credit to Kelly Clarkson (though there’s a certain country-of-the-blind quality of the lineup of Grammy performers that the rest of them were so bland Kelly Clarkson emerged as one of the greats of soul by comparison!) and Jack White (who came off as so relentlessly antisocial it’s as if the Sex Pistols had been booked at the Woodstock anniversary celebration, and whose two songs were trying a bit too hard to be against the grain but were marvelous jolts of electricity anyway) for breaking out of the pop-pap norm of the evening, but the show overall lacked any really legendary performers (except Sting and Elton John, both of whom participated only in tributes to other people — Sting sang his own reggae-influenced “Walking on the Moon” in the middle of a tribute to Bob Marley in which his sons Ziggy and Damien far outclassed the rest of the performers, though even then Marley’s politically and socially conscious side was totally ignored: “Get Up, Stand Up” was referenced only in the introduction, and “I Shot the Sheriff”? “Burnin’ and Lootin’”? “Rastaman Chant”? “Redemption Song”? Never heard of ’em!; and Elton John joined a tribute to Levon Helm that consisted of an all-star performance of the song “The Weight”: E. J. looks like an old-maid aunt from a British family but the occasion and the song inspired him to what’s probably his most soulful piano playing in decades) and Taylor Swift was the opening act instead of McCartney, Springsteen or Joel. — 2/11/13


This time around I got to watch the Grammy Awards show start to finish, including the remarkable (which is putting it politely) opening number by Taylor Swift to her song “We Are Not Ever Getting Back Together,” which featured a young man, supposedly portraying the man Swift’s character is not ever getting back together with, strapped to a giant disc with a black-and-white spiral pattern painted on it and apparently being whipped — an image that reminded me of the similar scene in the ghastly Willy Decker production of Verdi’s La Traviata now playing at the Met, in which a similarly suspended wheel painted with roulette symbols is supposed to symbolize how Violetta has become a big loser in the game of life. The Los Angeles Times didn’t like this number — an article in this morning’s paper bylined merely as “By Times Pop Music Staff” called it “a circus, literally. An acrobat in a bunny suit. A clown on a flaming tricycle. A mime (shudder). Somewhere lost in the Cirque-meets-petting-farm nightmare was a performance by Taylor Swift. The sheer desperation to create that Grammy Moment made it a moment all right, but not the kind the Recording Academy most likely wants to be remembered for.” Actually I liked the opening number for its sheer over-the-topness; when you can’t get someone to open your show who’s truly legendary (like Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, U2 or Sting), make the best of what you have, book an artist with a basically appealing voice but who needs the help of an elaborate production, and give it to her.

This wasn’t the most ridiculous production all night, either; after all the insane pyrotechnics (literally and figuratively) it was a real relief to see Jaunés sing Elton John’s “Your Song” — mostly in English, though with about half of a chorus in Spanish (frankly I’d have liked it better if it had all been in Spanish; this lyric is one of Bernie Taupin’s most ridiculously sappy and I’ve never warmed to the song even in Elton’s original version, which not surprisingly is considerably better sung than the way he does it now) — and trust himself and his guitar to carry the message without all the insane super-spectacular production the other artists were using. Seeing the show from the beginning, and seeing about three-fifths of it for the second time, the music didn’t seem quite so homogeneous as it had before, though it still seemed to me that the genre lines are blurring but not in a positive way. Instead of cross-fertilizing each other with new ideas and creating genuinely innovative material, the artists in various genres seem to be reaching a consensus that the way to appeal to modern-day record buyers (and download buyers, which is how the music biz really makes its money these days) is medium-slow tempi and lyrics about problematic romantic relationships declaimed with a smidgen of soul. If there’s a “rock revival” it seems to be more in the realm of upbeat sing-a-longs (the ones advanced by Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers) than anything else, though Jack White saved the day for rock ’n’ roll with two singularly dark songs that virtually alone among all the pieces performed Sunday night trolled the depths of the less pleasant aspects of human experience. (White has virtually no on-stage charisma, but the nice thing about that is he doesn’t pretend he does; despite all the fooforaw around him, he sang his heart out — and so did the very beautiful, physically and vocally, African-American woman who joined him on his first number, who was regrettably unidentified.)

I also found out in this morning’s Los Angeles Times that the inept so-called “tribute” to Bob Marley was concocted merely as a device to get Bruno Mars to perform on the show — he wanted to give it a miss this year — and both he and Sting did songs of their own (Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” and Sting’s “Walking on the Moon”) that had nothing to do with Marley’s music except for using lightly reggae-flavored beats in their rhythms. Even the genuine Marley song that was the third piece in the medley, “Could You Be Loved?,” was one of the sappiest things he ever wrote and was given sinew and power only by the two genuine Marleys (Bob’s sons Ziggy and Damien) who were singing it. Yesterday I bitched that the “Marley tribute” totally ignored the politically and socially conscious songs that are among the major parts of Marley’s oeuvre — the introduction to the medley referenced “Get Up, Stand Up” but that song, and every other piece Marley wrote as a call for social justice and the collapse of Babylon (meaning imperialism and capitalism), went unheard on the corporate media’s music extravaganza. (The only social statement all night was a lament delivered by Elton John — whose own country is too civilized to let its citizens possess military-grade weapons and claim that’s an integral part of preserving its “freedom” — expressing regret that the songs of the students at Sandy Hook Elementary were silenced too soon.) In retrospect I can only say that even if they were going to pick one of Marley’s romantic ballads to represent him, there are far better ones than “Could You Be Loved?” — like the little-known “High Tide or Low Tide” (it was cut out of the U.S. release of Catch a Fire and when it turned up on the expanded special-edition reissue it was a revelation) or the well-known “Is It Love?”

My friend Ken and I both thought that the appearance of Justin Timberlake was way over-hyped — like Ken, I don’t hate Justin Timberlake but I don’t love him either, and his two songs last night were perfectly competent dance-pop — and this morning the Times bitched that Timberlake didn’t belong on the show because he didn’t have any Grammy nominations this year (mainly because he simply hadn’t released anything during the eligibility period) and was there promoting an album he’s about to release instead. That bothered me less than the faux-1940’s big-band trappings of his stage set, complete with the ornate music stands his musicians were playing behind even though there was no sign they were actually reading the music they were playing. I was also put off by the band which referenced … well, one song opened with the line, “I’ve walked among the sounds of silence,” and I called to the TV, “If I were you I wouldn’t mention the work of someone who’s way better than you’ll ever be!” The big loser of the night was openly … well, at least Bisexual — R&B singer Frank Ocean (who won the “Best Urban Contemporary” category — which seems to mean Black people who sing what in the age of Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Teddy Pendergrass would have been called “ballad soul” — but got shut out of Record and Album of the Year; I was hoping he’d win, at least partly because for mostly non-musical reasons I like hot-looking Black guys who acknowledge they’ve had sex with men!), who I suspect was a victim of the same kind of anti-Queer backlash that cost the film Brokeback Mountain the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006. It didn’t help that the staging of Ocean’s hit “Forrest Gump” (apparently that was his code name for his boyfriend when they were dating) was stupid: he sang it against a projected backdrop of a highway going through a valley, but there was a rectangle under him in which the image was blurry and his movements didn’t match what was seen going on above with his upper body.

I was impressed by some of the performers — Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” is actually a great song, and it got an impassioned performance on her record (which, alas, was only played piecemeal), though it seems a pity that Friedrich Nietzsche’s contribution to the lyric remains uncredited. Instead Clarkson got tapped to do the celebration of the Lifetime Achievement Award winners, all but two of whom are dead (though two of those died just months before the show and it’s logical to assume the Grammy people thought they’d still be around when the show aired), and sang Patti Page’s hit “Tennessee Waltz” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the song Carole King wrote for Aretha Franklin and then recorded, quite differently but equally beautifully, as the last song on her 1971 Tapestry album (at nine million copies, the biggest-selling album by a female artist up to then). I was astounded that someone with as strong a pair of pipes as Kelly Clarkson (she and Carrie Underwood, who also appeared, seem to be the two American Idol winners who’ve best weathered the storms of that particular route to success) kept dodging the high notes Page had made easily both in the early 1950’s and in 2000, when she gorgeously remade “Tennessee Waltz” for the album Brand New Tennessee Waltz (which opened with Jesse Winchester’s title song and closed with her new version of her star-making hit) — and on “Natural Woman” Clarkson couldn’t decide whether to sing it like Aretha or like Carole King, though she was still moving.

I liked Ed Sheeran’s song (though there was a whiff of the patronizing about Elton John’s guest appearance on piano behind him), I found the Black Keys’ number disappointing (they invited Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band but did almost nothing with them; Dr. John sat in full “Night Tripper” drag behind an electric keyboard, but whatever he was doing with it was inaudible; and the Preservationists weren’t allowed to play the classic New Orleans Dixieland style they were formed to preserve, but played a soul-horn arrangement just about any team of studio musicians on their instruments could have done as well or better), and I enjoyed the sound of a banjo on Mumford and Sons’ “I Will Wait for You” but found the song itself as banal as its title. And contrary to the Los Angeles Times’ kvetch that the Album of the Year award ought to end the show instead of yielding to one last giant production number, quite frankly I like it that the Grammy Awards ends with a song (the year Arcade Fire won Album of the Year they got to play the slot at the end, did one song, and then went straight into a second, playing in glorious form and confounding the network and its time slot), and this year I especially liked it because the finale was L. L. Cool J., Chuck D. and other so-called “old-school hip-hop” artists barking barely comprehensible raps at each other: I spared my friend Ken this one and the night before, when I was watching the show with Charles, we turned it off during the rap medley and went to bed. Thanks, CBS and the Grammy people, for making the rap easy enough to avoid — though earlier in the evening when one of the songs contained a rap counterpoint, Ken had told me, “That’s a good way to ruin a song,” even though it’s become so commonplace that “Best Rap/Song Record” has actually become a Grammy category of its own! — 2/12/13