Monday, January 27, 2014

56th Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences/CBS, 1/26/14)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 56th Annual Grammy Awards were the usual preposterous mix of genuinely moving music and insane spectacle — sometimes simultaneously; I love Pink’s music (I think she’s a genuinely powerful, emotional singer) but I don’t really need the Cirque du Soleil stuff she feels she has to do as part of her act. What’s more, it was obvious that during her main song, “Get Up and Try” (on a lot of these numbers I’m just guessing at the titles), she was so busy maintaining her balance on that acrobatic swing that she wasn’t actually singing but just miming to her record. The show suffered from the usual pyrotechnics (actual as well as figurative) and enough dry ice to have kept your average disco in business for a decade, though ironically the most emotionally powerful performances came early on and were the least “produced.” Lorde, a singer from New Zealand, did her hit song “Royals” (an ironic title since the piece is about twenty-somethings with either no jobs or nothing jobs, aimless lives and — advancement opportunities? Are you kidding?) dressed in a black pantsuit and a wig that made her look like the actress Carolyn Jones (she was perched midway between Jones’ “beatnik” roles in 1950’s movies and her Morticia Addams in the 1960’s TV series The Addams Family), and both her restrained performance and the song itself added her to that quirky list of female singer-songwriters I especially like: Melanie, Sinéad O’Connor, Tori Amos and Neko Case. (She won Song of the Year for “Royals” even though she wasn’t even nominated for either Record or Album of the Year — and I was taken aback at her lack of a songwriting credit on “Royals” until she came up to accept the award along with her male partner — whom I suspect is her boyfriend as well — and I realized that, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and the later Elvis Costello, she’d taken her songwriting credit under her real name.)

Right after her Hunter Hayes did an anti-bullying anthem called “Invisible” and, though the song was a bit too carefully crafted (it made me think he wrote it for an It Gets Better video), he sang it with real righteous emotion and white-boy soul. The show went downhill from there but still had its moments; the opening song was by Beyoncé and her current husband Jay-Z (a real Beauty and the Beast pairing there!) and was from her new album, released too late to be eligible (which means we’ll probably be hearing — and seeing — more of it next year) and later there was a pairing of Robin Thicke (yet another white soul wanna-be!) with the aging jazz-rock band Chicago on three of Chicago’s nostalgia-inducing hits (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” “Beginnings” and “Saturday in the Park”) and something called (I think) “Good Girl” that must have been Thicke’s own song. Keith Urban did a nice country song about meeting his girlfriend in the back of a cop car when they’d both been arrested, John Legend did an O.K. pop-soul number, Taylor Swift turned in a surprisingly impassioned performance on something I suspect was called “All Too Well,” and after Pink’s solo number in which she was whirled around in space she came off the swing for a duet with Nate Roose of the band fun. (lower-case and with the period at the end) in which she was clearly singing live and acquitting herself better than she’d done during her acrobatic act.

The show included a semi-tribute to the Beatles — the two surviving ones, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, both came on; Ringo did his 1973 hit “Photograph” (behind him on stage they projected, you guessed it, photographs of the Beatles during their glory years), though he only sang, not drummed; and later he joined Paul not for a remake of a Beatles classic but a new song off Paul’s current album, “Queenie Eye” from New. After “Photograph” rapper Kendrick Lamar — who lost the rap categories to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a white duo from Seattle who made it with a song called “Same Love” that endorsed same-sex marriage (how nice, for a change, to hear a rap song about Gays getting married instead of Gays getting Queer-bashed!!!!!) — joined a band called Imagine Dragons for yet another one of those annoying “Grammy moment” pairings (I’d probably like Imagine Dragons’ song if I didn’t have to hear it with a typical “street” rap called “Duck” — Lamar is from Compton and his song, if you can call it that, is solidly in the N.W.A. tradition about street violence, though at least it’s more about surviving it than committing it) and then Kacey Musgraves, the surprise winner in the country awards, doing a song called “Follow Your Arrow” that was about doing what you want — including kissing a member of your own gender “if that’s what you’re into” — and actually had more of a traditional country sound, complete with a pedal steel guitar, than most of the “country” out there today. (The morning of the Grammy Awards the Los Angeles Times Art & Music section ran a tendentious article suggesting that rock is dead because so few guitar-driven songs are making the charts these days, and maybe it’s time to put it out of its misery — I’ve got news for that writer: rock isn’t dead, it’s just taken on a Southern accent and is masquerading as “country.” Most of the “country” nominees were what in the 1970’s we used to call “Southern rock” and owe more to Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers than Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.) One of the big “tribute” numbers combined recent “country” star Blake Shelton to some of the surviving 1970’s “Outlaws” — Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard — on a medley of “Highwayman,” “Okie from Muskogee” (a song I can remember being “fighting words” in 1969 — ironically Haggard himself has retreated from its Right-wing politics; his recent works have featured songs about safer sex as well as blasts against talk radio and Bush’s war in Iraq) and “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”

Then there came a number by Daft Punk, who despite their name have nothing to do with punk as the term has ever been defined; rather, they’re an electronic-dance duo from France who perform in robot costumes, complete with high-tech helmets that look like something an NFL contractee is going to come up with any day now to try to minimize concussion injuries from football. With their white helmets and their white suits, I got the impression they called themselves “Daft Punk” only because “Crash Test Dummies” was already taken. For their most recent album, Random Access Memories (a neat pun on nostalgia and computerese), they dragged in some old-line producers like Nile Rodgers and rented time in studios from the 1970’s to achieve a nostalgic glow on their album, so it would sound more “crafted” that the dance-music records people spit out on computers these days. Since the people in the robot suits don’t talk (and since we can’t see their mouths it’s anybody’s guess whether they actually sing or, like Milli Vanilli — remember them? — they have professional “ghost singers” doing that for them), their spokesperson was their main producer, Pharrell Williams, dressed in a dorky-looking costume that was apparently supposed to make him look like a Mountie. Their performance last night of their big hit, “Get Lucky,” featured a guest appearance by Stevie Wonder, of all people, playing a chiclet-sized electronic keyboard and probably thinking, “Gee, I could write a much better song than this!” Then there was a performance by classical pianist Lang Lang — the one the American Record Guide once derisively called “Bang Bang” (I mentioned that to Charles and he quoted Liberace’s line, “I cry all the way to the bank” — appropriate because Lang Lang’s act last night was something I could readily have imagined Liberace doing) — sitting in with Metallica for a song called “One,” and Lang Lang’s heavy-metal pseudo-classical piano fit right in with Metallica’s lite-metal.

The Metallica guitarist was wearing a T-shirt of Lou Reed’s Transformer LP cover — the only references last night to Lou Reed’s passing was that and a reading by Jared Leto (an Academy Award nominee for playing a drag queen in Dallas Buyers’ Club) of the first verse of “Walk on the Wild Side.” I’d have appreciated a musical tribute to this monumental rock genius (but if they’d done one, it would probably have been a pachydermous tribute with a lot of unsuitable artists coming up and each doing a chorus of “Wild Side,” a great song but hardly representative of Reed’s best — indeed, despite the way critics savaged it at the time, including one reviewer who called Reed a “nasal-voiced sickie,” I think Reed’s album right after Transformer, Berlin, is his greatest work). Just before the Metallica number (and Metallica had a Lou Reed connection — they were his backup band on his last album, a two-CD rock opera based on Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays), there was an intriguing duet between Carole King and Sara Bareilles — King doing “Beautiful” and Bareilles doing “Brave” — and the show closed with an Everly Brothers tribute from Miranda Lambert and Billie Joe Armstrong (Charles savored the idea of a man who hit it big with a song about masturbation doing a tribute to an act which made rock sound “safe” for adult listeners!) and an ensemble performance by Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, Lindsay Buckingham and Dave Grohl (who’d been onstage with Paul McCartney earlier in the evening, accepting an award for the song he and Macca recorded with Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear — as I noted the last time this came up, who’d have thought that the artist who would take Kurt Cobain’s place in a Nirvana reunion would be, of all people, Paul McCartney?) on two forgettable songs from the Queens and Nails repertoires. 

The other big news was that the independent white Seattle rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis not only won in the rap category over the usual creeps — Los Angeles Times critic Mikael (i hate that spelling of his first name!) Wood predictably sniffed at their win, calling them “distressingly sanctimonious” and saying the award should have gone to Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West (what is this between the L. A. Times music critics and Kanye West? Before Robert Hilburn retired, his praise of West was so fulsome that I wrote a letter to the editor, which they did not print, saying that any day now I expected to see an article in which Hilburn said he had personally witnessed Kanye West walk on water) or Drake. Well, I for one am glad that the rap award went to someone with a positive message who actually likes Queer people and thinks we ought to be able to marry each other, instead of the racist, sexist, Queer-hating, capitalism-loving reactionary “gangsta” crap that still dominates the rap (or “hip-hop," the euphemism you use for rap if you like it) genre. Macklemore and Lewis got to present their pro-marriage equality rap song in the context of a special event that was weird even by Grammy standards: they were introduced by Queen Latifah and performed as part of a grandiose spectacle that included Latifah, Trombone Shorty and a full horn section, Madonna (making her amends to the Queer community after the years she was married to anti-Queer British film director Guy Ritchie and, according to her Gay brother Christopher Ciccone, turned her back on us to please the new man in her life) — and a mass wedding of 33 couples, mostly male-female but quite a few male-male (I didn’t spot any female-female couples even though most of the stats on same-sex marriage show that Lesbian couples tying the knot outnumber Gay male ones 2 to 1) officiated by Queen Latifah herself. Charles joked that he would have liked to have had Queen Latifah officiate at our wedding, though I reminded him that the person we had (Rev. Gerald Green of the Unity Fellowship Church in San Diego) was at least an African-American who can sing.

Between the mass wedding, the endorsement of Macklemore’s and Kacey Musgraves’ pro-Queer songs with major awards and Hunter Hayes’ remarkably soulful performance (even though his song sounded more sanctimonious than Macklemore’s and Lewis’s did!), this was an awards show that definitely communicated a pro-Queer, anti-bashing, anti-bullying message and probably left any Right-wing Middle Americans watching it with yet more “evidence” that American culture is in decline because its culture artists are in headlong flight from “real American values.” Overall, this year’s Grammy Awards were the typical lumbering spectacle, but there were enough nice moments to make the whole show worthwhile — and I could definitely see myself buying Lorde’s, Hunter Hayes’ and Kacey Musgraves’ CD’s on the basis of what I heard last night!