Monday, February 9, 2015

57th Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences/CBS-TV, February 8, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s 57th annual Grammy Awards show stretched on and on and on until 11:40 p.m. — what kind of “awards” show is it that keeps going for half an hour after all the big marquee awards have been handed out? — and it was at least the second time I’ve seen Stevie Wonder as the guest presenter of the big award, Record of the Year, on stage with Jamie Foxx (a real-life blind singer-songwriter united with a guy who played a blind singer-songwriter in a movie), with the envelope with the winner’s name printed in Braille so Wonder could read it (and Foxx couldn’t, which was the carefully set-up gag). It’s interesting to chart the changes in the music business that have once again made Record of the Year (for a single song) instead of Album of the Year the key marquee Grammy — Prince presented Album of the Year to Beck (an interesting commonality in that they’re both known professionally by their first names only, though at least Beck didn’t spend years trying to convince us that his “real” name was an oddball self-designed hieroglyphic!) with a preamble saying that, “like books and Black lives, albums still matter.” (This was one of my worst-ever cultural predictions; when CD’s came in I thought that their longer playing time and lack of a side turnover would encourage artists to create more album-length works and concept albums; instead the ease with which listeners could pick out a particular song from a CD led to fewer concept albums and more detachable singles — and the rise of downloading and streaming have returned the business of recorded music to what it was in the cylinder and 78 rpm disc era, in which records are sold one or two songs at a time.)

Beck may have won Album of the Year but Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist all went to Sam Smith, the openly Gay British singer-songwriter who’s made it to superstardom with a hit called “Stay With Me” based on a real-life dysfunctional relationship he had — as he joked during his final acceptance speech, “I’d like to thank the man who inspired this song — he broke my heart but he won me four Grammys!” Smith has a weirdly high-pitched voice, not falsetto but the sort of voice that in a previous era of music history would have made him an Irish tenor — pure, clean, with virtually no vibrato and at the upper edge of the tenor range. (By chance I’d heard earlier in the day a record by the greatest Irish tenor of all time, John McCormack, and though Smith isn’t at McCormack’s level as a technician his vocal timbre is strikingly similar and no doubt adds to the mood of romantic yearning at the heart of his hit song.) Ironically, on the program the Grammy producers had him sing the song as a duet with Mary J. Blige, who actually took the lower line when they sang together! The 57th Annual Grammy Awards telecast was a lumbering monster of a show, though it helped that despite the wild opener — AC/DC doing “Highway to Hell” as pretty much by-the-numbers heavy metal — most of the music presented was at the quieter side of today’s pop, which was fine by me; even Kanye West, ordinarily one of the most repulsive presences in music (if you can call his obnoxious by-the-numbers rapping that), actually sang rather than rapped on the two songs he performed, and he revealed himself to be the possessor of a small, tight but not unappealing little soul tenor. Miranda Lambert did a song called “Little Red Wagon” (not the old blues of that title, alas) that, like quite a few of the numbers, was way overproduced (all those neon-bright lights! All those strobes! All that dry ice!) but also showed off her talents even though I like her on ballads better.

Tom Jones got dredged up from Vegas-lounge hell or however he’s making his living these days to duet on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (a tribute to the married songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote it), and though the Righteous Brothers’ version remains definitive this wasn’t at all bad (and I say that as a distinct non-fan of the Wailin’ Welshman). Madonna came out and did a song called “Living on Love,” prefacing it with a rap calling for a love revolution; she’s been doing this schtick for three decades now (has it really been that long?), presenting swinging her ass as if it were some sort of political statement, but one has to admire the well-preserved state of her body. Then Ed Sheeran — who’s probably gnashing his teeth in frustration that the rapid rise of Sam Smith has cut short the time he could bask in the limelight as the next new hot singer-songwriter — did something called (I’m guessing here) “’Til It’s 17” with various guest artists, including Herbie Hancock (buried deep in the mix but still adding some tasteful jazz piano) and Questlove, and he hung out for a guest appearance with a reunited Electric Light Orchestra (of all people) on a medley of “She Is a Woman” (once again, I’m guessing at the title) and “Mr. Blue Sky” (that one I remember, even though ELO’s history once Roy Wood left after the first album is a combination of commercial success and artistic devastation — in the late 1970’s I remember playing the LP’s of ELO’s predecessor band, The Move, for friends who swore they hated ELO and were astonished that they liked The Move — but then without the creative tension between Wood and ELO’s leader, Jeff Lynne, ELO was essentially to The Move what Wings were to The Beatles). After that we heard a duet called “My Heart Is Open” with Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani — neither of them great voices but both right for this song — and then an odd song called “Take Me to Church” by someone named Mozier into which Annie Lennox came out and added a second vocal mid-song, which segued into a Lennox cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” That was fascinating, even though Lennox’ thin 1980’s pop voice hardly delivered the song with Hawkins’ fire and venom — Charles, I think, liked it even less than I did and I joked that the real Hawkins was going to come out of his actual coffin and drag her down to hell with him!

After that Pharrell Williams, looking like a bellboy in a 1940’s movie set in Eastern Europe, led a small army of performers in his song “Happy” — I didn’t think anyone could possibly write a more banal song about happiness than Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but somehow Williams managed it — with a dark Metropolis-style introduction that didn’t at all mesh with the main theme and a bizarre insert by, of all people, classical pianist Lang Lang, pounding a piano as if he were some demented version of Liberace cross-bred with Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix and he were going to chop it to kindling when he was done. (Fortunately, he didn’t.) After the next commercial break, the show cut to a film clip of President Obama, of all people, giving one of his typically low-keyed announcements, in his case warning of the dangers of domestic violence and promoting a new Web site, which segued into a presentation by real domestic-violence victim Brooke Axtell and a song by Katy Perry called “By the Grace of God” that turned out to be one of the most moving and emotionally intense pieces on the program even without the wrenching context provided by Obama and Axtell. (After Obama’s speech I had rather sourly joked that the next thing they would present would be a performance by Chris Brown.) Afterwards there was a film clip of the band Imagine Dragons doing “Shot All Over” (another guess at the title) that was presented so oddly it wasn’t clear whether it was a commercial, part of the show or something in between. Then came one of the great moments of the program, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga duetting on “Cheek to Cheek” — their album of that title may be one of the unlikeliest collaborations of all time, but Gaga proved that she’s one dance-music artist who can handle the less strait-jacketed, more swinging rhythm and phrasing for standard songs to work, and she and Bennett were clearly actually improvising on the song instead of churning out an exact copy of their record. After that they trotted out Usher and a harpist to pay tribute to Stevie Wonder (and promote the upcoming Grammy special on Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life, scheduled for February 16) with one of Wonder’s most banal songs, “If It’s Magic,” partially redeemed only by a surprising guest appearance by Wonder himself, taking out the song on harmonica.

Next up was the country segment, kicked off by Eric Church doing a song called “Give Me Back My Home Town” — it doesn’t help that both Bruce Springsteen and Chrissie Hynde have done considerably more with this song concept than he did, and it seemed weird that while he was singing the screens behind him were showing clips of racially motivated violence ranging from old Ku Klux Klan lynchings to the more recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, but it’s still a competent piece of songwriting craftsmanship and it was nice to hear. Things perked up when Brandy Clark came out accompanied by Dwight Yoakam — he sang enough that it approached duet status but it was still pretty much her show with him backing her — on a song called “A Real Good Time to Hold My Hand” — earlier, during the brief clips of the Best Country Record nominee, Charles had noted that the women in the category, Clark and Miranda Lambert, had sounded genuinely country while the guys had come off like Creedence Clearwater Revival (though I think Lynyrd Skynyrd is a closer parallel to the sound of so many modern male country artists — what in the 1970’s we called “Southern rock”) — and then there was an unlikely “country” threesome with Rihanna, Kanye West and, of all people, Paul McCartney, standing in the back and strumming a big guitar but contributing nothing vocally, on a song whose title I guessed as “Make It Here by Monday” — it was odd, but it worked. After that they went into the Latin segment, with Juanés — whom Charles could remember being hailed as a deathless male sex god decades ago (he’s still a good-looking man but the camera got close enough to show us the crags and wrinkles on his face) — on a song called “Juntos,” followed by someone or something called Sia, who wasn’t there in person but contributed a video of her hit song “Chandelier” which figured various women in body stockings designed to make them look nude, cavorting on a mock-Egyptian set that didn’t seem to relate in any way to the song; the piece sounded like O.K. pop and on its own I might enjoy it, but like a lot of the material on last night’s show it was dragged down by the visual portion of the presentation. After that was a low-keyed duet by Beck and Chris Martin of Coldplay on a song called “Your Heart Is a Dream” — the song was one of the loveliest pieces of music heard all night but there was nothing about it that couldn’t have been done in the 1960’s; indeed, it sounded very much like the sort of record the Everly Brothers were making in the late 1960’s to try to modernize their image and sound hip.

Then they gave out a few awards — as I noted above, the Grammy Awards have become a giant music variety show (though quite frankly the music is no longer varied enough — they used to acknowledge the existence of classical and jazz by allowing great artists in those fields at least brief segments to strut their stuff in pure form; now they spackle people like Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock into giant pop productions that throw the commercial supremacy of what’s left of the Top 40 into their faces) with a few awards presentations thrown in like confetti — and with the Record of the Year presented but the show having still a half-hour left to go, first we got National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences president Neil Portnow and a couple of other people doing a sententious presentation urging the audience to lobby for strict intellectual-property legislation to protect “the artists” and make sure musicians will still continue to create great songs by ensuring they will be paid for them. Reality check: it’s the people Neil Portnow is representing — the giant music corporations (that, like all other companies, are merging and thereby becoming less numerous, less competitive and more gargantuan) — who have historically screwed actual creative musicians out of the money due them, and more musicians these days are using the new Internet distribution channels Portnow wants to restrict or shut down to get their music to the people without corporate middlemen intervening and taking the lion’s share of the income. That’s one of the reasons I was so glad the year Arcade Fire won Album of the Year — not only do they make great music, they release their CD’s on a label they own themselves and therefore don’t have to share their income with a mega-corporation.

After that came the show’s finale, Beyoncé doing the Thomas A. Dorsey gospel classic “Precious Lord”  segueing into Black singer-songwriter John Legend and positive rapper Common (“positive” in the sense that he’s actually trying to communicate good ideals and values through his music instead of glorifying murder, rape, Queer-bashing, capitalist acquisitiveness and the other foul subject matter of the repulsive “gangsta” style) doing their song “Glory” from the film Selma. Though the host, L. L. Cool J (interesting that they picked a rapper to host a show that included very little rap), didn’t mention that “Precious Lord” was the favorite song of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (in 1968 Mahalia Jackson sang it at King’s funeral and in 1972 Aretha Franklin sang it at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral), if nothing else the juxtaposition added the final point to a show that, however unwittingly, demonstrated how all the African-American-based popular music of the last 120 years or so — ragtime, blues, jazz, swing, R&B, rock, soul, even rap — stems from the Black church and the spiritual and gospel traditions. Song after song last night — including Sam Smith’s big hit (he got sued for plagiarism by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, who clamed “Stay With Me” included material from their song “I Won’t Back Down,” but if his lawyers had been savvier they probably could have found a public-domain spiritual or gospel song that contained that lick and thereby claimed a common ancestor), and Mosier’s song oddly perched between sin and salvation — showed its roots in the Black church, particularly with those great, exalting chords that have powered so much of this music. I can’t help but savor the irony that opponents of rock from the 1950’s to the 1980’s (and opponents of ragtime, jazz and swing before them!) regularly denounced it as “the devil’s music” — which couldn’t have been farther from the truth; however bizarre the connection sometimes, and however perverted its values have become (particularly in the heavy-metal bands’ tributes to Satan and the evil messages of gangsta rap), ultimately this is not the Devil’s music but the Lord’s.