Tuesday, February 16, 2016

58th Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences/CBS-TV, aired February 15, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In previous years Western viewers of virtually all awards shows have sucked hind tit to the Eastern (particularly New York) domination of the national media; where East Coast TV viewers got to watch them “live,” we were subjected to a three-hour tape delay. About the only awards show that historically aired in real time all across the country was the Academy Awards; all others were pre-recorded and handed to us as stale meals. I hadn’t realized (at least partly because newspaper listings of TV shows have shrunk to just the three hours of so-called “prime time,” 8 to 11 p.m.) that this year the Grammy Awards, like the Golden Globes, were being aired twice, once in real time and again just after that. So I ended up catching the tail end of the show — we (my friends Garry and Brendan and I) switched from Jeopardy! in time to catch a pretty ghastly heavy-metal number that turned out to be a tribute to the band Mötorhead and featured Alice Cooper, Joe Perry (of Aerosmith), Johnny Depp (who knew he was a musician when he isn’t acting?), Duff McKagan (ex-Guns ’n Roses until he became one of the many driven out of that band by W. Axl Rose’s overweening ego) and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch. We also got to see Taylor Swift win Album of the Year for 1989 and something called “Uptown Funk” by someone named Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars win Record of the Year. (I can’t stand Bruno Mars; ordinarily I would think of him as just another mediocre hanger-on but I still haven’t forgiven him for the lame so-called “tribute” to Bob Marley he insisted on one year as his condition for being on the Grammy Awards show at all. The Marley tribute totally ignored his socially conscious songs and didn’t present his better romantic ballads, either; the only piece that redeemed it was Sting, who came on and did one of his own songs that used a reggae rhythm, his way of acknowledging Marley’s influence on his music.) When it was over I kept the TV on and watched the whole thing in sequence, beginning with Taylor Swift’s opening number, “Out of the Woods” (it was straining to be spectacular and wasn’t — my friend Brendan said he’s seen the sheer number of trucks needed to move all Taylor Swift’s stage settings, props and whatnot from city to city on her tour, and it made him wonder how much the tour is costing her and if she’s actually making any money given her high overhead — an issue that was also a plot point in the recent TV-movie biopic of Toni Braxton, who woke up to reality when she got a royalty check for just $2,000 because the rest of it had been eaten up, mostly by the expenses of her tour). Then came a duet with Carrie Underwood (one of only two American Idol contest winners who’s actually gone on to a long-term career) and Sam Hunt (an ex-football player turned country star, and so hot a hunk of man-meat I fell in lust with him instantly; he could sing the phone book and I would still drool!) on a song called (I’m guessing at most of these titles since I’m not familiar with many of these records) “Take Your Time” (definitely not the Buddy Holly song of that name).

After that came an odd-looking Black apparition who calls himself The Weeknd — that’s how he spells it, without the second “e” in “weekend”; the Los Angeles Times made a big to-do about that but misspelled band names have been a constant in the music business ever since The Beatles begat The Monkees, The Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard, et al. He’s an appealing enough soul singer in the modern style (he won an award off-camera for “Best Urban Contemporary Album,” whatever that means —though “Urban” in this context is definitely a euphemism for “Black,” reflecting the late Art Hoppe’s hilarious 1970’s column that Black people were now called “Cities” — as in politicians saying things like, “We must solve the problems of our Cities”). I’m not sure whether The Weeknd performed one song or two — it sounded to me like a medley of “I Can’t Show My Face” and “In the Night” — but whatever it was, I liked it even though I hardly think it’s great music (the days when people like Sinèad O’Connor and Tracy Chapman gripped the Grammy audience with unique, personal and highly sophisticated songs are long gone). After that two women I’d never heard of, Audra Day and Ellie Goulding (one a Black person from England — would we have to call her “African-British”? — and one a white girl from San Diego) did a duet on a song called “Rise Up,” which was O.K. except (predictably) the Black woman totally outsang the white one. Then there came a gaseous tribute to Lionel Richie, who was getting the Grammy equivalent of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and was honored by a medley of his cute, inoffensive and totally uninteresting songs from the 1980’s; they mentioned that Richie won Album of the Year in 1985 and of course did not mention that was one of the most appalling mistakes in Grammy history. In a year of two towering masterpieces — Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain — Springsteen and Prince split the votes of National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences members who actually gave a damn about quality and Richie squeaked through on the votes of the old farts who just liked pleasant music that didn’t challenge them. End of rant (for now).

After that was one of the most powerful moments of the show, not only because of the song content — it was a country group called Little Big Town with a female singer doing a song called “Girl Crush” that was literally about one girl singing about her crush on another (though given that previous Grammy Awards shows have featured not only rap songs about same-sex marriage but an actual mass same-sex marriage ceremony on camera, that shouldn’t be that much of a surprise) — but because it was one of the few numbers on the program that wasn’t horrendously over-produced. The members of Little Big Town performed on a simple set without elaborate lighting or pyrotechnic effects; they trusted themselves and their song to make an emotional impact without all that crap. After that Stevie Wonder came out to perform “That’s the Way of the World” with the modern (sort-of) a cappella band Pentatonix (they’re not a pure a cappella group but I like them anyway) to perform Earth, Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World” — and Wonder, who presented one of the awards, made fun of the fact that the winner’s name inside his envelope was printed in Braille so he could read it and the rest of us couldn’t. (He also did a pitch for equal rights and accessibility for disabled people, which was a bit of a surprise since Wonder hasn’t generally gone in for breast-beating about his condition.) Given the sheer death toll among major musical artists in the last few months — including Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Maurice White, Lemmy Killmaster (or whatever his name was) of Mötorhead and Dan Hicks — there was an unusual number of tributes to the recently deceased on this show, some of them done with medleys and some with just single songs — including the song that immediately followed Wonder’s tribute to Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire. It was the Eagles’ first hit, “Take It Easy,” with Glenn Frey’s place being taken by Jackson Browne, who wrote the song for them (though apparently Browne only got as far as the first line of the second chorus, “I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” and Frey filled in the rest) and who surprisingly wasn’t announced. Whatever you think of Jackson Browne (and I think he’s a great songwriter, though he’s not always the best voice for his own material; just compare his nice but relatively bland version of “Doctor My Eyes” to the searing performance by the 14-year-old Michael Jackson with the Jackson Five!), he deserved more than just to be sneaked onto a tribute to a major band for whom he wrote their first hit.

Then two of the Best New Artist nominees, Tori Kelly and James Bay, duetted on songs called “Let It Go” and “Hollow.” It was one of those odd duets between a woman and a man in which the woman was taking the lower part — Kelly has an excellent voice in a normal woman’s register while Bay’s is a bizarre countertenor falsetto he doesn’t really control that well (as Garry joked when I pointed this out, “Frankie Valli he is not”), and which was so faint Kelly had to hold back to avoid drowning him out. Then the show cut from its main location — the Staples Center in Los Angeles — to the theatre on Broadway where the hip-hop musical Hamilton is being performed for the opening number of the show with the stage cast — and as much as I ordinarily loathe rap music (as I’ve joked in these pages before, this seems to be the only genre of music that has two names depending on whether you like it: it’s “hip-hop” if you like it and “rap” if you don’t), the cleverness of the writing makes it appear that this show would not be a totally oppressive experience. The fact that a show based on hip-hop has become the hottest ticket on Broadway, especially given the usual aesthetic conservatism of the Broadway musical audience, is a major accomplishment in itself, and the use of African-Americans to play the Founding Fathers (including the ones like Thomas Jefferson who in real life owned African-Americans) is a laudable bit of racial category-bending. Alas, after we got a demonstration from the Hamilton cast of what rap can be, we got 10 seemingly endless minutes of Kendrick Lamar demonstrating the musical disaster it usually is, in a so-called “song” which begins with Lamar declaring that he’s Black (“I think I would have noticed that; you didn’t have to tell me,” I joked) and is supposedly being performed in a prison (a gimmick Elvis Presley did better in the title number to Jailhouse Rock — I’m not usually that big an Elvis fan but Kendrick Lamar makes him look better by comparison!).

Then there was one of the quirkiest parts of the show, Gwen Stefani singing a song that appeared to be called “Why’d You Have to Make Me Go and Like You?” — only, though it was given an elaborate staging that looked like it was taking place in the Staples Center, it was actually a pre-recorded and pre-filmed number being presented as a Target commercial, since Stefani is apparently releasing her album exclusively to Target in March. (The fact that Target would pay for a long enough commercial spot to allow Stefani to do a whole song is pretty amazing in and of itself.) After that came another Black singer, whose name I wrote down as “Legál” (the accent indicating that it’s pronounced “Lee-GAL”), doing a song called “She’s Out of My Life” as a tribute to Michael Jackson, with piano accompanment by the guy who arranged Jackson’s record of it. Then came the much-ballyhooed return of Adele to the Grammy stage — when she appeared there three years ago, or whenever it was, I was immediately impressed not only by Adele’s formidable vocal artistry but the fact that she’s willing to remain a “woman of size” instead of feeling compelled to slim down to the dimensions of a concentration-camp survivor right after the camps were liberated. This time she wasn’t so impressive; instead of “Hello,” the leadoff track from her current album, she did a weaker song called “Make Some Noise” (yet another breakup song! I miss the Gay & Lesbian Times’ New Year’s feature of unlikely predictions for the next year, and if they were still doing that I’d suggest one about Adele: “Adele will write and record a song about a relationship that’s actually working”). The next song was actually surprisingly good: Justin Bieber came out with an acoustic guitar and did a song called “Love Yourself” — he may be tabloid fodder but he’s also a genuinely talented performer with a good, clear voice, and he did better on his own than he did when he dragged in D.J.’s Skrillex and Diplo (names which sound more like prescription drugs being advertised on TV than people — “Don’t take Skrillex or Diplo if you are allergic to any of their ingredients; in some studies Skrillex and Diplo have been found to cause potentially life-threatening cancers”) and turned up the volume for a song called “Where Are You Now?”

After that came the highlight of the evening: Lady Gaga doing a tribute to David Bowie — the Mistress of Reinvention paying tribute to the Master of Reinvention — with projections on her face reproducing some of Bowie’s famous makeups as she sang a medley of some of his most famous songs: “Space Oddity,” “Changes,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Fashion,” “Fame,” “Let’s Dance” (with Nile Rodgers of Chic, who co-produced and played on Bowie’s original record) and, as the closer, “Heroes.” She was magnificent — enough that I’d like to hear Lady Gaga do an entire album of Bowie songs in tribute to him (before or after she does the standards album I’d also like to hear from her?) — like Madonna, Lady Gaga has far transcended the usual limitations of a “dance-music” artist and shown her chops for plenty of different forms of music. I was actually glad that most of the “in memoriam” tributes were single songs rather than these sorts of snippets, but Lady Gaga pulled it off brilliantly. After that Bonnie Raitt, Guy Clark, Jr. and country artist Chris Stapleton did a surprisingly good version of “The Thrill Is Gone” as a memorial to B. B. King (it’s far from his greatest song but it was his signature hit), and it was followed by one of the evening’s high point, a searing song called “Don’t Want to Fight No More” by Alabama Shakes, led by Black singer-guitarist Brittany Howard. She’s a heavy-set woman and I remember first hearing her band (all of whose other members are white, though last night she had three Black backup singers) on an Austin City Limits episode aired right after a documentary about Sister Rosetta Tharpe — another heavy-set Black woman who played electric guitar and sang with a searing gospel-soul voice. Biopic, anyone?

Then came the “Hollywood Vampires” heavy-metal tribute, after which they did a rap about music education (and a self-serving bit of political propaganda in which NARAS CEO Michael Portnow and rapper Common lamented that every time a song is streamed online, even if there’s a royalty payment at all it’s a fraction of a penny per play — I hate all the gaseous rhetoric we get on the Grammy Awards about how we need to preserve the ability of musicians to be fairly compensated for their work — they should be, but all too often it’s been the major record companies that are the main members of NARAS that have screwed them over!) and a token performance by a quite formidable 12-year-old jazz pianist named Joey Alexander of an instrumental whose title they didn’t bother to announce (and I’m guessing it’s an original since I didn’t recognize it). The big finale was a half-sung, half-rapped song by Pit Bull (or is that just one word?) called “Taxi,” featuring a guest appearance by Sofia Vergara, who came on stage wearing a cardboard cutout designed to make it look like she was driving a taxi — an effect the great jazz singer Anita O’Day did in 1942 in the Soundie video of her great song “Thanks for the Boogie Ride” with Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge (her song had the lines, “I like riding in jalopies/Away from motorcycle coppies,” and she was wearing a cardboard cut-out of a car while a male followed her wearing a cardboard cut-out of a police motorcycle) — an indifferent ending to a show that had some genuinely profound performances but was also burdened down with way too many stage effects and lame attempts to create the so-called “Grammy moments” the “suits” at NARAS think they need to make their show accessible and appealing to audiences.