Monday, February 13, 2017

59th Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences/CBS-TV, February 12, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the 59th annual Grammy Awards on CBS — all 3 ½ hours of it, broadcast “live” and actually shown that way. One good effect of the Internet is that the sorry old practice by which we got the major awards shows three hours after they actually occurred — the East Coast media establishment’s constant reminder to us on the West Coast that we sucked hind tit media-wise — has ended; with the awards results available online instantly to anyone with a computer and Internet access, there’s no way to sustain suspense over the outcome except to show the awards in real time. The Grammy Awards opened with a great performance by Adele of her signature song, “Hello,” and I give her major points for avoiding any “production.” There were no pyrotechnics, no laser beams sweeping the stage, no flashing colored lights, no Cirque du Soleil performers doing their thing over her head — just a stocky blonde woman (when I first saw Adele on a previous Grammy telecast I fell in love with her instantly for allowing herself to appear as a “woman of size” instead of slimming herself down to look like she just got rescued from Auschwitz) standing on a bare stage, accompanied by an unseen band and the only other sight being a black-and-white blow-up image of her in real time, as she poured her heart out and made the song come alive.

There were basically two main contenders for the big awards — Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year — Adele and Beyoncé, whose big number in the middle of the show drowned in its own pretensions. It was a medley of three songs that seemed to center around the concept of motherhood, and indeed Beyoncé was introduced by her real mother, Toni Knowles (I’m old enough to remember when Beyoncé still used her last name professionally). The song began with a long speech set to music — it wasn’t declaimed rhythmically so it can’t really be called a rap — and then went through about three phases, each more and more pretentious and dull as Beyoncé traipsed in enough choristers to fill out a Busby Berkeley number and an already not-very-interesting song just got overwhelmed by the unwitting silliness. Ironically, when Adele finally won Album of the Year she gave a tear-stained acceptance speech in which she said she thought Beyoncé had deserved the award for a great album that had made all her friends, “especially my Black friends,” feel better about themselves. It’s yet another indication of the vast gulf between Adele and Beyoncé as both artists and people that Adele’s speeches were (or at least appeared to be) off the cuff and delivered from the heart, whereas when Beyoncé won for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” (“urban” in this setting being code for “Black,” reminding me of Art Hoppe’s satirical column in which a Black person explains to him that “now they call me a City … When politicians say, ‘We have to address the problems of our Cities,’ that’s me they’re talking about!”) she read a long speech from a leather case she opened like a miniature version of one of President Trump’s executive orders and made the most blatantly political comments of the night.

My only encounters with whatever is on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album have been her performance of the song “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show (it’s supposed to be a song against police brutality, but, silly me, I had just thought it was called “Formation” after how a football play starts) and the even more bizarre production she put on last night, and neither has convinced me that the rest of the album is worth my time or money. I don’t want to dis Beyoncé — I still think she turned in a stunning performance as the Diana Ross character in the 2006 film Dreamgirls and she wasn’t acknowledged for it only because Jennifer Hudson was even more overwhelming — but her sort of music simply doesn’t speak to me emotionally, and Adele’s does. (I could probably be accused of racism for saying that, but nobody who looked at the totality of my music collection and did a ratio of Black to white artists could possibly make that accusation seriously.) The 2017 Grammy Awards were hosted by James Corden, whom I’d briefly encountered in bits of his late-late night show (when I could still record shows for later viewing before the damnable “all-digital” conversion took that away from me — I’m certainly not going to stay up that late to watch anything “live”!) and whom I regard as one of the most bizarrely repulsive presences ever put on TV — I wouldn’t mind him being stocky and ugly if he had any discernible talent, but he isn’t funny, he isn’t an appealing personality, he isn’t able to make his unappealing qualities entertaining the way Jackie Gleason did, he’s just a tacky-looking schlub CBS dredged up from under a rock and for some reason gave a major TV show to. Corden’s funniest moment was when he invited people to tweet their reactions to the show in real time and said they would be displayed as they came in — and what came in were a barrage of fake tweets saying how awful Corden was as well as one purportedly from Donald Trump calling Corden the “greatest host ever” and saying he was “terrific.” (Whoever wrote the fake tweet from Trump forgot to end it with an exclamation point; Trump’s 140th character on his actual tweets is almost always an exclamation point. It’s true!)

The show didn’t get that political — there was nothing here comparable to Meryl Streep’s brilliant evisceration of Trump on the Golden Globes — but there were enough anti-Trump digs to indicate that the recording business is part of the Great Establishment of liberals and progressives whom the Trump voters regard as the enemy within that’s destroying the “real America” and demands the attentions of their Führer to “make America great again.” As usual, the main interest for me in the Grammy Awards were the performances — though I must say I was pissed when Maren Morris lost Best New Artist to someone or something called Chance the Rapper, who made two pretentious acceptance speeches (he also won for Best Rap Album, and one of the commentators mentioned that his record was only released as an Internet stream, and giving my utter loathing for the whole idea of streaming technology that just gives me another reason to hate him) in which he thanked God (award winners who thank God always irritate me), though when he eventually performed towards the end of the show he brought on a gospel choir and did a song whose text indicates that he takes the religion stuff very seriously; in essence, Chance the Rapper has brought rap back to its origins in the cadences of Black preaching. Morris did win Best Solo Country Performance and, rather than do her big song “My Church” (the one I heard her do on a country awards show and which had me listening with my jaw open at the sheer power and intensity of what she was singing and the way she was singing it — I still want to see someone sign her to play Janis Joplin in a biopic before she ages out of the role: she’s got the face and the voice for it!), she did one called “Once” as a duet with Alicia Keys, both of them singing brilliantly and bringing great soul moves to the song. Early on in the show The Weeknd and Daft Punk (dressed this time like dueling Darth Vaders) did a nice song called “I Feel It Coming” (I wish I still did!) and then Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood did something called “What If I Fall? (I Won’t Let You).”

Then Ed Sheeran — a British singer-songwriter who when I first saw him came off as so milquetoast I thought his name was “Shearing” and wondered if he were any relation to jazz pianist George Shearing (no) — did a song called “Shape of You” that was O.K. and I probably would have liked better if his entire accompaniment, other than his own guitar, hadn’t been provided by a synthesizer called “Chewie II.” (The name was clearly visible and one wonders if the company that made it had paid product-placement fees either to Sheeran or CBS.) After that Kelsey Ballerini (who’s got quite a nice voice even though, as new country artists go, she’s definitely in the shadow of Maren Morris) and Lukas Graham (who I hadn’t realized is actually Danish and whose real name is something longer and more obviously Scandinavian) did the quite nice song “Neverland” that I’d previously heard on a country show (and which made me compare it to the quite different “Lost Boy” as two contrasting takes on the Peter Pan mythos; “Lost Boy” romanticizes it and “Neverland” depicts it as something you grow out of). That was followed by Beyoncé’s bizarre production and then by a weird gag version of “Sweet Caroline” by James Corden with John Legend, Jennifer Lopez and Neil Diamond himself, pulled out of the audience for the occasion. Afterwards Bruno Mars, a micro-talent with a mega-ego, came out and did one of his hits — I think it’s called “Can I Take Your Time?” — and Little Big Town did a song called (once again, I’m just guessing at some of these titles) either “Living a Teenage Dream” or “Don’t Ever Look Back.” That was followed up by Katy Perry and yet another of the Marley kids, Skip, doing an O.K. song called “Chained to the Rhythm.” Then came a real surprise treat: Gary Clark, Jr. and someone introduced as “Stax legend William Bell” did a great version of Albert King’s hit “Born Under a Bad Sign” — it turned out William Bell wrote that song, and it was a delight to hear some honest blues in the middle of all the pretension and to see two singers who trusted themselves and their material to come over without flashing lights or mobs of choristers!

After that came the Morris-Keys duet and then Adele, who had opened the show with her own song, did a tribute to George Michael by singing his song “Fast Love” — only she stopped early on and asked to do it over, and she also apologized for swearing. My guess is that the show’s producers gave her a cleaned-up lyric to sing but she either purposely or inadvertently reverted to Michael’s original. Then came one of those bizarre “Grammy Moment” collaborations between Lady Gaga and Metallica, which actually came off quite well even though it sounded to me more like early Siouxsie and the Banshees than what I think of from either of those acts; Lady Gaga is a major talent who seemingly can blend with anybody, from Tony Bennett to Metallica, though the joint performance was hurt by a technical problem — one could see that Metallica’s lead singer was singing but it took them time to get his mike working so you could actually hear him (and of course even when his mike was on what he was singing, like heavy-metal lyrics in general, was almost totally incomprehensible). Then country singer Sturgill Stimpson (whom I could probably get to like) came on with the horn section from the Dap-Kings (whose great lead singer, Sharon Jones, was yet another of the music world’s casualties in 2016) and did “Love Me All Around You” — the song wasn’t much but Stimpson’s voice was eloquent and the Dap-Kings’ horns elevated it. Afterwards came an odd Bee Gees tribute with Tori Kelly, Demi Lovato, Audra Day and Little Big Town doing four songs from their disco period: “Stayin’ Alive,” “Tragedy,” “How Deep Is Your Love?” and “Night Fever.” The camera showed Barry, the one remaining Brother Gibb, in the audience, though oddly the show was routined so that John Travolta made his appearance much earlier instead of introducing the Bee Gees’ segment, which was where he obviously belonged. (Maybe he didn’t want the audience reminded of the contrast between what he looked like when he made Saturday Night Fever and what he looks like now.) The high point was Day taking “Night Fever” and turning it into righteous soul.

Then came time for one of the oddest features of recent Grammy telecasts: an entire song sponsored and paid for as an ad by Target, featuring Carly Rae Jepsen and Lil Yachty (that’s a rap group) in what was alleged to be a cover of the old Marvin Gaye-Kim Weston soul classic “It Takes Two” but had virtually no resemblance to it (at least the last time Target did one of these it was with Gwen Stefani, a genuine and important talent). Then there was a tribute to the pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest, one of whose key members was also one of the many 2016 casualties, with several guest stars whose names meant nothing to me — Busta Rhymes, Consequence and Anderson.Pauk — though their text was mainly a defense of political rap against the blind, evil “gangsta” crap that followed it and there was one section in the middle of the medley (Consequence’s, I think) that was genuinely moving and lyrical. After that came a tribute to Prince (intriguingly, neither David Bowie nor Glenn Frey rated tribute segments, but Prince and his white wanna-be George Michael did — and Bowie won the first Grammys of his career last night; he literally had to die to make the grade with the Grammy voters, and I was a bit disappointed that his widow Iman didn’t show to accept his awards) featuring Bruno Mars, once again showing off the vast gulf between his micro-talent and Prince’s mega-talent, and Prince’s old associates in the band The Time. Then the a cappella group Pentatonix (whom I’d like a lot better if their Mills Brothers-style instrumental simulations didn’t include one of a drum machine) did, of all things, the early Jackson Five hit “1-2-3,” and after Chance the Rapper’s sermon (there’s nothing else to call it) there was a quite moving in memoriam segment with John Legend and a white woman whose name I didn’t catch (Cynthia Erivo) doing “God Only Knows” (whose composer, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is thankfully still alive) and doing it beautifully. There wasn’t a big final number — the show just sort of petered out after they gave the big awards — and overall the 2017 Grammy Awards was the sort of lumbering spectacle awards shows have turned into lately, but it had its moments and the contributions of Adele, Maren Morris, Alicia Keys, Gary Clark, Jr., William Bell and John Legend with Cynthia Erivo were timeless.