Monday, November 20, 2017

45th Annual American Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions/ABC-TV, November 19, 2017)

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

I spent the rest of the evening watching the 45th American Music Awards on ABC, one of those rump “awards” shows produced by Dick Clark Productions (the man finally croaked, but his production company lives on, though I remember reading that it’s either been sold or is in the process of being sold to a Chinese company — oh, well, the Chinese are going to end up owning America after all this is over, especially if the Republican tax bill goes through and leaves us owing an even larger national debt to them) but mainly an excuse to present a succession of music stars in more or less representative performances. The big news about this show was that they were presenting a lifetime achievement award to Diana Ross — and quite frankly, one of the attractions of the show for me was to see how well she’s held up, both physically and vocally. The answer is “quite well” — you had to wait until the very end to hear her, of course, but she did a medley that showed off her voice as it stands now. Her voice sounds pretty much as it did in the glory days — most of the songs in her medley were her solo hits from the 1970’s (the host — more on her later — said that probably everyone remembers the lyrics to all Ross’s songs, to which I naturally responded, “I don’t think too many people out there still know the words to ‘Muscles’,” her attempt at a hit when she briefly left Motown Records for RCA in the 1980’s) and they started out pretty forgettably, but the voice itself is in excellent shape and she didn’t have to resort to the dodges a lot of white singers of similar vintage need: taking down the keys or just dropping the top notes they can’t sing anymore to safer, lower ones. Ross’s medley started with “I’m Coming Out,” then did “Take Me Higher” and “Ease On Down the Road” from The Wiz (of course I’m going to recount my reaction when I heard Diana Ross was being cast as Dorothy in the film of The Wiz — “Not content to trash the legacy of Billie Holiday, she’s going to trash the legacy of Judy Garland as well”) and “The Best Years of My Life” before she closed with a great song, her cover of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that was one of her first solo hits. Before that she was saluted with a montage of her film and TV appearances, including a clip of her singing “Strange Fruit” from Lady Sings the Blues (“They had to ruin it for you,” Charles joked), after which they showed a montage of clips from her film Mahogany and boasted that in addition to starring in the film Ross designed her own outfits for it (remember that she was playing a fashion model who had three men lusting after her, including Anthony Perkins doing essentially Psycho lite and the one she finally ended up with, Billy Dee Williams, her co-star from Lady Sings the Blues this time cast as a Black community activist in Chicago clearly modeled on Jesse Jackson). When I saw Mahogany I thought it was comparatively inoffensive next to Lady Sings the Blues but it also wasn’t much as a movie — it was essentially a 109-minute music video for one of her best solo records, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”

Ross’s segment came at the end of a three-hour extravaganza hosted by her daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross, one of the stars of the hit sitcom Blackish which by pure coincidence (not!) just happens to air on ABC, and as La Diana wrapped up the show she was surrounded on stage by her children and grandchildren, many of whom looked awfully white (remember that both Ross’s husbands have been white men). The show opened with a duet by Pink (blessedly earthbound, which was not the case for her later appearance on the show — see below) and Kelly Clarkson doing R.E.M.’s classic “Everybody Hurts” as a tribute to the recent terrorism victims in New York, Texas and elsewhere. It was one of the best moments of the show, largely because it was one of the few times a song of real weight and power was sung by voices capable of doing justice to it. Then, after they gave out a few awards — as usual in a show like this these days, the “awards” just seemed like an afterthought to the performances — Demi Lovato, who somehow got the reputation as a lightweight but strikes me as a singer of real power and soul, did “Sorry/Not Sorry,” a show about male-female relations and the different expectations straight people of both genders bring to their encounters and yet another anthem in which women are saying that they’re no longer going to take being exploited by sexist, domineering or abusive men. Next up was Nick Jonas attempting to pursue a post-boy band career with a song called “Where to Find You” (some of the titles are my best guesses because the titles weren’t always announced on air, a recurring annoyance to me about music shows), after which Hailee Stansfield (another young singer who’s quite impressed me, not only because she’s a strong, emotionally powerful singer but she’s written a piece with a positive message to young women to believe in themselves and not follow the entertainment and fashion industries’ expectations of what a “beautiful woman” must be) and someone named Bebe Rieza (or something like that) joined Florida Georgia Line, a more or less “country” group, for “Let Me Go.” After that “adult contemporary” award winner Shawn Mendes sang “Ain’t Nothing Holding Me Back” — it was a nice song and Mendes was easily the sexiest guy on the show (Nick Jonas has not weathered the years well — even though he’s still young, he’s got an angular face and those Clark Gable ears: if I were he I’d grow my hair longer to cover them up), but it’s interesting that the men on the program were doing old-fashioned (lyrically, not musically) songs about manipulating women into having sex with them, while the women were singing anthems of strength, defiance, independence and autonomy.

Though there were a few of the now-obligatory “digs” at Trump and his politics, mostly at the beginning and the end, what moved me most about the show’s politics was precisely the messages of independence that came from virtually all the songs sung by women — and it also confirmed my belief that for the last quarter-century (ever since the emergence of Tori Amos in 1990) the torch of creativity in popular music has passed from men to women: both the biggest stars and the most artistically advanced musicians of today are female. Another woman with a voice of strength and power, Selena Gomez, made a rare TV appearance with a song called “To Get to You” and was the first performer on the bill to do one of those overwrought productions that annoy me about many modern music shows — all too often I’ve seen a singer whose voice was powerful enough to move people without all the frou-frou drown herself in production values (the worst example these days is Beyoncé, whose real talent is as a soul singer in the Dinah Washington/Diana Ross mold but who’s drowning herself in ridiculous production numbers even Busby Berkeley would probably have regarded as over-the-top) — though it was a good enough song to withstand the video assault. After that came an inexplicable salute to the 25th anniversary of one of the worst movies ever made with a major musical star, The Bodyguard (if you want to read the gory details of how I feel about this film, see, and instead of doing what I would have done if I wanted for whatever reason to pay tribute to The Bodyguard — bring on the still-living Dolly Parton to sing “I Will Always Love You,” which she not only wrote but sang far more understatedly and, therefore, more powerfully than Whitney Houston did — the producers gave Christina Aguilera a medley that include “I Will Always Love You” and two other songs from the film, “I Have Nothing” and “I’m Every Woman.” Aguilera seemed determined to out-Houston Houston on “I Will Always Love You” and take the song even farther from its plaintive white-country origins, practically screaming out the last verse in a higher key than the rest. I generally like Christina Aguilera but her voice is considerably better than some of the uses she and the people running her career have put it to, and that was certainly true last night.

Then, after a snippet of one of the contestants of the revitalized American Idol — an intriguing singer named Masia doing, of all things, a bit of Billy Eckstine’s early-1950’s hit “Fool That I Am” (there were a few instances in which you could actually vote on some of the awards, but true to form, ABC allowed you to vote only if you lived on the East Coast: in the contemptible tradition of East Coast media mavens once again reminding us on the West Coast that we suck hind tit as far as the media establishment is concerned, they showed the program out here on a three-hour tape delay and by the time we got to see it, all the public voting opportunities had been closed), Lady Gaga was shown from the middle of a performance in Washington, D.C. (the main part of the program was done in L.A., which makes the West Coast being made to suck hind tit again with a time delay even more infuriating), doing something called “I’ll Fool You with My Love” and looking great, in a white knit outfit over a flesh-colored body stocking. The piece wasn’t much but at least it was well structured — one of the things I like about Gaga is that, unlike a lot of dance music artists who just bark a few words out over a dance groove and call it a “song,” her songs have identifiable beginnings, middles and endings, and this one in particular began with a long piano-and-vocal introduction which Gaga, playing the piano herself, used to remind us that she’s really a classically trained musician. Then rapper Macklemore did a duet with a woman whose name I wrote down as “Spartan Grail” (I highly doubt I got it right!), something supposedly inspirational which I assume was called “I Feel Glorious” after the refrain the woman was singing in counterpoint to Macklemore’s too-fast rapping. After that came an odd number by someone who calls himself Portugal: The Man, “Feel It Still” — the lyrics proclaim his desire to re-live the 1960’s, and the stage set and in particular the light projections did evoke the 1960’s rock shows, but Portugal: The Man wears his hair super-short and has little glasses that make him look much more like a nerd than a hippie. Still, it’s a nice song. Then one of my current favorites, Alessia Cara, came out with someone named Zed for one of her emotionally wrenching songs, “Stay,” and after that a Black artist named Khalid (heavy-set and with way too much beard, but cute enough I couldn’t help but wonder what was under those baggy tan shorts) joined the rock group Imagine Dragons for “Lightning and Thunder” (usually those two words come in the reverse order in song titles, but Imagine Dragons deserve credit for putting the L-word first, since because light is faster than sound you see the lightning flash before you hear the thunderclap).

Then Pink came back for a song called “Nothing but You” — and ramped up her Cirque du Soleil antics to totally absurd lengths, rappelling herself and her backup singers and dancers up the side of the Marriott Hotel and singing the song virtually in mid-air. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if a Vegas-type shooter had decided to attack the event and been able to pick off Pink while she was floating helplessly with nothing to keep her in place but a thick wire cable. Then someone named Niall Horan did a song called “Slow Hands” — Charles, who’d come home by this point, joked, “Where is Alicia Pointer when we need her?” — though I answered that Horan’s song could be considered an answer record to the Pointer Sisters’ big hit. The final numbers before Diana Ross’s tribute were a medley of two songs by Kelly Clarkson — one her first hit from her star-making win of the first American Idol and one her current record (she’s got pretty heavy-set by now but that voice is still powerful, and 15 years later it’s still intact) — and a bizarre performance by a six-man South Korean boy band called BTS, whose song was pretty incomprehensible because its lyrics are a mishmash of English and Korean and are spat out at such a rate it would be hard to understand them even if you knew both languages. The 45th annual American Music Awards was quite a good show in may respects — especially when women were performing; as I noted above, for the last quarter-century women in music have been considerably more creative than their male counterparts, both in terms of performance (the voices of modern-day pop women are strong and powerful, while most of the men sound pretty wimpy and the few that don’t, like Frank Ocean and Drake, weren’t on this program) and in terms of songwriting: men are still writing songs about wearing down women or tricking them into sex, while women are writing songs that say, “Oh, no, you don’t! I’m just as strong and powerful as you are, and we’re not having a relationship unless you meet my needs!”