Monday, January 29, 2018

60th Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences/CBS-TV, January 28, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 60th Annual Grammy Awards were telecast on CBS starting at 4:30 p.m. — an odd starting time which seems to have been set up for the convenience of attendees and viewers in New York City, where the show was held for the first time in 15 years (and the New York chauvinism of some of the guests got really wearing) and where it would have started at 7:30 p.m. their time. At least it’s better than us getting palmed off with a taped rebroadcast three hours after the actual event (though they re-ran the entire show after it ended), which is still pulled on us for some of the lesser awards shows but has blessedly been made intolerable for the big awards by the advent of the Internet and its capacity for communicating major news in real time. The show opened with one of the most hideous and awful presences in pop music today, rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose seemingly endless song (if, to quote Dwight MacDonald about Israeli actress Haya Harareet, I may use the term for courtesy) was interrupted by another of the most repulsive celebrities currently operating, Dave Chappelle, an excruciatingly unfunny Black “comedian” who got on my shit list when he signed a huge contract with one of the major networks to renew his TV show — and then disappeared for months. Chappelle interrupted Lamar’s number — an incredibly overproduced farrago of chorus boys in black costumes that made the piece look like yet another attempt at Metropolis: The Musical — to say that we needed to listen to the “truth” of what he was saying about the status of Black people in America. I wouldn’t have minded listening to what Kendrick Lamar had to say about the status of Black people in America, except that was impossible because, with the exception of a stray word or phrase here and there, I couldn’t for the life of me make out what he was saying. One would think that the sine qua non of a rapper would at least be able to make sure the audience understood the words, but Lamar’s piece was so overproduced, and he spat out whatever he was saying so fast and often in such strict rhythm that his drummer was literally drowning him out, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it — which was also my problem with his similarly overproduced, militaristic number at the Grammys two years ago, immediately following the opening number of the musical Hamilton, of which I wrote at the time, “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!).” 

Lamar and Jay-Z were up for Album of the Year last night, but blessedly they both lost … to Bruno Mars, another performer I can’t stand but at least someone who makes music. I’d like Bruno Mars better if his overweening ego hadn’t led him, on a previous Grammy telecast, to refuse to appear (which since he didn’t have an album in then-current release actually made sense) unless they whipped up a pointless, ridiculous “tribute” to Bob Marley in which he sang two of Marley’s lamer romantic ballads and Sting did one of his vaguely reggae-ish originals in between — a disaster that enraged me at the time because it not only ignored Marley’s socially conscious material (like “Get Up, Stand Up,” “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Rasta Man Chant”) it didn’t even do any of his good love songs like “Is It Love?” I also don’t like Bruno Mars because it seems like he’s trying so hard to channel Michael Jackson — though I haven’t heard it, on the strength of her previous work I’d have wanted to see Lorde’s Melodrama win Album of the Year — but at least Mars saved the top three awards (Album, Record and Song of the Year) for real music instead of rap-crap!!!!!! The show droned on for nearly four hours and, as usual with the Grammys, the musical performances were far more powerful and interesting than the actual awards: after the show began with Kendrick Lamar’s disaster Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson redeemed things with a beautiful ballad called “Girl (Where Do You Think You’re Going?)” that once more underscored that, like a lot of the powerful female talents of today (two of whom, Maren Morris and Alessia Cara, were showcased later on the program, though in numbers with other artists that took the edge off their effectiveness), Lady Gaga is too talented to stay stuck in only one style. 

The next song was “Beautiful Prayer” by Sam Smith, who came on wearing an odd white jacket that looked like some fashion designer’s idea of crossing a lab coat with a monk’s robe — is there some Grammy rule that openly Gay performers have to dress androgynously? (The only other openly Gay artist on last night, Elton John, performed his much-ballyhooed duet with Miley Cyrus on “Tiny Dancer” wearing a sequined black leather jacket with his first name emblazoned on the back. He also has almost no voice left — Elton John never had more than a serviceable voice; he achieved stardom because he and Bernie Taupin wrote such fabulous songs and his voice, though not great, at least in its early days was powerful and flexible enough to put the songs over.) Then the group Little Big Town did a song called “Better Man,” apparently written for them by Taylor Swift, and while there’s an even better song called “Better Man” by Pearl Jam this was a good one and an especially fine vehicle for the great white soul voice of the Little Big Town female member with long, dark hair. Then there was a tribute to the late Chuck Berry and Fats Domino that was disappointing simply because it wasn’t longer; given Berry’s importance in the history of rock his “final exit” should have been heralded on the Grammys by an extended medley with various artists paying tribute to him with a snippet of his songs; instead he and Fats got lumped together with Jon Batiste of Stephen Colbert’s backing band, Stay Human, doing “Ain’t That a Shame” (and playing a considerably flashier, trickier piano part than the original) and Gary Clark, Jr. playing “Maybelline.” Then someone or something called Childish Gambino — his name sounds like a particularly immature Mafioso character on The Godfather or The Sopranos but he’s actually a quite good Black neo-soul singer — did a song called “Terrified,” and Pink turned in one of the highlights of the evening with a power ballad called “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.” 

I loved this performance because it stayed simple: for once Pink didn’t have herself hoisted to the rafters on a trapeze with Cirque du Soleil wanna-bes as her chorus line; instead she stood on stage and sang her heart out in one of the most powerful and vivid white-soul performances of a night that had quite a few good ones. Next up was a surprisingly amusing routine with James Corden, who hosted and was generally inoffensive even though the few times I’ve watched his own show I’ve found him boring and wondered how this guy with no discernible talent got on TV, taking Sting and Shaggy on a New York subway, trying to do a Big Apple version of his schtick of doing sing-alongs with his musical guests in the car ostensibly taking them to his studio — and getting a lot of irate passengers telling them to just shut up. The next number was a forgettable entry by Bruno Mars with someone named Candy B. as his duet partner on a song called “Finesse,” after which Sting got trotted in to sing a three-decades-old song, “Englishman in New York.” Sting originally wrote it about Quentin Crisp but it got trotted out because he was an Englishman in New York last night, and he did it competently enough and reminded us of how great he was, especially in the decade between the breakup of the Police and the recording of his masterpiece, The Soul Cages. After that came a teaming of Rihanna with two rap people, rapper Bryan Taller (at least that’s what I think I wrote in my notes) and D.J. Khalid, on a forgettable song called “What I Wish.” Then Maren Morris, one of my current favorites, came out with the Brothers Osborne and Eric Church, all of whom had performed at the country music festival in Las Vegas that ended tragically with a mass shooting just after the set by headliner Jason Aldean, to memorialize the fans lost that day with … well, I was hoping they would do a classic country song on the subject like the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” but instead they trotted out Eric Clapton’s bathetic “Tears in Heaven” (though Morris did make the song sound more soulful than anyone else has, including Clapton himself). 

That was followed by Kesha’s song “Praying,” about the record producer who first discovered her and then raped her, leading to her refusal to work with him again, which since she was still contractually bound to him meant she couldn’t record at all for the next three years — an eternity in a music career — though the song she wrote about the experience, expressing her anger but also praying for his soul, would have been powerful enough on its own but got a wrenching performance from her that was one of the highlights of the night. The next performers were U2, who had done a cameo appearance in the middle of Kendrick Lamar’s travesty that provided its only redeeming moment but whose own song, “Get Out of Your Own Way” with a projected backdrop of giant eyes, performed on a barge parked in front of the Statue of Liberty, just made their act seem tired. (Bono is 30 years older than he was when he recorded The Joshua Tree, and looks it.) Then came the Elton John-Miley Cyrus duet, followed by a much more powerful duet on a song called “Middle” between Maren Morris and someone or something called Zodd — this was the full-length song paid for by Target as a commercial, and I hope its appearance means that a CD with this great song on it will be available there. After that Ben Platt did “Somewhere” as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein — he was O.K. but the song itself is pretty indestructible — and then came one of the highlights of the night: as a tribute to the still-living Andrew Lloyd Webber (who was shown in the audience) Patti LuPone came out and sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from Evita — she’d also sung it on the 1981 Grammys but her vocal chops were still intact and the song, which is midway between a Broadway show tune and an operatic aria, made its full effect; she’d be too old to play Evita on stage again but she can still belt out this number with wrenching power! 

The remaining songs were “Broken Clocks” by Sza (pronounced “Suzzah,” in case you were wondering) — a bitchy post on CNN at said it was a travesty that this person lost Best New Artist last year to Alessia Cara (the CNN writer, Maeve McDermott, also hailed Kendrick Lamar’s piece of incomprehensible shit as the best performance of the night, so it’s a safe bet that her taste and mine are diametrically opposed!), but to my mind Cara is far superior: Sza seems to be channeling Sade (not a bad model) whereas Cara sings with real emotion and soul. “Broken Clocks” is a nice song and Sza does it well enough, but it’s not in the same league as “Scars to Your Beautiful”! Chris Stapleton, the Bruce Vilanch of country music — I’ve noted in these pages before how this guy who looks like a drunken schlub at a bar rose from writing songs for other people to having a career of his own and has beat out all those hot guys in tight jeans for award after award on various shows — paid tribute to Tom Petty with a duet with Emmylou Harris on “Wildflowers.” For a finale Logic, a white rapper I liked much better than Kendrick Lamar — partly because with his close-cropped hair and tight blue jeans he looked like someone I might cruise in a Gay bar but mainly because at least he rapped slowly enough I could actually understand most of what he was saying — came out with Alessia Cara and Khalid for a song whose title was a phone number, “1-800-273-8155.” Given that the participants were wearing shirts with the phone number on one side and the slogan “You Are Not Alone” on the other, I presume that’s a suicide hotline; Alessia Cara once again proved that she, like Lady Gaga and Maren Morris, is one of those performers that can do almost anything, and her belting was the highlight of the production. 

Somewhere along the way there was a not particularly funny number spoofing the spoken-word Grammys and noting that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have both won for their audiobooks, and suggesting that if the current President is going to win a spoken-word Grammy it’s going to be for Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. I had stepped out of the room while this was on but was still listening and noted that one of the voices did sound rather familiar — it was Hillary Clinton, delivering the evening’s most blatant anti-Trump voice (though some have pushed it more than others, the big awards shows have generally made it clear that in this divided country creative artists are generally on the other side from Trump) and pissing off Nikki Haley, Trump’s pick as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (and whom Wolff hinted in his book was having an affair with Trump), who tweeted, “I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.” Donald Trump, Sr. so far hasn’t weighed in on the controversy, but Donald Trump, Jr. has: Baby Trump tweeted, “Getting to read a #fakenews book excerpt at the Grammys seems like a great consolation prize for losing the presidency. The more Hillary goes on television the more the American people realize how awesome it is to have @realDonaldTrump in office.” The show closed after Logic’s anti-suicide number (and his own anti-Trump statement to the effect that immigrants made this country great and their home countries are not s---holes — alas, CBS’s standards-and-practices people bleeped Trump’s obscenity) — marking the end of a predictably lumbering show that had some stellar moments (almost all from women — Patti LuPone, Lady Gaga, Maren Morris — though better on her Target spot than on the show itself — Alessia Cara and the awesome Kesha), and at least we were spared the indignity of having the Album of the Year award go to a piece of rap garbage!!!!!