It was the Grammy Awards’ 50th anniversary Sunday night… but it was a serious stumble, at least as far as the broadcast itself went.
Live tv is challenging, though: the pacing is bound to lag, under-rehearsed numbers fall apart, and non-actors (or brain-dead actors) can’t get their tongues and eyes around the simple task of reading a teleprompter. Plus there’s no real “host” anymore, which makes the whole thing feel clunky, unlike the Oscars or even the Emmys. But tonight was worse than the Grammys have been in years. After the 2007 broadcast, which was pretty decent all-in-all, this 50th anniversary edition was just sad. It was not very entertaining OR informative, as if some brain-dead committee of producers and Recording Academy suits sat down and concocted a bunch of round holes to fit the square-peg musicians into. I can almost hear the early planning meetings in my head:
“It’s been fifty years. This one’s easy: let’s get some old guys, and some of the really pretty new kids, and give them some really clever things to say about how heroic the old guys are, and the old coots can say how cute and fun the youngsters look following in their footsteps. And we’ll let them perform together, too.”
Kid Rock trying to sound like distinctive 1950s singer/clown Louis Prima? Are you kidding me? Early Grammy host Andy Williams presenting an award with a couple of nominally talented young Latinas, one of whom isn’t even a musician? Ugh! Don’t insult my intelligence. In trying to include “something for everybody”, they barely provided something authentic or memorable for anybody.
But I’ll point out some highlights and lowlights of the show anyway. Why? Cuz it’s my self-appointed job: I watch this crap and review it so you don’t have to. (You’re welcome.)
Let’s start with a list of best & worst, in no particular order:
Most grating guitar part: Brad Paisley playing rhythm guitar for himself, with a tricked-out spacy fuzz-wah effect that would be more appropriate in a Chili Peppers or Parliament Funkadelic song than in his below-average country stomper “Ticks”.
Most ridiculous blown performance: the aforementioned Kid Rock, who fell behind during his Black Magic duet with Keely Smith, and who even on his best day can’t sing jazz, grown-up rock ‘n’ roll, or anything more intelligent than a nursery rhyme. Check out the lyrics to Kid’s new single, Amen. Apparently he can’t write, either. Starts out okay (if simplistic), then ends up with some of the dumbest rhymes and rationalizations since the doo-wop days.
Most overlong & unnecessary false eyelashes – Alicia Keys …Alicia also wins award for most gratuitous instrument/prop — the synthesizer placed downstage for her second number later in the show. She played about four notes on it, howled alot, then went back upstage. I like Alicia just fine, it just wasn’t a very good performance: all flash and glitter, no heart.
Most Stevie Ray Vaughan-like beat-up Stratocaster guitar: John Mayer, whose twenty second guitar solo during Ms. Keys’ second song was the only thing remotely resembling traditional or urban blues to appear on the entire show. Again, I like John just fine. It’s just that he’s white. If the blues were arguably the original building blocks, a basic DNA strand for rock, R&B, gospel, jazz, American folk and rap, then where were all the blues artists who have mattered for the past fifty years?
Best camera work: On Herbie Hancock & Lang Lang’s duet performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. They shot two “interlocked” topless grand pianos, from above, as the gifted pianists played …plus there were good deep and varied shots of the big band behind them, and nice closeups of some classic finger fireworks on piano. Rhapsody is one of the great dramatic musical works of the twentieth century, equal parts jazz and classical, and I’m really glad they rescued it from being thought of only as the United Airlines theme for an entire generation of Generation Y listeners. (Note to Gen Y: Led Zeppelin’s song “Rock ‘N’ Roll” originally had nothing to do with Cadillac cars either, nor did the sweet lilting voice of Sixties-era British folkie Nick Drake have anything to do with Volkswagons).
Most WTF? moment: the return of The Time, after fifteen years. I liked ’em okay back when, and they were about the same on Sunday. But they were always a bit of a novelty act, weren’t they? Why put ’em on the big stage now? To represent the mediocrity of Eighties music in several genres?
Most futile endeavor: reading (& remembering) the dozens of secondary awards! Most were listed quickly as they went off to commercials, others were even pasted up onscreen while presenters were doing their spiels. I can remember when the show itself featured about fifty presentations and ten performances. Now they’re trying to do it the other way around, and it’s aggravating. But I caught a few notable things by reading the text: oldish R&B diva Patti Austin won an award for a Gershwin-themed album, Joni Mitchell won for an instrumental song or album, jazz/fusion performer Joe Zawinul (formerly of Weather Report) won a posthumous award for a recording he did last year, and Aretha Franklin was a co-winner for some gospel collaboration she did.
Coolest-looking instrument: a tie, between Foo Fighter Dave Grohl’s light blue Rickenbacker electric guitar & the baritone sax played onstage in London by Amy Winehouse’s sax player.
Most annoyingly co-dependent performance: Amy Winehouse, who managed to work the name of her new hubby Blake Fielder-Civil into not just one but two short songs. (Well, the hubby’s not so new anymore, but apparently he’s incarcerated on assault and obstruction of justice charges.) Just shut up and sing the song as written, sweetie. You’re no Bob Dylan.
Most likely to flame out by next year’s Grammy show: also Amy Winehouse! For those who don’t know her, she’s a good singer, kinda got a retro 1950s bad-girl thing going on, but she’s like the British version of Britney, with a high level of substance abuse and intensive tabloid b.s. complicating her already dysfunctional psyche. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss her meteoric rise to stardom and fall from grace. (Don’t forget, you heard it here first…)
Most non-new “Best New Artist” nominee: Canadian pop/folkie Feist, who played a festival featuring The Ramones as early as 1993, and has now released three solo albums. I guess for Americans, “new” is whatever they just found out about this year, whether or not it previously existed. That must mean 83-year-old Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook is new, too.
Best duet: Beyonce and Tina Turner performing Proud Mary (though Tina’s grittiness and energy -and at what age?!- made Beyonce’s whole glitter and a smile thing look very thin, white, and manufactured by comparison.)
Best solo performance: tough call. Nothing was earth-shattering. Kanye West was literally electric in his first song, “Stronger”, and then kind of moving and heartfelt in “Hey Mama”, his quiet tribute to his recently deceased mother. But I think the emotions of the moment made the performance itself a bit erratic. More uniformly good? I suppose Carrie Underwood wasn’t bad… for an American Idol product.
Most excessive pandering and self-congratulatory performance: will.i.am’s “original” Grammy tribute rap, awkwardly quoting “Strangers in the Night” & U2’s “Beautiful Day”, and generally sounding like freestyler gone horribly wrong. A bad way to close out the show’s performances.
*** *** *** Other Random Observations *** *** ***
The intros & the presenters’ schmoozing suffered from bad writing, or at least poor reading skills. Miley MontanaCyrus and Cyndi LoopyLauper, Jason Bateman, Kid Rock, Tom Hanks, and a number of others looked painfully unprepared and out-of-place while trying to speak.
The Best Rock Album category read like a survey of the entire fifty year Grammy history: John Fogerty who started in the 60s, Springsteen from the 70s, (no 80s representative), Wilco and Foo Fighters from the 90s, and another Idol product, Daughtry, from the 00s. Foos won it, their third since the category was begun in 1995.
Best New Artist: Amy Winehouse (winner), Taylor Swift, Feist, Ledisi, and Paramore (the only dudes, also the only group) — It’s a hard category for guys to win in, even harder for groups. Recent winners John Legend and Maroon 5 look like they have staying power, but past acts like Hootie, Arrested Development and Millie Vanilli had trouble making it into even a third year of sustained success. Notably, the Beatles won in this category in 1965, the year I was born. Click the link above to quickly read thru the decades… it’s a funny little exercise for noticing changing American music tastes.)
Best rap album: Kanye won it, beating his buddies Common and Jay Z, plus Nas, and T.I. the direct tried to play Kanye off the stage, but he got riled up and kept on talking… sets an interesting precedent. I also found myself remembering the funky Elton John sunglasses and his unique styles in the Seventies, and wondering if Elton feels ripped off by Kanye’s style at all.
Rise of the Fogies: The following artists, all of whom started prior to 1970, performed, presented or won awards: The Beatles (Ringo was there, and Cirque du Soleil performed to “A Day in the Life”), Tina Turner, John Paul Jones, Sinatra (via videotape, supposedly never-before seen footage), Joni Mitchell, Aretha, Madison Bumble Bees (gospel), (Louis Prima &) Keeley Smith, Stevie Wonder, Max Roach, Herbie Hancock, Gershwin, Cher, Tony Bennett, the recently departed Oscar Peterson (composition performed by Eldar), Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis (who released a record last year but ain’t kickin stools around anymore… he’s losin’ a step or two in his playin’ & singin’; this is also true of L’il Richard, though he seems more “with it” than Jerry).
In winning Record of the Year, Amy Winehouse spent far too long dazed and confused. She was hugging people onstage in London, looking like an awkward pre-teen, while the tv director back here in the states was probably screaming at his monitors: “Go to your mike, lady! Say thank you! The whole world is waiting on you, dear.” Of course, when she did actually speak, he probably wished she hadn’t, as she came off sounding like a Cockney moron, both in her accent and in what she actually said.
Question: do the Grammys people invent new categories & combos every year, like Best Rap/Sung Collaboration? Meanwhile, how many older categories fall away? For example, I don’t expect them to just drop the Best Polka category, but how relevant is it any more, really? They’ve given out over 7,000 awards in 50 years, plus ~400 more awards tonite, in 110 categories. That’s a lot of music… without even considering the non-winning nominees.
RIP last year, partial list: Boston lead singer Brad Delp, max roach, joe zawinul, robert goulet, (hilly kristal -founder of NY’s CBGB’s punk club), don ho, dan fogelberg, porter waggoner, beverly sills, irish folkie tommy makem, ike turner, oscar peterson, pavarotti…
Notable 2008 Grammy absences: Mary J. Blige, U2, Eminem, recent pop divas like Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani, industry icons like Springsteen and Sheryl Crow, old Brits like Clapton, Jagger and The Who, older country artists (besides winner Vince Gill… who gently knocked Kanye down a peg by asking “Have you ever been handed an award by a Beatle, like I just was?”), most of the lifetime achievement honorees (including The Band, except for the notoriously vain Robbie Robertson), pre-2000 rappers, interesting “conscious” post-2000 rappers like Mos Def and Talib Kweli, punks and metal bands, alternative rock acts like Green Day,
Mark Ronson -producer o’ the year… he’s the new hot stuff with good instincts (including his work with Winehouse, making good wine from just slightly above-average grapes); Quincy Jones gave him a shout-out, which must have felt pretty cool for Ronson, considering Quincy produced Michael Jackson’s monster albums of the 1980s.
Album of the Year: Nominees were Foo Fighters, Vince Gill, Kanye, Amy Winehouse, and the odd man out, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.
The winner? Herbie Hancock (For the Joni Mitchell tribute record River: The Joni Letters, featuring recent and older stars as guest vocalists) —He said it’s been 43 yrs since the last & only other jazz artist got the big Best Album award ( it was João Gilberto & Stan Getz for Getz/Gilberto in 1965, featuring “Girl From Ipanema”) . At one point, Herbie quoted Obama, saying “yes we can”. He thanked the Academy members for having the guts to make an unconventional choice. Then he was played off the stage by the tv director! So I guess we should NOT expect a new category called “best jazz/folk collaboration” after this? Oh well, I don’t mind. I just likes my Herbie and Joni, and I’m glad to see ’em hanging in there for so many years. Besides, if I only liked what was popular at a given time, I’d be so much less interesting. Right?
Long live Buddy Holly! And John Lee Hooker, Andre Crouch, Cab Calloway, Billie Holliday, Stephen Foster, Ludwig von Beethoven, and Bagooba the Cave Boy!