Last night, my wife and I and our daughters had a deeply weird experience, watching, for the first time ever, the CBS broadcast of the Grammy Awards. I essentially never watch awards shows on TV, except for the Oscars, which I watch every year. And I freely and fully admit that I’m sort of an old fuddy-dud. But I’m not remotely hostile to popular music, nor to contemporary music. One of my daughters is a huge Katy Perry fan, and I rather like some of her music. I waited with great anticipation the arrival of the new Arcade Fire album, have listened to it many times, and think it’s terrific. Nor am I remotely hostile to rap, or hip-hop. I like Macklemore, for example. My wife and I discovered Pentatonix this year, and think they’re amazing. Naively, I assumed that Reflektor (the Arcade Fire release), would be up for Album of the Year, and that Pentatonix would be under consideration for Best New Artist.
And I’m not bitter that neither Arcade Fire nor Pentatonix were mentioned, either of them, ever, at any time. To me, they were the two musical highlights of the year, but that’s not what the Grammies are about, apparently. The music honored at the Grammies is, I suppose Top Forty, if that meant anything anymore. It’s “Music that you would hear on the radio, if anyone listened to the radio, which no one does anymore.” It’s so strangely anachronistic, this talk of ‘albums’ and ‘records’ in an age where music is almost entirely delivered via digital downloads.
Still, watching the Grammies, what I did not anticipate is how bad the musical performances would be. I was actually sort of hoping I would hear music by people I didn’t know, and that I would like some of it, and want to buy it. This did not happen. For the most part, the musicians who performed were utterly dreadful. A whole bunch of awards were given out, in obscure and infinitesimally differentiated categories. Meanwhile, a bewildering array of performers both ancient and modern, or often enough, both together, would perform, either indifferently or catastrophically. And the ubiquitous and sinister presence of Jay-Z reigned over the proceedings, rather like Michael Corleone presiding over his father’s funeral.
Without question, the nadir of the evening’s performances involved the music of Chicago, as butchered by the untalented, smarmy and smirking Robin Thicke. Chicago sounded terrific. That great horn section had its usual precision and polish, and Robert Lamm’s voice is as strong as ever. They began “Does anybody really know what time it is?” with Lamm singing, and sounded, well, like Chicago, as good as ever. Then Thicke put an execrable gloss on the vocal. It was all downhill from there. Thicke butchered two more Chicago songs, to complete the medley, and then that great horn section was somehow induced to provide backing for Thicke’s performance of his own loathsome hit, “Blurred Lines.” I still shudder at the recollection.
This sort of thing kept happening. Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams (unaccountably wearing a hat he stole from Smokey the Bear), joined something called Daft Punk, a French duo who wear helmets, making them look like Boba Fett’s Eurotrash nephews, resulting in an utterly forgettable dance groove. All the mystery of Imagine Dragons’ terrific song “Radioactive” was wiped clean by a frenetic, baffling and incomprehensible rap intrusion by someone I hope never to hear about again in any context whatsoever named Kendrick Lamar.
It also seemed to be a night for burying hatchets. Next month, CBS will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut, and so both Paul and Ringo were there, and performed. Ringo sang his one hit from his one album: I thought “Photograph” held up nicely. Then he played drums for Paul (and was I the only one wondering if this would be the last time?), as Paul performed his new single (!), “Queenie Eye.” Paul’s voice is shot, but the man’s past 70, and there’s still that charisma. And Ringo’s got to be 73, and doesn’t look a day past 60. But, sitting right there on the same row, about four people down, there she was: Yoko Ono, with I think Julian Lennon as her date. And in a tribute to the “outlaws of country,” Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson sang “Highwaymen” really badly, then were joined by Merle Haggard for “Okie From Muskogee,” a song which in 1969 was a direct rebuke to country outlaws (and hippies) and to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson specifically. (Boy was it weird hearing Willie Nelson sing “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”). But time wounds all heals, and the old guys seemed to enjoy their time on-stage together. They were joined by Blake Shelton, who’s too young to have any historical ties to the others, but who seemed to be up there so there’d be one person on stage who can still sing and play the guitar.
There were some nice moments. Sara Bareilles and Carole King sat at pianos and sang two songs together, one by each of them: “Brave” and “Beautiful,” and the result was both brave and beautiful. They represent different generations of women who do the same thing–singer/songwriters. And they were both clearly thrilled to be up there, and the songs were great. John Legend was similarly terrific; just sat at the piano and sang a good song really well. Simple and great. A young country artist named Kacey Musgraves, who I’ve never heard of, sang her new hit, “Follow your arrow,” and I liked it and her some, though I’m not sure who told her that turning her Mom’s Christmas sweater into a short, short skirt was a good idea. But they were wrong.
Lorde won for “Royals,” a terrific song that I like a lot better in Pentatonix’ cover version. Lorde, channelling Morticia Adams, also performed it, in a twitchy, odd, tuneless performance that made her look nuts. Katy Perry wore a witch costume, all the better to writhe on what seemed to be a hemlock stripper pole; a unifying theme of the evening seemed to be ‘tribute to bad musical theatre choreography’. Whenever things lagged, bring on the smoke effects and pyrotechnics!
I learned some things. I did not know, for example, that Pink had been working out with the Cirque du Soleil choreographers. But she has, and either lip-synced or sang while doing acrobatics. Sadly, she was joined by a completely forgettable band named, if memory serves, Fun; not an inspired pairing. I discovered that Metallica can still rock, and were memorably joined by the pianist Lang Lang–the result was a cacophonous mess. I learned that Taylor Swift can fling her head around while singing, but not while singing well, apparently; the overall performance was embarrassing. And I learned that Keith Urban sang play him some blues guitar; his duet with Gary Clark Jr. was okay.
Meanwhile, the Jay-Z thing just got weirder and weirder. Beyonce’s opening number was tuneless and ugly. Jay-Z joined her at the end, and the place went wild, but it rather felt like a soccer stadium in North Korea going wild when Kim Jung Un ‘scores’ a ‘goal.’ At one point, Jamie Foxx went up to present a winner in some category, and made some sort of comment along the lines of ‘gosh, Beyonce is sure pretty.’ An act of lèse majesté; apparently: he back-tracked frantically, babbling incoherently, then racing through his list of nominees. There was absolutely this whole ‘Jay-Z can and will have you killed if you displease him’ sort of vibe. Even the CBS producers caught it; the camera kept cutting to Jay-Z after each performance, as though looking for The Godfather’s blessing.
These award shows, like everything else in pop culture, are meant to build to a climax, and last night was no exception. The climax last night was supposed to be a kind of marriage equality affirmation, in which Reverend Queen Latifah married 33 couples, some gay, some straight, while Macklemore rapped his “Same love” anthem, and Madonna, dressed like Colonel Sanders, blessed the proceedings. In fact, that was why I was watching; my wife and I know one of the couples getting hitched. Trust CBS to blow it. We hardly got to see the marrying couples at all; the camera was much more interested in what had been the point of focus the whole night, the spectacle of celebrities applauding celebrities. (But for what are some of these people celebrated?) We did not see the couple we’d watched the whole night to see. What we saw instead was lots of Pharrell Williams’ silly hat and Jay-Z’s baleful glare. And Taylor Swift dancing to everything.
I imagine that, for the marrying couples, having the whole thing nationally televised was probably kind of fun. Having Queen Latifah preside was probably pretty cool. Macklemore’s song probably seemed appropriate. Still, the CBS broadcast turned what genuinely is an important and sacred moment into something star-infested and tacky. And they didn’t need to. Let the camera linger. Actually show the couples. Show them crying, embracing, kissing. Show something human, for heaven’s sake.
So, yeah, the Grammy Awards of 2014 were kind of a bust. They honored some mediocre songs and performances, as well as a couple of good ones. The performances were mostly bad, but not uniformly. Still, it’s three and a half hours of my life I’ll never get back. Won’t be watching next year, no matter who gets married.