It was nice of CBS to hire the sound crew from Santa Monica High School’s winter production of “L’il Abner” for its live broadcast of the 46th annual Grammy Awards. It was music’s biggest night – or whatever – but pops, clicks, buzzes and feedback plagued both performer and presenter alike, causing even the coldest hearted French-Canadian dragon lady a few moments of very real frustrated bluster. The vocational school audio enthusiasts out in the sound truck unwittingly helped bust up the veneer that usually separates us from things like the fancy shmancy Staples Center Grammys.
The event was live – or at least live after a five-minute signal reroute meant to give CBS’ newly-installed naked boob-lancing SDI war machines time to power up and scorch the sky, the better to prevent the tainting of innocent cherubs. But this live-ish broadcast was fraught with clunky pacing issues and awkward teenage camera cue blues, making us wonder just how far forty years of televised music and media have really brought the medium.
This year’s Grammys became an unraveling ball of elaborate performance setpieces, distended award receptions, and unfinished strings of confused reaction shots and glittering, empty platforms – shards of a shattering mirrorball of an industry that no longer has the upper hand of cushioned celebrity detachment with which to burnish its often marginal product. Thanks, SMHS sound geeks. Your ineptitude demystified the illusion once and for all, unmasked Mr. Johnson. He might’ve gotten away with it, were it not for you pesky kids.
Seriously, is Prince a real person? Maybe it’s the pure water and clear air of Minneapolis, but that Dorian Gray motherfucker hasn’t aged a second since he wrote “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” two of the twenty-year-old songs he mashed into a medley with Beyoncé and “Crazy in Love,” the latter cleverly de-booty’d for any American Family Association viewers unready for Ms. Knowles’ considerable jelly.
The curious opener set a few patterns for the evening. One was Beyoncé herself, who together with a wily, crow-eating Justin Timberlake seemed ubiquitous both onstage and off. Prince and Beyoncé’s impressive harmonizing also established an encouraging trend toward live singing, something that’s been sorely missing from recent televised music. But for all its strut and flash, their overstuffed number seemed stunted, delivered with a shrillness akin to the drab, state-sponsored jelly shoe song and dances of the Soviet Era. “This is entertaining!” it screamed, ringing our necks with spidery fingers. “But please, don’t dig any deeper than the pretty flashpots and dandy smocks – you might find the bodies we buried in the alley!”
Beyoncé herself would circle, highlight, and smiley-face dot the I’s of this notion with a stilted, baroque, throat-throbbing living-picture retelling of her ballad “Dangerously in Love 2.” Her voice was off the charts impressive. But the feeling we were being spoon-fed some general audiences Malt-O-Meal was tougher to shake than a nine-week Zen-powered orgasm, the kind Sting was undoubtedly riding out when he helped Dave “I saw her dancing there” Matthews, a smug Pharrell Williams, and the well-fed Vince Gill stumble through a well-intentioned, but laughably bad anniversary tribute to the Beatles’ 1964 Ed Sullivan appearance. The Fab Four’s freshly-scrubbed faces flashed mechanically behind them as the ill-fated quartet labored through the high notes and flashed pained smiles at each others’ little flubs. Watching from backstage at the collaborative trainwreck occurring before him, Chick Corea thought about backing out of his duties as guest Foo Fighter piano tinkler during the inexplicably-nominated “Times Like These.” “What have I agreed to?” he muttered, and hid his head in the folds of his fancy bathrobe.
While “I Saw Her Standing There” was bar band butchered, the second part of the night’s Beatles tribute was more confusing than embarrassing. Olivia Harrision spoke eloquently about the meaning and message of her late husband’s music, but a consistent buzz of chattering background noise suggested the glitterati might be using the few minutes an opportune time to top off the cocktails. Harrison wasn’t phased, but her straightforward speech was at odds to corset-tightened wack job Yoko Ono’s disjointed paean to John Lennon. Compounding the confusedness were smarmy taped comments from Paul and Ringo, who admittedly didn’t seem to know what they were receiving. The half-baked tribute was typical of the Grammys and NARAS, which as an organization is expected to memorialize its fallen, but can rarely integrate the sentiment with any effectiveness. The event’s remembrance of Warren Zevon was better, but Luther Vandross’ quite deserved tribute seemed much too sad, as if he was already gone. Accepting the Record of the Year award for “Dance With My Father,” Vandross co-writer Richard Marx’s speech was more eulogy than tribute. To her credit, Celine Dion’s performance of the song with Marx was understated, with none of her normal hand-fluttering dynamics. And she stayed on pitch even after the amateur A/V techs couldn’t get her monitor to function.
But the question remains: why is Celine Dion always at this sort of event? Faith Hill would have been just fine; as it was, poor Faith had to close the show, looking hilariously uncomfortable in the crush of crazy people that accompanied Big Boi and Andre 3000 to the stage in celebration of Outkast’s Album of Year win. (The victory came only after they performed their respective hit singles, further proving the marketing genius behind Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.) The mixture of fear, frustration (“Pardon me, out of my way please!”), and tantrum flummox on Faith’s pretty face was shared by hundreds of thousands of dull-eyed home viewers, confronted in their living rooms by a shirtless black guy in sunglasses and lime green waders, climbing out of a tee pee with go go dancers and a marching band in tow. While Andre’s “Hey Ya!” performance still suffered from weird pacing and a somewhat forced outrageousness, it was a wonderful way to unleash the hip-hop id on a complacent nation of NASCAR fans.
If “Hey Ya!” represented the flaming blood of creativity flowing freely from the wound, then the White Stripes’ blistering, strobe-splattered medley of “Seven Nation Army” and “Death Letter” was the searing, sparking end of a severed power cable snaking through the coaxial of a nation. The two performances bookended the thudding bombast of the show’s midsection and made sitting through pompous ass Neil Portnow’s speech doable. No one has the ability to make the Grammys cool, not Jack, not Andre, not Meg, not Big Boi, not even Hilary Duff. But the White Stripes made the Grammys’ audio enthusiast trial-and-error sound issues work for them by overriding everything with ragged power, and Andre turned the show’s template for boob-less safety on its ear with his Green Lantern-meets-Sun Ra titty twister to the flabby chest of 99 percenter America.
Oh, and Evanescence sucks.