The 47th Grammy Awards emphasized performers over presenters. Music, of course, more effectively justifies a three hour-plus runtime than the common award show litany of envelopes and air kisses. And set pieces of spouting fire and arcing candlepower are nothing new to the annual event, which suffered as usual from certain inevitables like sluggish pacing, stale banter, cartoonish staging, and John Norris. But this year’s show nevertheless emphasized the dedication to craft that singing or playing an instrument on a professional level requires. Notably absent: Ashlee Simpson, Ryan Cabrera, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, or the glut of heaving alt.metal dweebs that have replaced Limp Bizkit – in other words, celebrity tinfoil biters that derive buzz/revenue from top of mind spark and little else. These types are feted and fawned over at baseless MTV extravaganzas, but they’re absent when it’s time to bring anything worthwhile past the red carpet. They also too often represent US music and pop culture, when the real currents of taste run equally through brash punk redux, songs about the southland, and – most powerfully this year – through the wire.
Appropriately then, this year’s Grammys launched with an ambitious blend of 2004’s singles market. Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get it Started” has grown tired from overexposure – it was heard during every singe commercial break of the 2004 NBA Finals, for example. But its spacey funk-hop groove still has legs, especially when delivered in the indefatigable LA unit’s whirling, whooping, breakdancing fashion. “Get It Started” became the base for a medley that loped from Gwen Stefani’s Fiddler on the Roof retelling “Rich Girl” back to BEP, who led the way (kicking chairs and launching off unprepared laps) to a stage featuring brotherly Tex-Mex sensations Los Lonely Boys. Henry Garza’s raw Fender tone ripped through the airy Staples Center, the first electric guitar of an evening that also featured blistering work from Elvin Bishop, Dickey Betts, and Keith Urban. From “Heaven” to Maroon 5 and “This Love” – just one of the band’s irrepressible ’04 singles – and then to Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”, which with its punchy post-punk-derived beat and insistent phrasing was much closer a cousin to its medley partner than the hipster/barista on your corner would like to admit. A summarizing overlay of all the set’s elements (excluding Gwen, somewhat weirdly) was much too chaotic. However, that the entire setpiece had been done LIVE both vocally and instrumentally was exciting and even rewarding, particularly for an American public forced repeatedly to endure lip sync malfunctions from well-funded proto-performers like Simpson the Younger.
Alicia Keys delivered the most captivating vocal of the night with a sweeping and soulful “If I Ain’t Got You”. It would have been easy to explode the song with contemporary R&B bombast, or reduce it to an unseen band backing a solo vocal Keys. She’s gorgeous, of course – why not showcase that? No. Instead, “If I Ain’t Got You” was defined by Keys at her piano, sideways to the camera, straining on the high notes and emotion in the song, but never damaging its fibrous structure with a fluttering hand or twittering throat. The much-touted duet between Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony wasn’t as successful. It was nice enough vocally, but flawed by a theatrical setup and an odd coldness between the newly married couple. For their part, U2 made the veteran move of performing the slower and more emotionally challenging “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own”, instead of the Grammy-winning “Vertigo”.
This year’s Grammys made it clear that Usher’s still on top; there were as many reaction shots/mentions of him as there were white cloths wrapped around celebrity arms. (Homemade slogans-for-peace armbands: the new lapel pin?) Wishing to connect with ongoing tsunami recovery efforts, the show featured a hydra head take on “Across the Universe”. Backed by…Velvet Revolver? were Bono, Stevie Wonder, Norah Jones, Brian Wilson, Alicia Keys, Scott Weiland, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Tim McGraw, Steven Tyler, and Alison Krauss, who despite her lovely singing voice was relegated to fiddle. The effect of this disparate group standing together onstage was strange and wax museum-like. That’s not even a dig on Tyler or Wilson’s skin – the gang just twisted so many celebrity/recording artist guide ropes. Some will say that’s a bold move, and it probably would have been if the performance had gone better. It seems pretty certain that “Across the Universe” is very difficult to sing. If you’re Weiland, you do your part as David Bowie; Bono, you over-emote; Jones, you sway back and forth and shoot off scared glances; and Tyler, you shake maracas like it’s your job. Though it wouldn’t have been the “We are the World” moment the Grammys were hoping for, hiring Fiona Apple to reprise her smoky, starry-eyed version of “Universe” from the Pleasantville soundtrack might’ve been a better idea.
An extended jam celebrating Nashville and Southern Rock that featured Betts, Gretchen Wilson, Tim McGraw, Urban and Bishop on the latter’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”, and remnants of Lynyrd Skynyrd was rangy, hurried, and more than a little crowded. But it was also endearingly frayed in a manner usually absent from sterile award shows, and full of beat up guitars and black leather, redneck women and Jack Daniel’s – kind of like your average American bar on a typical Saturday night. That’s how noted bongo enthusiast Matthew McConaughey’s referred to Skynyrd in the intro – America’s best bar band – and he wasn’t too far off. Representative of the aesthetic, anyway. On a program broadcast worldwide, the country/rock set stood alongside the railing, revivalist punk polemics of Green Day’s “American Idiot” (the title track from their Best Rock Album-winning ’04 effort) and Kanye West’s rousing, frantic and boldly narcissistic “Jesus Walks” (from Best Rap Album College Dropout) as a snapshot of a country trying to find its identity through pop music. West’s performance dropped his thrillingly contemporary hip-hop sound into the gospel flavors of Mavis Staples and Blind Boys of Alabama; visually compelling and strikingly powerful, West and the “Jesus Walks” set piece fired back at the new lame America with bullets built from the old, weird days. Combine his passion with Green Day’s conceptual evisceration of suburban culture, add in salt of the earth Southern Rock and Wilson’s plain-faced assertion of white trash pride, and suddenly the Grammys have aligned some pretty heavy chess pieces. Red state, blue state, redneck, idiot, college dropout; singing, not faking – America sees itself in these concepts. Ultimately the 47th Grammy Awards did, too.