Grammys 2005: Sing it loud.

The new Jacko and his ladyfriendThe 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.


17 thoughts on “Grammys 2005: Sing it loud.”

  1. Random thoughts:

    I’m not convinced that the Gwen/Eve duet was vocally live. If so, it was produced to such an extent that NASA might have well been involved, processing the vocals through some ultrasophisticated satellite system that includes the Hubble. Hearing Alicia Keys bust out with her number made me think that the other two in question should have ducked under their chairs with embarassment.

    Isn’t BEP’s anthem this year’s replacement for last year’s Outkast anthem which was a replacement for the previous year’s Chumbawumba anthem?

    Gretchen Wilson’s pipes were much weaker than they were when she was belting it out at the Superbowl, which just goes to show you that America’s game is still sports.

    Couldn’t they have found Mickey Thomas appearing in a bowling alley somewhere to reprise “Fooled Around and Fell In Love”?

  2. I thought it was interesting when they changed the words of “Across the Universe” from “nothing’s gonna change my world” to “something’s gonna change the world.” Bono seemed to be the only singer not going along with this revision (he had his mouth shut when they panned across the group).

    The sentiment is laudable but changing the words seemed creepy.

  3. I felt the moment of the night was Jack White commenting on how Van Lear Rose didn’t get played on country radio. Classic – especially considering it was after that retarded circle-jerk hoe-down. I thought Jack’s “cred-meter” was full, now I’m gonna have to extend the maximum points possible. He and Loretta should have been allowed to follow that redneck love-in. Then everyone would see how ridiculous the previous actually is.

  4. Johnny, how you can subject yourself to such a massive volume of the never ending torrent of Corporate Entertainment and not end up looking like Captain Pike from the Menagerie episode of Star Trek (the Original Series)?

  5. I don’t think he drinks from the municiple water supply. when he’s not in LA, he probably has his water gleaned from a glacier in the Italian Alpes, then purified through reverse osmosis. Finally to be served to him in a sterilized platinum Pimp Goblet by a 6 year old eunic from Tunisia.

  6. The whole thing sounds, as a whole, not too exciting. I hold out hope that in this era of cheap recording and internet promotion, the industy’s grip on music may be finally starting to slip. There seems to be a lot of DIY in the air these days (just look at GloNo Records), and that may spell doom for things like the Grammys.

    Probably not, actually, but one can dream.

    BTW, great article Johnny! Thanks to you I have completely given up watching awards shows knowing you are on the beat.

  7. Little rant:

    I noticed your caption for the Jack and Loretta pic. I’m so tired of Jack being compared to Michael Jackson. The only similarity between those two is skin tone and long black hair and at least Jack’s skin tone is real! I know you were joking, but I’m a Jack lover and it is incredibly insulting for anyone to be compared to that nutjob, as far as looks go anyway./rant off :-)

    I love how Jack stuck it to radio with that little comment. I hope he pissed a hell of a lot of those redneck radio stations off. Loretta definitely deserved that award because her album was killer. I loved the interplay between those two. What a cute pair. Definitely best moment of the night for, but I’m biased.

  8. I think this year’s GRAMMY’s were amazing, it couldn’t have been better. Except maybe if Green Day would have won a few more awards for their critically acclaimed album. But overall I think it was great. There were a lot of tributes, my favorite being the “Across the Universe” by John Lennon. Again on a Green Day note, I think Billie Joe Armstrong was an odd but great addition to the group of singers. It showed that they were able to get a different type of singer from every genre of music to come together and sing it. So I commend them on the great performance of it, I think it was a really great effort to raise money.

  9. This is probably the most honest review of the show AS a show I’ve read. Most recaps served as either a means for the reviewer to rip current pop music trends or as a referendum on the Grammys themselves. Nice piece.

  10. I loved the grammys this year. The music was spectacular. Gwen and her groups’s rendition of Fiddler on the Ruth was incredible…it did sound like it had special effects, but I didn’t mind, it made the performance even more spectacular.

    Alicia Key’s was absolutely beautiful…and the commentary on her, perfectly described her performance.

    I agreed with the commentary on Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. Shelooked beautiful, butit seemed a bit sterile overall, because of the theatrical setting. She has had so much exposure, that maybe they felt that they had to do something over the top, but it fell a bit flat.

    I thought the group song, Nothing’s going to change my world, appeared rather unrehearsed. but I appreciated the effort. I am sure that they didn’t have all of the practice time to pull such a song together with such a large group.

    The earlier comment was interesting. I thought they were singing, “Nothing’s going to change my world.” And I kept thinking that if this was a tribute to Tsunami victims, it is a strange one, because everything changed their world, the day the tsunami hit. So actually, while it might appear creepy to someone who knew the song well, (believe it or not I did not know the song), I was glad to hear from an earlier commenter, that they had actually sung, “Something’s Going To Change My World.”

    Anyway, it is neat to hear other people’s views. I would love to order a copy of the grammys, because of the great music. Does anyone know if you can order a copy on video tape or DVD?

    Everyone made a lot of great comments. Thanks for reading!


  11. As a die hard fan of both Loretta Lynn and Jack White, I thought that moment was pricless. I usualy dont wantch the grammys, because they are full of shit, but i watched the clip of and it made my day. The dynamic between the two was just awsome- you can tell they really respect one another, or on Jacks part, worship. It was just a pleasure to see them interact like that.

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