The Grammy Awards: A Running Diary

dixie.jpgThe new faces of anti-backlash backlash

So the big problem with the Grammys every year is that the show never reflects what actually happened in pop music in the preceding year; it only reflects what the pop music industry wants us to think happened. The artists that do well at the Grammys aren't usually the popular successes or the critical darlings of the previous year; they're the figures who exist at some rarified intersection of middlebrow good-taste preconceptions and commercial dependability. Someone like Norah Jones is a perfect storm for Grammy voters, whereas someone like Eminem will only get his Album of the Year statue when he's fifty and he makes a concept album of Appalachian folk music or something. Sometimes, though, that drive for prestige ends up giving us some deliriously weird moments, like the Jay-Z/Linkin Park/Paul McCartney thing or the utterly insane Sly Stone tribute from last year, and those are the moments that make the show worth watching. This year's show didn't really have any of those moments; it's probably the most boring Grammys in recent memory. But here we go anyway:

8:00: People actually appear to be getting up and walking away from the stage as much-hyped Police reunion takes the stage. Sting makes the obvious choice of playing "Roxanne" and the slightly more questionable choice of wearing a V-neck wifebeater. "Roxanne" might be the Police's best-known song, but it's not quite a pop classic; obviously, what it always needed was an echoed-out "Whole Lotta Love"-esque orgasmo-dub break, and the band is now happy to correct that problem.

8:04: Jamie Foxx makes the inevitable joke about how Snoop Dogg fled the theater when he heard that the Police were opening.

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8:06: Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder, possibly the most safe and sleepy choice in a category full of them, win the Best Pop Collaboration award, setting the stage for the rest of the night. Stevie, visibly moved, dedicates the award to his dead mother; Tony thanks Target. That's the Grammys in a nutshell right there.

8:09: Introducing the Dixie Chicks, Joan Baez talks about them like they're Martin Luther King or something. They play a particularly self-impressed rendition of "Not Ready to Make Nice," already a pretty self-impressed (and pretty good) song. The Dixie Chicks did a brave thing when they spoke out against the Iraq war and inadvertently became political lightning rods, and the did an even braver thing when they embraced their status as country-music pariahs, but that story has now become their defining struggle, and that's a shame; they used to be a great pop-country band.

8:18: Prince, introducing Beyonce, looks justifiably smug. Beyonce, who looks and sounds amazing, gives "Listen" the Hollywood Golden-Age treatment. I'd rather hear her sing a better song, but this is still a great way of announcing yourself as royalty.

8:22: Mary J. Blige wins R&B Album of the Year. She talks about how happy she is that people are finally talking positively rather than negatively about her, but doesn't everyone love her? Seriously, I can't remember anyone ever once saying anything negative about her in my presence. She also spends an eternity thanking everyone on her list while the get-off-the-stage music blares; she must not think she's going to be winning anything again tonight.

8:26: Queen Latifah announces the Grammys' pathetic attempt to co-opt American Idol: we can vote on which of three random girls is going to get to sing with Justin Timberlake later tonight. I guess they really think we'll care.

8:32: Whoa, Nelson George directed a movie? With Queen Latifah and Bunk from The Wire in it? Rock critics on the come-up!

8:33: In a weird introductory video-clip, Justin Timberlake blatantly lies and says that "What Goes Around..." is about a friend of his. Whatever, Justin. Onstage, he gives the song the sensitive-artist treatment, sitting at a piano to sing it even though I don't think there's any piano on the actual song. But "What Goes Around..." is still the best Coldplay song since "Clocks," and his performance is hugely satisfying anyway. On the outro, he pulls the same trick he did when he sang it at Madison Square Garden last week, shining a handheld camera in his own face and making goofy faces while he sings. When the camera was all Blair Witch grainy and the images were projected fifty feet high behind him, it was awesome, but it doesn't quite translate to TV, and Justin ends up looking a bit ridiculous.

8:39: T.I., presenting some award, drops his envelope. Whoever wrote his insulting rap-talk banter should never be allowed near a keyboard again. Mary J. Blige wins again; Pink is extremely happy.

8:48: Stevie Wonder gives an enthusiastic and vaguely deranged introduction to the Corrinne Bailey Rae/John Legend/John Mayer Starbucks-counter triple-threat. Mayer, on his watery-bluesman kick, makes a lot of goofy faces; otherwise, about six minutes pass completely uneventfully.

8:50: Mayer beats JT for Pop Vocal Album; I call bullshit.

9:05: Shakira finally cuts through all the pompous reverence to give us the first crass pop spectacle of the night. She shakes her ass gleefully, her backup dancers do the fake-Indian multi-armed Vishnu-dance thing, and Wyclef raps horribly and does a backflip and reveals just how quickly he's going bald. Well, that wasn't boring.

9:09: An overzealous announcer interrupts Burt Bacharach and Seal's unbelievably awkward mutual-appreciation moment. The Dixie Chicks win Song of the Year; "Jesus Take the Wheel" was robbed.

9:19: Gnarls Barkley are dressed like pilots, and I have no idea what movie they're supposed to be referencing: Airport? Snakes on a Plane? Are they just running out of movie ideas? They've got a big choir and a powdered-wig string section helping out on "Crazy," neither of which they particularly need.

9:24: Common makes a teleprompter joke about how everyone's tired of Kanye's bitching; Kanye promptly drops him from his label. Ludacris wins Best Rap Album for Crash, um, Release Therapy, proving once and for all that Grammy voters don't actually listen to rap. (Further proof gets flashed on the screen later in the show, as the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" is hilariously announced as the winner for Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.) Luda thanks Oprah and Bill O'Reilly, which is funny, and he calls Release Therapy a masterpiece, which is funny in a completely different way.

9:35: Mary J. sounds pretty good performing "Be Without You," but she really justifies all her awards when she launches into a barnstorming version of Lorraine Ellison's Northern-soul scenery-muncher "Stay With Me." I can't believe I've gotten this far in my life without hearing this singer sing this song. Totally devastating.

9:41: After not being nominated for a single CMA award, the Dixie Chicks win the Best Country Album Grammy, which should tell you all you need to know about the difference between those two shows. In the acceptance speech, one Chick says something about how hard it is to be without a genre, just so no one will confuse them with an actual country group.

9:49: It's country influences time! Reba McIntire makes sure to point out that Carrie Underwood "respects the past," and apparently one of the biggest-selling singers of the year only gets to sing at the Grammys if she'll do a song made famous by someone who died before she was born. To Underwood's credit, she doesn't look too uncomfortable singing a Bob Wills song. After that, we get an extended Eagles tribute, and Rascal Flatts have an easier time covering a band who probably was a direct influence on them, though that doesn't change the fact that I never need to hear "Hotel California" ever again. Gary LeVox's air-guitar may be a Grammy first, and he sings in the exact same register as Don Henley, which means he sounds like ass. Underwood manages to make "Desperado" sound pretty great, and then she joins Rascal Flatts for "Life in the Fast Lane," blowing LeVox off the stage. It's weird hearing uber-wholesome country stars singing about drugs, even in such a karaoke context.

10:02: In one of those great utterly random pop moments, Carrie Underwood accepts the Best New Artist award from Ornette Coleman and Natalie Cole. I suppose it's possible that Underwood will share a stage with Cole again somewhere down the line, but Ornette? I think it's safe to say that's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Underwood bursts out "I love country music!" and Bridget thinks maybe she's responding to the Dixie Chicks.

10:08: Someone needs to take Christina Ricci to Pizzeria Uno's or something. I don't know why all these actresses think they'll look better if they lose grotesque amounts of weight. Or maybe I know why, but I wish it wouldn't happen; we're turning some of the hottest women of my generation into skeletons. Anyway, she and Samuel L. Jackson are introducing three singers who are all eager to please but otherwise have nothing to do with each other: Smokey Robinson (still sounds great even though plastic surgeons have turned his face into a plastic mask), Lionel Richie (a likably goofy performer at his most likably goofy), and Chris Brown (stomping the yard, wearing a ridiculous skull-mask, and introducing some extremely cute dancing kids). If I were the pessimistic type, I might talk about "Tracks of My Tears" into "Hello" into "Run It" as a time-lapse photo of the decades-long degradation of R&B, but I like all three songs, and Brown's performance is a quick blast of fun amidst all this rampant reverence, so whatever.

10:18: Christina Aguilera, with no introduction, admirably begs and rasps and whoops her way through James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," pulling off a neat gender inversion without overplaying it. The tribute-to-dead-legend bit was inevitable, and I can't really imagine it being done with more matter-of-fact style. Jamie Foxx approves.

10:25: The Academy president comes out, and for a second it looks like he's going to go on another anti-download rant, but no: he's here to introduce a couple of pubescent virtuosos and talk about the importance of public-school music classes. That's definitely the better of the two dead horses, anyway.

10:32: Chris Brown does a pretty good version of James Brown's dancing to cap off the tribute-to-dead-people montage, followed by Danny Ray draping the James Brown cape over a mic stand in a simple, poignant monument.

10:40: Ludacris's "Runaway Love" has always wasted Mary J. Blige, but the version he does here also manages to waste Earth, Wind & Fire. This song is a case study in what happens when well-intentioned rappers reach for social consciousness and end up with three-minute after-school specials.

10:43: James Blunt dedicates "You're Beautiful" to Ahmet Ertegun. Ertegun was a titanically important figure in music-industry history and everything, but he looked something like a well-dressed sea otter doing a Henry Kissinger impersonation; I'm not sure I'd call him beautiful.

10:50: Prince bought an ad to thank everyone who watched his Super Bowl halftime show? Um, you're welcome!

10:53: The girl who won that contest gets to sing Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" with Justin Timberlake, even though neither one of them is remotely well-suited for that song and the pair has no chemistry whatsoever. She also sounds a bit ridiculous singing "My Love" with him; neither of these songs should ever be done as a duet. The girl also has a tough time matching JT's dancing. On the other hand, I can't tell you how happy I am that T.I. has brought back his exaggeratedly snarly facial expressions.

10:58: Tony Bennett is presenting an award with Quentin Tarantino? What the hell? Tarantino uses the phrase "a little somethin' somethin'." He's also extremely excited to read a bunch of song titles. That guy is too much. The Dixie Chicks win some award, and I can't bring myself to care anymore.

11:08: This show is still going on. Chris Rock introduces the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the "best band in the world"; I beg to differ. The Chili Peppers perform in front of a giant spray-painted "Love to Ornette Coleman" banner, a profoundly ass-kissy gesture; I can just imagine the Chili Peppers holding a band meeting to discuss which of this year's lifetime-achievement honorees they'd look the coolest shouting out.

11:14: Al Gore is out to present Best Rock Album and to remind us not to be too happy about the end of that arctic blast. The Chili Peppers' reaction to Al Gore presenting them an award is so funny that it almost justifies their performance. Bridget points out that the drummer looks exactly like Will Ferrell, and I can't believe I never noticed that.

11:23: Don Henley and Scarlett Johansson present the Best Album award, and Henley acts dickish toward Johansson in a way that didn't look scripted. Henley is also way too happy to announce the Dixie Chicks as this year's big winners, something I should've seen coming but didn't. Grammy voters love it when massive pop stars go NPR, and this time they got to make an obliquely anti-Bush statement in the process. I don't want to diminish the Dixie Chicks' courage here, but it seems to me that the Grammys' decision to award this group everything is just as cynical and politically motivated as the CMAs' decision to shut them out completely. Mostly, though, I'm just glad this thing is finally over.

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