The show started off reasonably enough, with a five-woman tribute to Aretha Franklin, and okay, that’s fine: Christina Aguilera sings pretty good soul for a white woman. And then we saw a clip of Aretha herself, who looks the worse for wear.
“And then on to the present,” I thought, when Bruno Mars came on. This good-looking guy carries himself well, and sings pretty well, too. The thing is, though, he doesn’t sing like Bruno Mars, however that might sound. He sings like Sam Cooke, one of the two great sweet soul singers of the sixties (Wilson Pickett is the other).
By this time I was starting to think that something was up, and I knew for sure it was when Lady Antebellum did a tribute to the woman who’s pretty much the polar opposite of Aretha Franklin, as far as women singers go—Dolly Parton.
So that was Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and Dolly Parton—and they weren’t even in the house that night!
Lady Gaga was in the house, and was as spectacular as always. She is not, however, spectacular in any original way. Anybody who cares about the great women singers of the last half-century realizes that she has a clear lineage that goes back to Madonna (another Italian-American girl who rebelled against her Catholic upbringing), and starts with Cher.
So the specter of the ’60s was on display in various ways.
And who was in the house? Let’s see…Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Barbra Streisand, that’s who. Three of the greatest stars in the history of popular entertainment. They are old enough to be the grandparents of Justin Bieber, say. (If Barbra Streisand had been his grandmother, she would have made sure that his suit and shirt fit properly. She’s not a Jewish mother for nothing.) And the point is that they weren’t there just as an exercise in nostalgia, although their names probably helped to broaden the show’s demographic. They are still powerful, mesmerizing performers who can fill huge venues.
And that’s true even though their breakthrough songs, songs that form part of modern world consciousness (“Blowin’ in the Wind”; “Satisfaction”; “People”) were recorded almost half a century ago. Although fads such as disco and grunge have come and gone, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Dolly Parton, and Barbra Streisand (and the Beatles, of course), endure.
It is time to say that the ’60s was not just an extraordinary period that produced extraordinary stars. It was a time that produced stars with unprecedented longevity. Take Barbra Streisand, for example. She has won every award that show business and the world has to offer her; nobody has ever done as many things as well as she has. And there she was on the Grammys, showing those girls with thinner bodies—and thinner voices!—how it’s done. To borrow a phrase from Tom Wolfe, she gave everybody a whiff of the old right stuff.
A few years back Todd Gitlin wrote a book with a very relevant title: The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. I want to offer the guess that it was the intensity of the times, which alternated between the agony of the 6:00 news and the ecstasy of the 8:00 concert, that created an opening for great talent. And the greatest talents of the ’60s, many of whom in one way or another were on display Sunday night, used that intensity to write and perform songs that the whole world still knows and loves.