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Some Afterthoughts About This Year’s Grammy Awards

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So, is it too late to talk about the Grammys? Maybe. Well okay, make that probably.

But, unlike so many Grammy telecasts in recent years, this one provided enough of those memorable, water-cooler moments that really got people talking the next few days, that it warrants the critical microscope — albeit a day late and perhaps even a dollar short. If nothing else, we can thank the Grammys for succeeding in getting people to stop talking about M.I.A.’s middle finger, right?

For this alone, we owe the Recording Academy a debt of gratitude.

But when it comes to whatever, or whoever might be impacting music at any given moment, the Grammys have never been that accurate a barometer anyway. Anyone who thinks otherwise is entertaining a notion that is misguided at best, and perhaps at worst, even a delusional one.

The truth is, as a credible meritocracy that supposedly rewards greatness in musical achievement, the Grammy Awards is far more famous for its spectacular blunders, than it is for getting things right.

Historically speaking, Grammy has a long standing, and mostly very consistent pattern of rewarding safety and mediocrity, over innovation, creativity and artistry. But every so often, the Recording Academy will seek to right the ship, by handing out belated, somewhat token awards, to those artists who for whatever reason, might have been overlooked the first time around.

Among other examples, this explains why Neil Young’s first Grammy Award didn’t come for a classic album like Harvest in 1972, but rather for art direction on the Archives boxed set in 2010 (Neil got his first music Grammy the following year for “Angry World,” from his Le Noise album).

The fact is, the Grammy Awards are infamous for playing “catch-up” this way. The idea here seems to be that for every Best Album award bestowed upon a minor, latter day entry in the Steely Dan catalog for example, previous miscues like picking Jethro Tull over Metallica in the heavy metal category might be forgiven or forgotten (Melody Maker ran with a particularly memorable and hilarious headline — “For Whom The Bell Tulls” — the year that atrocity happened).

What usually makes the Grammy TV show worth watching though, are the musical performances. This year’s blockbuster talent lineup promised a thankfully refreshing break from the dance heavy routines which have dominated TV music awards shows these past few years.

Not to begrudge Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and the like. But my biggest gripe about these big music awards shows in recent years, has been the way the term “music performance” has become redefined to mean something more like running a dance marathon on acid.

Just when did a “musical performance” become less about singers singing, and musicians playing music, and more focused on choreographed dance numbers, with so many dancers running about onstage, the “singer” is mostly obscured from any reasonable view anyway?

With the 2012 star-studded lineup including the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, the Foo Fighters, a Beach Boys reunion, and the expected coronation of Adele — but especially with the Whitney Houston tragedy hanging so heavily over the proceedings — this year’s show seemed to promise a much more music-focused, if perhaps slightly more subdued, slate of entertainment.

Not that the show wasn’t without some of the aforementioned dancing silliness. Lip-synced spectacles from Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Chris Brown, were every bit as over-the-top as expected, with each of them generating their own individual slices of controversy. I mean, damn you, Russell Brand anyway.

Still, though forgiving Chris Brown for his sins may have been the Christian thing to do, was it really necessary to do it twice over the course of a three hour telecast? But perhaps the most telling images of Sunday’s Grammy telecast, were the numerous crowd shots of Lady Gaga’s veiled face, looking for all the world like last year’s forgotten flavor of the moment.

Pity the poor Gaga.

This was contrasted by several tasteful tributes to the many musical greats who passed this year, including Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys’ paying their musical respects to the great Etta James, and a version of Whitney Houston’s signature song “I Will Always Love You” from Jennifer Hudson, that was a genuine tearjerker moment (perhaps most significantly for Hudson herself).

It was one of many such moments that Grammy performers acknowledged Whitney Houston. Amy Winehouse and Soul Train creator Don Cornelius were likewise recognized.

The other performances were mostly a mixed bag.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band kicked things off with their rousing new political call-to-arms “We Take Care Of Our Own,” in a rocking performance marred only by Springsteen’s somewhat questionable inclusion of the normally reliable crowd-starting catch-phrase “Is there anybody alive out there?” (Seriously Bruce, what were you thinking?).

A planned tribute to the late, great Clarence “Big Man” Clemons — reportedly featuring P-Funk great Maceo Parker — was apparently scrapped at the last minute, in light of the previous day’s unexpected Whitney Houston tragedy.

The Beach Boys reunion was pretty much what you’d expect. The Boys looked really old. Brian Wilson looked lost. But the harmonies were mostly still there. Still, the idea of pairing them with Maroon 5 (who seemed to dig it) and Foster The People (who looked like they were doing it at gunpoint), was probably misguided. The Backstreet Boys — who killed it at the MusiCares Brian Wilson tribute two years ago — probably would have been a much better choice.

Coldplay’s pairing with Rihanna also fell mostly flat, with Chris Martin singing noticeably off-key on that group’s otherwise great song “Paradise.” In fact, the best performance of a Coldplay song that evening came during Willie Nelson’s version of “The Scientist” for a Chipotle’s Mexican Grill commercial.

But perhaps the strangest spectacle of this Grammy evening came courtesy of the Foo Fighters David Grohl, who, in accepting one of his band’s many trophys that night, used the occasion to strike a blow for rock and roll, and rage against the machine of computer generated music. Yet Grohl was no sooner than that seen performing with the Foo Fighters in a bizarre “rave” sequence that also featured Chris Brown, David Guetta and electro-dub DJ deadmau5.

Way to fight the power, Dave.

It was definitely a night of contrasts.

But the most anticipated moment — as well as the biggest question mark — of the night belonged to Adele. If Adele’s expected sweep of the major categories was mostly a foregone conclusion, her ability to pull it off after having major laser surgery on her vocal chords just as surely was not. Fortunately, Adele’s stirring acapella intro to her smash single “Rolling In The Deep” laid any such lingering doubts to rest.

Adele is definitely the real deal.

In victory, Adele was also a refreshingly human winner. Accepting her accolades with an almost painful shyness, Adele showed that her natural talent is matched only by an earthiness perhaps unseen by a talent of her caliber since the likes of Janis Joplin.

As she accepted her award for Album Of the Year, Adele punctuated her acceptance remarks with tears and the quite funny admission she was “fighting back a bit of a snot.” You had to see it, but the whole thing was quite endearing — you really gotta’ like this Adele gal.

If Adele really is the future, we may just survive that Mayan apocalypse yet.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    “rage against the machine of computer generated music.”

    You, like a lot of folks, misunderstood Grohl. He wasn’t talking about “computer generated music”. He meant computer-enhanced music where people seek to artificially improve the sound of the vocals and instruments through software programs, which is what he was referring to when he said, “It’s not about being perfect.”

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I got that Bicho. Kinda’ hard to miss when he specifically references Autotune.

    But I think the sentiments he expressed were much broader in scope, given the way he prefaced them with comments about how the Foos album was recorded in his garage.

    Which makes his band’s active participation in the Grammy rave-fest all the more curious.

    -Glen

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    Considering Grohl knew what the band would be doing later in the show, the rave-fest involvement only becomes curious if his sentiments are stretched to the scope you are trying to place them.

    Deadmau5 could easily create his music in a garage so I don’t see how that precludes him from what Grohl was talking about.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    So, just a quick aside here, do you ever leave comments when you actually like something? just curious…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I also doubt very much that the “mouse guy” could have produced the wild visuals that he did — which were really the focal point of his “performance” — in some garage — unless that garage was located somewhere in Area 51 anyway.

    I’m not dissing Grohl — in fact I mostly agree with what he said.

    I just don’t think he did himself any favors by on the one hand raising the very relevant subject of music created artificially, rather than organically, and than not only participating in, but also seeming to endorse the same (check out the way Grohl seems to groove to the oversized, electronic “mouse” in the video).

    Mixed message there, to say the very least.

    -Glen

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    To wade into the debate about the use of computers from a different angle, my attitude is basically, who cares?

    It isn’t about the process, it is about the product. I don’t care at all about how music is produced, I only care if it has an affect.

    On that basis, I would have to rate Deadmau5 so far above the Foo Fighters as to be out of sight.

    Changing tack, I couldn’t agree more about the decline of Lady Gaga. She was fresh and fun when she first came on the scene but her most recent music has been dire in the extreme.

  • Igor

    So can the rest of us give up on the Grammys as a general music forum and just relegate them to just another splashy rock awards feeding frenzy?

    In other words, if one likes Cuban music, or heaven forfend, classical music, is the Grammys just a no-show?

    Why not just call it “The Rockies”?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Chris,

    I hate the word “product” as used in relation to music. Reminds me a lot of the way the word “content” is used in relation to writing. Just sayin’…

    -Glen

  • http://www.RosesSpanishBoots.com Christopher Rose

    Although I don’t share your opinion, Glen, I do understand it. However, I wasn’t using the word in that sense but rather as the outcome of the creative process.

  • Igor

    But ‘product’ is what it is. Like sausage coming from the end of a sausage machine.

    And IMO that is exactly what the bosses and managers think.

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    Yes. Had positive things to say about the VH album over on Marty’s piece.

    You are going off on a tangent because visuals aren’t music nor were they the focal point of the performance, which reveals your bias towards that genre of music which is fine. It’s not for everyone.

    You can say you agree with what Grohl said but it’s apparent you don’t completely understand it. Now, if Grohl was some acoustic folk singer, maybe the angle your pushing would have be more plausible, but if your theory is correct, Grohl would have to be schizophrenic calling out people who play computer-generated music only to then play with and then be seen enjoying that same music.

    Just discovered a press release he issued for those who received a mixed message. Here’s excepts that seems the most relevant to our discussion.

    “I love music. I love ALL kinds of music. From Kyuss to Kraftwerk, Pinetop Perkins to Prodigy, Dead Kennedys to Deadmau5…..I love music. Electronic or acoustic, it doesn’t matter to me. The simple act of creating music is a beautiful gift that ALL human beings are blessed with. And the diversity of one musician’s personality to the next is what makes music so exciting and…..human.

    That’s exactly what I was referring to. The “human element”. That thing that happens when a song speeds up slightly, or a vocal goes a little sharp. That thing that makes people sound like PEOPLE. Somewhere along the line those things became “bad” things, and with the great advances in digital recording technology over the years they became easily “fixed”. The end result? I my humble opinion…..a lot of music that sounds perfect, but lacks personality. The one thing that makes music so exciting in the first place.

    I don’t know how to do what Skrillex does (though I fucking love it) but I do know that the reason he is so loved is because he sounds like Skrillex, and that’s badass. We have a different process and a different set of tools, but the “craft” is equally as important, I’m sure. I mean…..if it were that easy, anyone could do it, right? (See what I did there?)”

    So he’s fine with electronic music. It’s electronic-enhanced music that cleans up performances is what he doesn’t like. If he had played with Rebecca Black, then I would agree he contradicted himself.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’m not “pushing” anything here, Bicho. It was just an observation, written as part of a much larger article about my overall impressions on this year’s Grammy show.

    I do take your points on principle. But Grohl’s comments, at least when taken literally, certainly suggest a contradiction. It is only when you start to break them down analytically, and otherwise finesse them the way we have done in this conversation, that another meaning can be drawn from them.

    I stand by what I said in the article. But I also understand, and even appreciate your perspective (sort of, anyway).

    -Glen

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    @11

    “The end result? I[n] my humble opinion…..a lot of music that sounds perfect, but lacks personality. The one thing that makes music so exciting in the first place.”

    I like that.

  • Zingzing

    I’m no fan of autotune, although it can be used creatively, but for Dave grohl, whose music has been lowest common denominator drek for much of the last decade, to complain about this is, well… It’s a glass house kind of situation. He’s undeniably talented, but his stuff lacks personality much of the time. I wish he’d turn his criticism upon himself and create something unexpected and different, rather than the same old broccoli soup he’s been making since the turn of the century.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    The Foos are alright in a journeyman rock band sort of way. But I liked him far better as a drummer.

    -Glen

  • Zingzing

    I have a hard time really thinking of a more boring rock band. They’re just capable enough not to be a train wreck, which would be more interesting.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    I’m fascinated by the Foo Fighters primarily because Dave Grohl is a dead ringer for my brother-in-law.

  • http://www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=463156 jc mosquito

    Assuming you start with a well written song played by good players who are able to connect with and interpret the tune, you would think you might have on your hands a hit in the making. Even without considering any financial profits, losses, or investments, you still might even like it simply as a good song.

    So – what if you discover that 3/4 of the song was generated using loops and samples and audio processing… does it change your attitude towards the song? Is it “bad” now when it used to be “good?” So, there’s no real piano player – the chords were stacked up one at a time in a studio with a computer program, and copied and deleted and jigged around a bit to make it sound like a real live human piano player might have played it. What if you can’t tell the difference?

    As it was explained to me on the net one day – “If you’re using computers and samplers and digital recording machines, and fixing up 1/30th of a second’s worth of mistakes, then you ARE working as a DIGITAL SOUND ARTIST, even if your song sounds like a bar scene in the Blues Brothers more so than a bar scene on Tatooine.