I don’t believe I have ever sat through an entire Grammy show before, and for the most part I enjoyed it. The recording industry may be stuck in quicksand from which it will not escape alive and unaltered, but the state of MUSIC is as strong as ever. Great music is being made in all corners of the recording universe and people are hearing it.
For whatever reason, the 45th Annual Grammys, held for the first time in five years in NYC (at Madison Square Garden), didn’t have an MC. Dustin Hoffman began inauspiciously by mispronouncing Bruce Springsteen’s name as something close to “Springstreet” (which Robin Williams, back in manic logorrhea mode, noted later).
Hoffman announced a Lifetime Achievement Award for Simon and Garfunkel, who then performed “Sounds of Silence,” their first hit, together with just Simon’s guitar as accompaniment. They were endearingly ragged, proving that seamless harmony isn’t something that just happens. Their’s was the first of 18 live performances, the majority of which made the show worth watching – that and Norah Jones’ girlish sweetness.
No Doubt performed a medley with Gwen stalking, strutting and gyrating in a bandaid tube top, stiletto boots, combat shorts and wild white-blonde hair. I like pretty much everything about No Doubt other than the fact that their songs aren’t very good. Shortly thereafter, Lou Reed and Dave Grohl announced that No Doubt had won the Pop Duo or Group with Vocal Grammy. Hmmm.
Then Norah Jones appeared with her combo live, performing “Don’t Know Why.” Jones deserves every bit of praise she has received: a sweet, unpretentious, humble, pretty-without-forced-glamour, immensely talented young woman of 23 performing in a gentle but firm cocktail-country-jazz-pop style of her own device that transcends time and fashion. She was slightly tentative in demeanor but wholly comfortable within her music, and her voice was the same smokey marvel live as it is on record. All due credit to the industry for recognizing what an unlikely savior this young woman is.
Kylie Minogue and Justin Timberlake then informed us that “pop should never be a dirty word,” and then Justin asked if he could grab Kylie’s ass again. Kylie, old enough to be his mother (biologically at least), demurred. Justin looked surprised. They presented Norah with the Pop Vocal Album Grammy – she was charming and gracious, thanking her guitarist Jesse Harris for writing the majority of the songs on the album including “Don’t Know Why.”
I find it interesting that many are calling Norah’s success and recognition some kind of statement of conservatism. I disagree entirely – her music is a radical departure from business as usual, not fitting any easy marketing category, growing organically in popularity by word of mouth, following its own course outside of the industry command-and-control structure. She’s nearly as alien as was Elvis when he arrived – her comment about never thinking her music would become POPULAR music said far more than she realized.
Faith Hill performed “Cry” and it made me kind of sad. Let’s face it: she is every bit as processed and packaged as Shania Twain, and just as far from “country.” “Cry” is a bloated power ballad that would have fit on a Journey album, and Steve Perry would have probably done better with it. In addition, she is an extremely beautiful woman with a limited but nice voice who should be beyond wearing a super short skirt, way-too-blond hair, singing a torchy ballad way-too-low for her voice. She needs to be retooled.
Vanessa Carlton performed with strings, ornate piano noodling, and a pretentious, affected voice. She is the anti-Norah, and should be consigned to oblivion. Sorry.
John Mayer performed his quirky, young-Dave Matthews thing and proved himself a real talent, one I am not particularly fond of, but a talent nonetheless. Regardless of my personal taste, it is extremely encouraging to see yet another young career artist doing his own thing, finding a large audience. Go, Johnny, go.
Sometimes it takes hearing an artist in the midst of his peers to remind you how good he (or she) is: when James Taylor sang “Sweet Baby James,” backed by Yo-Yo Ma on cello, the uniqueness of his large, genteel backwoods, hickory and honey voice was almost startling in its familiar goodness, reassuringly connecting with a receptor deep within the collective brain. Taylor’s is the kind of presence we periodically return to whenever he plays himself particularly well, as he does on his latest October Road. We need such rocks in the storm.
There was some silliness with Kim Cattrall and P. Puffy Diddy Daddy exchanging single entendres regarding male performance, and Eminem won Best Rap Album – no complaint there, the dude is a 100% serious artist who has grown into his role and transcended the race question with his talent, diligence and respect for his forebears. I still find his nasal, singsongy voice somewhat irritating, but when he is catchy he is unstoppable. I am always happy to be proved wrong when I dismiss someone prematurely, as I surely did with Eminem. Sorry Marshall.
After that snappy Saturn car ad with Alphaville’s piercingly insistent “Forever Young” – I always loved that song and “Big In Japan” from the same album – it was back to the wars and the Dixie Chicks performing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Whoa, they blow Stevie Nicks’ version away, especially after Stevie’s voice descended into a cocaine gravel pit.
Little Natalie Maines, daughter of producer/steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines, is a mighty fine lead singer, and the bluegrass-based musicianship and sparkling harmonies provided by the statuesque bookends of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Seidel make the Chicks something real and special. Another surprise pop success grounded in actual artistic soil, not just the air and water vapors of marketing. The Chicks’ Home wins Best Country Album.
And that’s a good place to take a break.
Please see Part 2 here.