Preface: The Xanax is mine, prescribed and fairly low dosage. As for anyone else in the arena, what’s in their systems is their own business. Don’t worry, this won’t trail off into Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles, but there will be detours along the path to the golden statuette, so hold on and thanks for taking the ride. It’s a long one, so strap in.
After seven people questioned, two stare downs from security and one metal detector, I make it to the media room for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards to begin my long wait for the show to begin. It’s my first time covering an event like this and judging from one of the fellow media types I followed into the room, I am already woefully underprepared. The man has a camping cooler with enough food and drinks in it to stuff a senior high school football player. I have a roll of Wild Cherry Life Savers. Let the day begin!
Noon rolls around and the press room begins to fill up. Introductions are made, hands shook and debates about who is going to win or should win are volleyed across aisles like bombs. You can feel the split between real music fanatics who have been writing about this for years and those, like myself, who enjoy a good album spin, but life doesn’t revolve around it.
My Life Savers are nearly all gone. Already.
The pre-telecast show begins and I find I’m actually more excited for this in a certain respect, mainly because I’ve never seen it before. These are the categories which traditionally don’t bring in a ton of musical revenue or huge crowds, but their skill still deserves recognition. Yet, as the Grammys have grown and changed over the years, the televised section has become more and more performance-based versus the handing out of awards, so now there are huge categories like Best Rap Album, Rock Album and Alternative Music Album all being given out before the opening credits even roll. Seventy-two awards to give out before the show, only 10 on air. Let’s just say those performances better blow the roof off (which, looking at the pyrotechnics from previous years, it very well could.)
Cyndi Lauper hosted the pre-telecast portion (and would later win for her part in the Best Musical Theater Album, Kinky Boots) with an opening monologue filled with as many uses of the word “pussy” as she could fit in (in relation to the recently released from jail band members of Pussy Riot.) Without the live TV cameras running, you feel the looseness, the free-wheeling feel where Lauper gives out the rules, while taking it wherever she wants to go.
The first person to actually be there in order to accept an award was the manager for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mitch Goldstein. The group immediately dedicated their Grammy for Best World Music Album (shared with the Gipsy Kings) to Nelson Mandela. So we have the first award speech and an immediate dedication. That didn’t take long.
Did you actually know there was a Grammy for Best Recording Package? I didn’t either, but the winners (Sarah Dodds and Shauna Dodds for the Reckless Kelly album, Long Night Moon) were very moved by the win. One of the nice touches of the pre-telecast awards is the sincerity of the folks who win. These people are truly awe-struck by the accolade. This is not a continuing portion of their marketing campaign and they don’t have to be worried about what they say ending up on the national news or blogosphere the next morning. They also came back to the media room and looked truly stunned and stunning holding onto their newly won awards.
Side point, so far, barely an hour into the show, and there has been three ties already. This is not a trend I believe will continue once the cameras start rolling. [Update: it absolutely did not continue.]
The first person to come through the media room was Jennifer Gasoi for Best Children’s Album. She’s Canadian and the first one to ever win the Grammy for that country in this category. The best piece for her is she is a completely independent artist, no label backing at all, so this could very well mean the right kind of attention from the music establishment. This was a backstage trend of artists mentioning their off-label beginnings and the struggles of getting noticed without the publicity machine that you get when branded by a record company. Does this speak to a shift in the music industry? Does it mean that there’s a real possible direct-to-consumer business model where the bands no longer need the label to get enough power to go on tour and make good merch money? Possibly, but time will tell.
Steven Colbert won for Best Spoken Word Album, but sadly was not here to accept. I would have loved to see him come through the room for the Q&A.
Brent Fischer came next to the room for his win for Best Instrumental Composition. His father was his mentor, musical partner and also a Grammy winner, so this is very much a family tradition for him.
Simon Earith and James Musgrave won for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package which they did for Paul McCartney and Wings’ Wings Over America [Deluxe Edition] They said getting a Grammy was the last thing they ever thought about in art school. I imagine working with one of the Beatles would be on that list as well.
Cedric Gervais showed up for his DJ remix of Lana Del Ray’s “Summertime Sadness.” His interview was as sincere as the response from one of the writers in the front row who said, “You are like a god to me.” Gervais also spoke to the rise in popularity of the EDM scene which elevated not only him, but a whole family of DJs and producers.
There are folks who came through who I didn’t catch in this review, so to them, sorry you got cut from the TV and online outlets. I would say “Life is tough,” but then again, you won a Grammy. Crack a smile about it.
Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra won Best Orchestral Performance for Sibelius’s “Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4.” Cue the right wing conspiracies about Obamacare being pushed down the throats of unsuspecting symphony fans. (Future spoiler, later in the show Fox will have something much, much bigger to complain about.)
The album Winter Morning Walks has taken home four awards already. You should probably listen to it. Then send me a copy.
The flurry continued with more and more winners coming through and it was a haze of silk, sequins and shiny gold gramophones. The keyboards click in frantic fashion as journalists, radio folks and bloggers struggle to keep up with the notes, names and categories.
Maria Schneider, winner for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Winter Morning Walks, spent much of her on-stage speech and backstage Q&A session talking about the dire straits for independent musicians in the modern age of easily pirated music. She railed against the struggles of keeping her music off pirate sites and companies using it without permission, straining to move and motivate anyone who would listen to take to heart what downloading illegal music does to artists like her. Sadly her message won’t make it on the live show, but she deserved to have it repeated here.
The insanely catchy song “Clarity” by Zedd (featuring Foxes) won for Best Dance Recording and now I’m gonna listen to it a dozen more times just for that. Zedd gave a shout-out and dedication to Skrillex, which made me wish the stage band would kick out a huge bass drop to play them off stage. Sadly, no. When they made it backstage they relished in the fact the song felt “real” and could be played with only piano and still move people. They also mentioned it was a slow burn for this track and the production was incredibly stripped down (vocals laid down in a bedroom and the music produced in various countries and in Zedd’s parent’s basement.) It all came together for an adorable dance track from an adorable pair of musicians.
Kathy Griffin won Best Comedy Album for Calm Down Gurrl, and thanked all the Lohan’s and Justin Bieber, referencing his recent drag racing arrest in a way only she could (he was “driving with his dick”). When she came backstage it was like a mini-comedy show, including her riffing on the reporter from WorldStarHipHop, saying he looked like he should be at Burning Man, not the Grammys.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis just swept Kanye out of the pre-telecast Rap awards. I’m practically giddy with anticipation of his reaction. However, Kanye was nowhere to be seen. I don’t even think I saw him on the show screen. He’s evidently elevated beyond the need for awards now, which is lucky for those making acceptance speeches.
Once again, Jesus was really busy last year because he is evidently responsible for a lot of the winning albums. Except for Vampire Weekend’s album, Modern Vampires of the City, which won for Best Alternative Music Album. Their entire acceptance speech was, “Thank you. [turn to other guys] You have anything else?” You now have more proof Jesus hates vampires. Ezra, the lead singer, used his time backstage to make sure we knew he was the first and preeminent Ezra known to man.
There is an oddly sad feeling when some of the winners come through the media room and no one knows who the hell they are or what questions to ask. The obligatory, “How do you feel about winning a Grammy?” is a panic fallback, but once you’ve heard it asked 15 times it just loses its sincerity.
The Life Savers are officially gone, but a box lunch has saved me from literally imploding.
The cross-room smack talk between reporters has officially begun and I automatically side with the dude with the longest hair. He will always win the music debate. He also asked one of the winners what conditioner he uses, so the man knows his priorities.
In walks Darius “Hootie” Rucker and the man beat out King of Country Blake Shelton and his wife Miranda Lambert, so he can finally leave the image of the Blowfish behind and enjoy the validation of being in the country music genre. He also defended the folks from Duck Dynasty as “good people” and said “it was you people [the media] who made that a controversy.”
When the show finally opened, Beyonce gave us a haunting homage to the Flashdance. It was like sitting in a dark strip club and knowing this is the best money you ever spent. One woman, one chair, one hell of a performance. She is truly the reigning queen of music. Jay-Z came out in a full suit to join his stunning wife, giving the flow and smooth we’ve all come to expect from him. I did notice a slight difference between the outfits for Jay-Z and Beyonce, which could speak somewhat to what we expect of female artists, for them to be more sexual, but then again I don’t know if Jay-Z could have pulled off the lace/bondage look as well.
LL Cool J did his job as host, but nothing really more than that. He’s a safe hire for the hosting gig, which is why he’s done this show three times. Still, he got to plug “Mama Said Knock You Out,” so I can be happy with that.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won for Best New Artist, which is actually their fourth win for the night, but this will barely be talked about once the night ends. Stay tuned for notes on their historical performance if you missed it.
Lorde took the small stage out front for easily one of the creepiest performances of the night. Dark, creepy, and she moves like the water demon chick from The Ring. Her blackened fingertips look like she scratched her way out of the ground. That being said, her stripped down performance kept in with her anti-glamour style and made for an interesting contrast with the opening Beyonce/Jay-Z number.
Shows like this can also introduce you to artists you’ve never heard of before. For me, Hunter Hayes was one of those people. Never really seen him before, but the performance of “Invisible” was heartfelt and moving. It’s an anthem for the disaffected youth, although they would have to like pop/soft rock, otherwise they’ll never hear it and continue on being disaffected.
Katy Perry took the stage for a duet with Juicy J. So far, the performances have an overwhelmingly creepy theme. She rose out of a snow globe in an evil living tree graveyard, which turned into a nightmare version of Equus, ending with her being burned at the stake. It was an explosive and theatrical performance which has become synonymous with the Grammys. This, along with the opening number, is the stuff we expect.
Then came the first moment in the show where the youth in the viewing audience gets to go, “Who the hell is that? Why are they playing with Robin Thicke and where are the topless girls?” Thicke took to the stage with the legendary band Chicago, who proved that age doesn’t mean diminished talent, but it was a tame routine when posted up against the show so far and Thicke sounded less than his best.
Keith Urban followed quickly behind on the other side of the stage, but I had to do a double take to make sure it wasn’t Chris Gaines making a surprise comeback appearance. What started as another passing performance piece suddenly became a guitar battle between Urban and guest Gary Clark Jr., who played with soul and fire, catching many of the audience completely unprepared.
Next on the small stage (yes, that’s right, another performance without an award in sight) was John Legend. He can hold an entire stadium in the palm of his hand. A pin could fall in the silence during his performance. Not sure why they kept focusing on a woman in the audience who was watching him. She was spotlighted, so it wasn’t pure accident. Maybe I’m just not up to date on Legend’s dating habits or marital status. Or she won a contest.
Finally an award comes along for Best Rock Song, which went to Dave Grohl, Paul McCartney, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear for “Cut Me Some Slack.” This musical combo was the living members of Nirvana and a Beatle, just to add that little something.
Back to the music. Taylor Swift took to her piano and belted out “All Too Well.” Somehow they made it look like she wasn’t in a huge room with thousands of people, but singing to herself like she was alone in her own house. It had a very personal feel to it. It was a grown-up performance from someone hounded by childish noise. I was actually caught by surprise with this one lyric: “So casually cruel in the name of being honest” Not bad Swift. You win this round.
Bruno Mars came out to introduce the next performance. The man knows how to wear a pompadour and a bolo tie. I’m immediately jealous and vow to destroy him.
Pink goes back up on the ropes, proving she’s unafraid to take it on after getting hurt doing it before. It was absolutely breathtaking. I think she becomes a quadruple threat now adding “rope artist” to her already impressive portfolio. Her performance once again is strong and memorable. Then she turns from an athletic showstopper that virtually no one else the entire arena could do and jumps right into a duet with Nate Ruess from Fun. The woman is just stupefying. Pink is unstoppable. Don’t even bother trying.
Lorde won her first of the night and genuinely looked uncomfortable with the accolade. I wondered what she would be like on the Q&A stage, but that wish never got fulfilled because she walked right off stage back to her seat. Not a fan of the spotlight this one, but she might want to get used to it if she’s going to put out records like Pure Heroine.
Black Sabbath (who won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance for “God Is Dead” in the pre-show ceremony) walked up to introduce Ringo Starr’s performance and once again CBS found a way to make every show feel older and older by the minute. Sabbath can still kill it on stage, but interviews and introductions are really not their thing, as singing is really not Ringo’s. It was a childish song (“Photograph”) and dull performance that only got the reception it did because it’s Ringo.
Jamie Foxx graced the stage to present the award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, which went to Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake for “Holy Grail,” but proceeded to gush about how hot Beyonce was during the opening number. He then stuttered out continuous apologies to Jay-Z in hopes he doesn’t get jumped later. Maybe it was funny to him, but the couple in question didn’t look all that thrilled. Of course, I wouldn’t be all that thrilled either if I was double nominated in the category, like Jay-Z was, and one song was with my wife (which didn’t win) and the other with Timberlake. But with the smoothness that we all know comes off of Jay-Z in waves, he proceeded to accept the award with humor in saying, “To Blue, Daddy got you a gold sippy cup.”
Never one to linger on the actual awards too long, Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar performed a medley of “Radioactive” and “m.A.A.d. City.” Hands down, without a doubt, and once again validated by the Twittersphere, this was the performance of the night (and I told them so when they came backstage). Beyond the fire, explosions and recurring cannons of red dust the Dragons use in their live shows, the song was an intense litany of percussion and passion. It brought Taylor Swift to her feet. Honestly, I don’t think she cares that anyone else is there. I never want to sit behind her at a concert. Even Lorde smiled. The crowd couldn’t help but respond as all the folks on stage put in 125% into that song. Another Grammy-worthy spectacle for the ages.
So how could you possibly follow that up? Someone in programming thought, “Completely change direction!” and put on Kacey Musgraves, who would later win her second award of the night for Best Country Album. Her song “Follow Your Arrow” is cuteness overload. She whistles, and it’s adorable. Plus, she wrote a song accepting of girls kissing girls inside the country music genre. That’s a bold move. Many folks bitching on the Twittersphere were upset by the drastic shift from the Imagine Dragons performance to Kacey’s, so I guess the programmer of the lineup should hang their head in Internet shame. Although, I agree that following up the power and passion of the Dragons’ show was pretty much impossible for anyone.
“The British Invasion” that The Beatles spear-headed 50 years ago next month was acknowledged Sunday night. To specialize the occasion, Paul McCartney took the stage with (not so surprise guest) Ringo on drums to play one of the tracks from his new album (which is actually titled New), “Queenie Eye.” I want Sir Paul’s piano just to brighten up my office. He showed why he’s still the king of the Beatles (at least the living ones). There was an obligatory cut to Yoko, doing her weird thing, sort of like dancing.
Another award went by but there was nothing really to report on until four country legends took the stage: Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Blake Shelton. You could say there was a little passing of the torch from the old to the new, but I think Shelton has outright stolen the throne whether the older guys like it or not. Nelson and Haggard sounded great, while Kristofferson felt rough, but he shouldn’t care about his performance too much since he also took home a Lifetime Achievement Award as well.
Neil Patrick Harris came up to introduce the Daft Punk performance (featuring Pharrell and Stevie Wonder). NPH exudes awesomeness anywhere he goes and it makes you wish he was the host instead of LL.
Performing “Get Lucky” in a makeshift recording studio from the ’70s, Daft Punk and friends got the most enthusiastic response of the night. Imagine Dragons may have had the crowd on their feet, but Daft Punk got people to use them. They truly are from another planet, likely named “Funkitron 7.” When the song ended there was applause even in the media room. The only lasting question was, “How can Pharrell make that hat work?” Answer: He can’t.
At this point, Ben Harper came backstage and talked about his performance with Charlie Musselwhite and their Grammy win for Best Blues Album. Best moment here is Harper talking about an upcoming album he made with his mom, saying, “Asking your mom to do another take is a hard thing for any producer.”
Lauper introduced a duet between Carole King and Sarah Bareilles, which was simple, beautiful, and classy. In terms of the older generation represented on stage that night, King proved she has lost none of her stride. They finished their medley of King’s “Beautiful” and Bareilles’ hit “Brave,” and dove right into presenting the award for Song of the Year, which went to Lorde for the second time. She took the stage with a genuine sense of disbelief, still uncomfortable, but certainly appreciative. Then she dove back to her seat.
Marching forward toward the end of the show, this is where you need to pull out the big guns to keep the crowd alive. What could you possibly do? Maybe get Metallica to play their first mainstream smash “One” while accompanied by piano virtuoso Lang Lang. You will never see someone attack the ivories with more intensity and fire than Lang, which was only heightened by James Hetfield slaying his guitar right next to him and a moving wall of fire behind them both, just to push it past that line. The musical effect of the combo was not as smooth as earlier duets, but it ended on a very strong note.
Smokey Robinson and Steven Tyler appeared to give out the second-to-last award of the night, Record of the Year. Tyler belted out a few Robinson lyrics and it was hard to tell if Robinson was smiling or cringing. Either way, Daft Punk snagged the statue for “Get Lucky” and thereby put an end to the Macklemore/Lorde sweep of the night. Pharrell came up with them to once again say, “The robots would like to thank you, their families and the academy.”
Then came one of the most hyped performances of the night. Queen Latifah introduced Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (with later assistance from Madonna) and their genre/culture busting track, “Same Love.” In the commercial break leading into this the announcer said it was going to be “historical,” which made the reporter next to me say, “How do they know? It hasn’t even happened yet. It could be terrible.” I said my guess was the performance would be secondary to what they were going to do live on stage, like marry a ton of gay couples (since the show was live in California and completely legal). I’m not claiming to be Nostradamus but … I NAILED IT! It was actually a mix of 33 gay and straight couples married officially by Queen Latifah. In the mix were good friends of hers and Ryan Lewis’ sister, so this was far more personal than just a media stunt.
As it was happening I immediately wondered what was going on at the keyboard two rows behind me at Fox News. Turned out I wasn’t the only one. Twitter was flooded with thousands of messages from people, all basically saying “Fox News must be exploding right now.” I listened to it on the way into work Monday morning and they did cover the Grammys briefly with absolutely no mention at all of the same-sex marriages that occurred there. They managed to not look homophobic, while also not celebrating it either. I guess they heeded the old adage, “If you can’t say something nice, shut the f*&k up.”
Some touching moments followed with the In Memoriam segments and the recap of the Grammys’ new category, Best Music Educator, where a teacher is nominated by their colleagues and featured for their exemplary work in furthering music education in schools.
Wrapping up the awards for the night, Album of the Year went right back to the robots, Daft Punk, and they cemented themselves as the big winners of the night in regards to statuettes.
Nine Inch Nails, Fleetwood Mac guitar slinger Lindsey Buckingham, Grohl, and Queens of the Stone Age joined up for the last songs performed (NIN’s “Copy of A” and QOTSA’s “My God Is the Sun”). The lighting was epilepsy-inducing, which is fairly common for NIN, but sadly Queens got basically played off by the rolling of the credits. Trent Reznor (Mr. NIN himself) was reported to have reached out on the social media sites (Twitter) to strongly criticize the Grammys for cutting them off. He put it a little more bluntly than that, but I’ve used up my vulgarities for the night.
So that was my first time covering the Grammy Awards and it was truly an interesting experience. Among other things I learned that spandex and leather should have an age limit and the security backstage increased noticeably once the bigger stars were coming through, so the folks from the Bluegrass and Gospel categories should understand they are expendable.
As for the show, they once again put on an amazing set of performances that didn’t fail to engage, surprise and excite. Exactly what you want from a concert, if not an awards show. It should keep people tuning in for next year.
P.S. Thanks to Blogcritics for sending me to cover this and thanks to the Grammys for the opportunity and the tasty box lunch.