By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
4:45 AM PST, January 27, 2014
Despite Ryan Seacrest spending hours on the red carpet talking couture lifestyle with platinum-selling music stars, it was the artists who celebrated second-hand culture who busted through the pomp to win many of the 56th Grammy Awards' most coveted trophies.
In fact, at times the ceremony Sunday at Los Angeles' Staples Center felt like a night for the underdogs — at least as much as anyone standing before millions of viewers on music's biggest stage can be considered such.
A young woman from New Zealand, Lorde, who this time last year was gigging at small clubs, arrived in a no-name sleeveless tee to celebrate diamondless lives in "Royals." She left Staples Center carrying song of the year and pop solo performance Grammys by beating, among others, music royals Katy Perry, Pink and Justin Timberlake.
Without pyrotechnics or Vegas-style choreography, Lorde sang her now-familiar lyrics "We count our dollars on the train to the party / And everyone who knows us knows we're fine with this."
Rising country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves offered musical Polaroids about love and life among the underclass on her way to winning country song for "Merry Go Round" and country album of the year for the memorable "Same Trailer Different Park."
And there was Seattle duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis snagging best new artist and ruling the rap categories by besting an impressive roster of all-stars including Jay Z, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Eminem.
Both "Merry Go Round," and Macklemore's Grammy-winning "Thrift Shop" featured themes that mirrored the sentiment of Lorde's breakout lyric: "We'll never be royals."
That four-word phrase became the defining line of the year (setting aside Daft Punk's "we're up all night to get lucky" refrain), speaking to a twentysomething demographic still enduring double-digit unemployment and adjusting to a life of debt and diminished expectations. Whether it was Lorde singing of her unimpressive address "in a torn up town, no postcode envy" or Musgraves bringing to life the plight of people occupying "tiny little boxes in a row — ain't what you want, it's what you know," the Grammys offered austerity themes at the expense of tropes like fame and true love.
Even Daft Punk's well-earned album of the year win for "Random Access Memories," a decidedly big-budget affair that arrived with as much fanfare as James Cameron's "Titanic," still felt like a victory for the little man. An album of high art that still feels handmade, it may have been expensive to build, but its creation was executed with the care of expert tailors working with the finest ... Mylar.
"We made this album without a record label," bragged rapper Macklemore pride during his acceptance speech for best new artist. He earned the right. Though he and partner Lewis worked for nearly a decade before becoming a so-called overnight success, his trophies are a victory for every young artist sweating without a label backing, running the club-and-college circuit in vans, harnessing social media and YouTube to generate views and fans.
Which isn't to say Macklemore's trophies were victories for high art, or hip-hop. In besting Kendrick Lamar in rap album and best new artist categories, Macklemore's cliche-filled lesser tracks sparked the deserved ire of virtually every fan of non-pop rap, most of whom rightly argued that Lamar's "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City" marked the arrival of a career artist. Remember when Jethro Tull famously won a heavy metal Grammy? The victory for Macklemore & Lewis' "The Heist" feels like an equally embarrassing turn.
But Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" celebrated music as salve, dancing as a rational solution to life's problem. There's no talk of extravagance or cash. Rather, songs lament the loss of human touch, express devotion to the spirit of music.
They captured in "Random Access Memories" a feeling that Lamar, one underdog who came up empty, perfectly described during a recent interview about his rise from Compton: "I'm most comfortable when I'm plain Jane in my Nike Cortez and my white Ts," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "I thought I wanted jewelry and cars, but as soon as I got a taste, I realized it wasn't fulfillment."
Which isn't to say that creativity and wealth are mutually exclusive. At least one winner on Sunday promised a brand of opulence worthy of royalty. Said Jay Z to his young daughter Blue Ivy while holding his Victrola-horned Grammy: "Look, Daddy's got a gold sippy cup for you."
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