Cranking it way up
If the apocalypse is here, we might as well enjoy it. Stomp down the doors of your comfort zone. Hook up with unlikely new friends. Get noisy. Have a party before the flames consume us all.
That seemed to be the prevailing attitude during the 2009 Grammy Awards telecast Sunday night. Times are beyond tough for the music industry and cultural endeavors in general. Neil Portnow, the president of the awarding organization, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said as much during his admirably political welcoming speech. (Best moment: his call for President Obama to create a Cabinet position for secretary of the arts.)
Yet instead of a solemn mood, this jam-packed program offered the tonic of overstimulation as star after star took the stage and sold themselves hard, presenters proved as effusive as teleprompter readers can possibly be, and trophy winners were shoved aside to make room for more and more music.
Such a lively mood is almost shocking for an awards show. This one was obviously designed to make a point: that pop’s vitality isn’t simply about big winners, it’s about the great wide mess of styles and sounds that fill the marketplace.
Winners of the top awards were actually quite predictable. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, the elite pair whose unimpeachably lovely album, “Raising Sand,” exemplifies the middlebrow idea of quality, won five prizes. Coldplay, the nicest rock band on the planet (and the most commercially viable one, unless you count those old bad boys AC/DC and Metallica), won three. The accessible and charming young singer Adele claimed her rightful ingenue spot as best new artist, and top-selling trickster Lil’ Wayne won best rap album.
All of those champions performed, but they didn’t stand out among a parade of live acts working overtime to make the most of their two or three minutes onstage. U2 began the night with a predictable bang and the energy never got less than florescent. For every Kenny Chesney, laying back in a muted spotlight with an acoustic guitar, there were two Radioheads, filling every inch of the television screen with action (and in the case of that most beloved of art-rock ensembles, with collaborator the USC marching band). The show’s producers made sure that every mainstream genre got its due -- country, particularly, was better represented than usual -- which had the strange effect of making nothing specifically stand out as the night’s highlight.
The evening’s mood also ranged all over the place. There was heartbreak, embodied in the sob that overtook Jennifer Hudson’s golden throat as she sang “You Pulled Me Through,” raising the specter of her mother, brother and nephew, slain in a family dispute last year. There was class, thanks to Krauss and Plant’s perfect harmonies and that perfectly staged Radiohead collaboration. There was old salt Paul McCartney, having a laugh on a Beatles song with Grammy favorite Dave Grohl on drums, and new turk Kanye West showing off his skills duetting with the English singer Estelle (who, West noted, had been snubbed in the best new artist category).
And often, everything nearly went off the rails. The Jonas Brothers were so amped to be onstage with Stevie Wonder that they nearly knocked the soul great off his piano stool; he used a vocoder to simulate guitar solos, making a game of being saddled to the teen heartthrobs. The “rap pack” of T.I., Lil Wayne, Jay Z and West saturated the stage with testosterone, yet failed to upstage the very pregnant, inexhaustibly alluring M.I.A.
In a quieter moment, “best friends” (according to the slightly less popular one) Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift sang a duet that came off exactly like the winning entry in a high school talent show. It was adorable, for anyone who could imagine themselves as their parents.
That pairing made sense, as did most throughout the evening. It almost seemed that the artists had a hand in selecting their collaborators -- also highly unusual for an awards show. Memphis boy Justin Timberlake had fun with his hometown hero, Al Green, as did New Orleansian Weezy with his, Allen Toussaint. Guitar geeks John Mayer and Keith Urban sat and traded licks with B.B. King, paying tribute to the late Bo Diddley. New Grammy favorites Sugarland and Adele subtly supported each other on the English chanteuse’s hit, “Chasing Pavements.” And Katy Perry (who seemed to be lip-synching and off-tune) found her match -- a giant banana.
Everyone seemed so delighted to be there. The musicians filling the Staples Center seats cheered just as heartily for the night’s newcomers as for veterans like Neil Diamond and Duke Fakir, the last remaining member of the Four Tops. They gushed when they came up to accept awards, sometimes even deviating from the script to send special kudos to a favorite winner -- a healthy-looking if slightly loopy Whitney Houston singled out her mentor, Clive Davis, while Tre Cool of Green Day mentioned producer Rick Rubin. Not a joke was cracked nor a prayer sent up for Chris Brown, sorting out his legal troubles. Any breath of such disorder might have punctured the night’s dream.
That dream, of a world where music still has significant cultural power, is one that everyone in attendance must believe in. And it’s one that can still be proved true -- just not by the means to which the mainstream music industry is accustomed. This year’s ceremony showed great effort by a community in peril to stay spiritually afloat.
Perhaps with the help of two-time spoken word Grammy winner Obama, this confused entertainment elite can find better routes to material survival too.