Since at least 1989, when it was universally ridiculed for bestowing the hard rock-metal award on Jethro Tull over Metallica, the Recording Academy has lived in fear of seeming terminally out of touch.
British neo-folkies Mumford & Sons won the evening’s top prize, album of the year, for its earnestly hand-woven and homespun “Babel.” The irreproachably indie duo the Black Keys scored the rock song Grammy for “Lonely Boy.”
Months before Sunday’s awards show, R&B; newcomer Frank Ocean had received a full-dress media coronation for his freshman release, “Channel Orange.” When his disc deservedly won the Grammy for urban contemporary album, as expected, several scribes in the Grammy press room reportedly erupted into applause.
But the 55th Grammy Awards also affirmed an old truism: Never underestimate the enduring appeal of well-crafted, easily digestible pop, the kind that doesn’t require the winning artists to make solemn acceptance speeches about global warming or indigenous people’s rights. Sometimes in music, as a rock ‘n’ roll troubadour once observed, feelin’ good is good enough.
Which might be the mantra of the aptly named Fun., the New York trio of castaways from other bands, and Gotye, the project led by Belgian-born Wouter “Wally” De Backer. Both earned multiple gold statuettes Sunday by delivering instant-gratification pop, the kind that we count on to burst the bubble of self-seriousness that surrounds every legacy-media awards show.
Gotye scored in the categories of record of the year and pop duo/group performance (“Somebody That I Used to Know”) and alternative music album (“Making Mirrors”).
Fun.'s 2009 debut album, “Aim and Ignite,” which reached an unprepossessing No. 71 on the Billboard charts, gave little hint that this year the band would ride the success of its admirably fluffy hit single “We Are Young” (winner for song of the year) to take the perhaps more-coveted prize of best new artist, beating out the heavily favored Ocean.
It remains to be seen what sort of artistic staying power Gotye and Fun. will have, because pop music stardom tends to be a fickle commodity. Exhibit A, of course, is Justin Bieber, the Canadian wonderboy (now 18).
Nominated two years ago for best new artist, he lost to jazz virtuoso bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding in what was considered a major upset.
Although his commercial stock remains relatively high, Bieber this year was snubbed by the Grammys. Some speculated that he was dishing out payback by scheduling a livestream of chatter and new music for his fans that just happened to fall during Sunday night’s Grammy telecast.
But the ploy partially backfired when Bieber reported the livestream had gone over capacity, locking him out. “Since nothing is working im super upset i feel i gotta make it up to u. i should post a new song on twitter you can still be excited,” Bieber told his masses of Twitter followers.
Meanwhile, another non-nominated artist named Justin, last name Timberlake, offered an example of how a pop star can stay relevant by not hitting the panic button when listeners (or award voters) shift their attention elsewhere.
Although at 32 Timberlake is middle-aged in pop years, he still may have his best artistic period ahead of him. On Sunday night, he reminded a global audience that before he became an actor, businessman and one-half of the second-biggest gaffe in Super Bowl history, he was one of the most effortlessly charismatic male singers around.
He did this by delivering a suave, tuxedo-swathed performance leading a big band called JT & the Tennessee Kids in a medley of two new songs, “Suit & Tie” and “Pusher Love.” Just in case home viewers didn’t get the swing era allusions, the broadcast segment was swathed in a retro sepia light and set against a background of Art Deco-style structures.
Timberlake wasn’t the only performer to take the high road to pop-star longevity.
Early in the telecast, Elton John took a seat at the piano and, metaphorically, at the edge of the spotlight trained on Ed Sheeran, to perform a duet of the 21-year-old English singer-songwriter’s “The A Team.”
Musical fashions may change and pop songs may come and go. Genuine pop stars master the art of sticking around.