Slipping viewer interest has apparently given the Grammys a kick in the pants. The 2006 awards ceremony was a well-paced, live performance-packed event, benefiting from an enthusiastic effort on the part of organizers, who were adding performers and presenters up until the eleventh hour.
Was it enough to rescue the Grammys from the quicksand of mediocrity threatening to consume it over the past decade or so? Probably not. But then, the Grammy presentation can only be as good as the music the Recording Academy has chosen to honor. And this year, though plenty of worthy music was nominated, there was still an overarching sense that all the pieces didn't add up to much.
What does it all mean? Are there any connections to be made between the Grammys and what's happening in popular music in general? Is looking for them even worth the effort?
The answer to all of these questions is probably no. Still, credit must be given to the Grammys for attempting to return the focus to the music, rather than the surrounding ephemera. In the first hour of Wednesday's televised broadcast, we were treated to performances from Gorillaz, Madonna, Coldplay, John Legend, Sugarland and U2 with Mary J. Blige. That's a lot of live music. More significantly, most of it was pretty darned good.
Some, not surprisingly, was less so. Gorillaz opened the affair with "Feel Good Inc." Then Madonna showed up in the middle and gave us a choreographed take on her unremarkable "Hung Up." She looked great, danced and sang well. The song is nothing special, though, and underscored a consistent problem at the Grammys -- namely, how do you honor mainstream music in an era when music is secondary to visual presentation?
Here are some moments gathered at random from throughout the televised broadcast that moved me, one way or another.
Averted trainwreck: U2 performed with Mary J. Blige, which seemed like a truly gratuitous pairing. But the band's sublime "One" offered the perfect vehicle for a blend of old-school gospel and the Irish group's incredibly lyrical music. This was an unexpected delight.
Old guy blows the kids out of the water moment: Paul McCartney makes his Grammy performance debut with a fine take on "Fine Line," then blows the roof off the joint with an absolutely killer "Helter Skelter". McCartney and his impeccable touring band reminded us what rock music is supposed to sound like.
Righteous moment: Bruce Springsteen cuts straight through the hype with "Devils and Dust," which won best rock vocal performance. This was the most intense performance of the show and offered the only topical commentary of the evening. Springsteen concluded the tune by intoning "Bring 'em home."
Surreal moment I'm not so sure about yet: A bizarre cast of characters, some of whom had no business playing true, honest funk, honored Sly Stone, who deserved it. Then Stone showed up, for the first time in decades, with a silver mohawk. Wow. His keyboard and vocal were mixed way too low to be audible. Sly's the man, but why were Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith the only performers who seemed to summon his spirit?
Unbelievable nonsense: Kelly Clarkson beats out Paul McCartney and Fiona Apple in the "Best Pop Vocal Album" category? What? Aw, c'mon.
Don't believe the hype moment: Kanye West's ode to himself. With Jamie Foxx's ode to himself thrown on top of it. And a marching band. Huh? Kanye is a talented artist, but this was pretty lite fare.
Righteous moment No. 2: U2 takes album of the year, surprisingly. Dublin's finest made the record that most successfully brought true, artistic, deeply passionate rock into the mainstream. A great night for U2.
The 2006 Grammys had sublime moments, but mostly, they left me with a few burning questions.
Where are the new musical poets? Why are old guys blowing away the new guard? Where is the artist who can offer both entertainment/flash value and music that isn't lame? Who am I? Why am I here?