What I learned from the 58th Grammy Awards. Or … Why It Wouldn’t Be a Bad Thing If There Was No 59th Grammy Awards.
The Grammys have been getting it wrong for decades. Here’s an example: A friend wrote to me the morning after Monday’s televised fiasco to point out that, in 1978, A Taste of Honey (“Boogie Oogie Oogie”) beat out both Elvis Costello & the Attractions and the Cars in the “Best New Artist” contest. Think about that for a minute. OK, stop thinking about it now. I don’t want you to get depressed.
But at least the Grammys are consistent: You can always count on them getting a bunch of things wrong.
So … in the category of Greatest Offenses Perpetrated by This Year’s Grammy Awards, the nominees are:
Too Many Medleys
Medleys are for Las Vegas dinner-theater shows. Please, stop. Pick a single song. Sing it. Then go back to your seat.
The Grammys were all about cramming as many possible “impulse buy” signifiers into the show as possible this year. One can almost hear the boardroom conversation: “Hey, if we throw a whole bunch of these losers together and make them sing each other’s songs, we can force more musical information down viewers throats, and maybe we’ll get the best post-Grammys sales-bump ever!”
(They weren’t all losers, it’s true. James Bay was great, and so was the B.B. King Tribute, for example. But still – I’d prefer fewer performers, and zero duets, or at least, duets that make some sort of sense.)
The David Bowie tribute
I had high hopes for Lady Gaga. Not at first. In truth, when I heard she was doing a Bowie tribute, my first thought was “I hope she doesn’t think this is all about costumes: I hope she actually knows Bowie’s music.”
But when Gaga killed it singing the anthem at the Super Bowl, I thought, “Wow, if she chooses something cool like ‘Life on Mars,’ and sings it in that voice, this could be good.” Sadly, my first reaction was the proper one. Gaga made a complete mockery of what was supposed to be a tribute to one of the greatest and most influential artists in the history of popular music. It was clear that her “tribute” to Bowie was really only a tribute to herself.
Doing Bowie is not just about playing dress-up. Gaga’s medley mash-up of Bowie hits sounded like the work of a bad lounge band on a budget cruise ship bound for Hell or Las Vegas, whichever came first. Though she may not have intended it this way, Gaga’s performance was in effect the equivalent of her spitting on Bowie’s grave. That the Grammys gave Gaga a blank check to stage her Bowie train-wreck underscores the complete cluelessness of the event’s producers.
Starting off with Taylor Swift
Swift is not an electrifying performer, by any stretch of the imagination. Starting the show with her wanna-be ’80s arena-pop anthem “Out of the Woods” was a major mistake. Just how soggy and out-of-date this performance was would be vividly underscored later in the show, when Kendrick Lamar showed up and all but literally burned the place down. Lamar represents the future: Swift, a tired and soulless past.
The Kendrick Lamar snub
When the Grammys decided to award the Grammy to Swift’s “1989” – an album that is surely destined to age as well as a Wham! record – over Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” it was impossible to escape the feeling that we’d all been had. Giving the Grammy to Swift over Lamar is akin to giving Kenny G a “Best Jazz Artist” Grammy over, say, Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock. It’s an unpardonable offense.
When Swift’s acceptance speech turned into an implied swipe at Kanye West – a totally deserved one – the Grammys got their Hallmark moment. Trouble is, Swift’s public fight with West is not really a “Woman’s issue”; it’s a byproduct of a narcissistic culture, the very culture responsible for elevating Swift to the commercial stratosphere. Swift noted the fact that she is the only female artist to win “Album of the Year” twice.
Kanye is a boorish and ridiculous public personage to be sure, but he’s not the one keeping the Academy from dishing out Grammys to women. Swift should have directed her righteous ire toward the Grammys themselves.
But then, that would have been the right thing to do.
And as we know by now, the Grammys don’t do right.