“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” goes the old journalist’s mantra. I believe in it, but I’d suggest it’s also the job of the musician to do the same.
Sunday night’s Grammy Awards found host Alicia Keys riffing on the theme that “music is what unites us.” At one point, Keys was flanked by Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Obama, as each of these powerful, talented and intelligent women offered a take on the “music unites” theme. It all felt warm and fuzzy, but by halfway through the evening, it also felt completely disingenuous.
The Grammys claim as their core goal the celebration of artistic excellence in music. Based on their televised bacchanal of a broadcast, they’re largely failing in that regard.
Instead, the Grammys in the present day primarily venerate the music that has had the most commercial success during the relevant period. Off screen, many worthy artists are gifted with gold gramophone statues. There is diversity of genre, style, age group, sex, race, talent level. On screen, what you get is a celebration of mainstream pop music – some of it interesting, some of it excellent, some of it mediocre, much of it vapid, overblown and completely forgettable. It’s a self-congratulatory snore-fest that offers a heavily curated rendering of what’s happening in music, and then presents that rendering as if it’s a piece of stark realism.
It’s business, pure and simple. Music might be the thing that unites us, down here in the real world where we need it so badly during tough times and dark days, but what unites most of the people on stage and behind the scenes during the Grammy production is a healthy bottom line. No one is here to afflict the comfortable or rock the boat. They’re here to cash that check.
Speaking of rock, there wasn’t any. I’m not sure that’s really a problem, because the result of the Grammys’ suggestion that rock music has disappeared from the face of the earth is that rock has largely gone back to the underground from whence it originally sprung. Grammys were given to some rock artists off-screen, but aside from a surprisingly sloppy Red Hot Chili Peppers appearance and a dramatic and deeply moving Brandi Carlile performance, you’d be forgiven for believing the only music made in 2018 was pop, R&B and country. (There wasn’t even much in the way of authentic hip-hop represented in the broadcast, just some relatively lousy trap-pop conflations a la Cardi B and Travis Scott.)
That’s fine. Most of the best music being made today demands some effort on the part of the listener – to get into, yes, but also to find it in the first place.
It’s a strange Grammys broadcast when Dolly Parton provides the most musically enticing medley, and St. Vincent is cavorting with Dua Lipa, while Lady Gaga is headbanging in a glitter jumpsuit to a slow, saccharine pop ballad, and for some reason known only to an omniscient deity and the show’s producers, J-Lo is turning what was ostensibly a tribute to Motown into a flaming train-wreck that is terrifying Motown founder Berry Gordy, from the look of it.
What a mess. Thank god for H.E.R., who sang beautifully and suggested hope for the future of soulful pop-gospel, and Janelle Monae, who pretty much offered a tribute to Prince with her funky “Make Me Feel,” and Fantasia, Yolanda Adams and Andra Day, who paid soul-stirring, understated and wholly appropriate tribute to the late Aretha Franklin.
Last year, Grammy President Neil Portnow answered accusations that women were not fairly represented by the proceedings with a snarky comment suggesting women needed “to step up” their game. They stepped up this year, big time, and Portnow made his farewell speech in the midst of that stepping up, which felt like an awesome representation of karmic justice. Still, that doesn’t mean every woman who performed was wholly worthy of being honored as numbering among music’s very best.
The women mostly owned it, but the rest of it was a disaster.
There can be no real unity when you’re only admitting platinum club members to the party. Keys and company uttered nice words, but they were ultimately hollow. A far better description of what went down is offered by the title of Lady Gaga’s “Star Is Born” ballad: “Shallow.”
And pretty vacant, too.