It wasn’t exactly the same old song and dance. And yet, it wasn’t really a bold new tune, either. The 56th annual Grammy Awards ceremony Sunday split the difference between bold performances and run-of-the-mill nominations, surprising collaborations and overproduced (and oversung, and overchoreographed, and overhyped) star turns.
It was, to a certain extent, business as usual. Flash-in-the-pan artists were granted Grammys they probably didn’t deserve. In contrast, the Academy got it right a few times.
As ever, the Grammys ended up being a bit of a battle between the generations. The likes of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Carole King, Metallica, and an all-star “Outlaw Country” gang shared televised space with relative newbies like Kacey Musgraves, Pink, Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar, and Beyonce with Jay Z.
If you found yourself on the couch cheering on the old folks and wondering just what was happening when Taylor Swift started gratuitously banging her head while performing a soggy ballad, well, you’ve just made yourself un-hip. If you were wondering who that old dude performing with Daft Punk was – it was Stevie Wonder – and jumped from your seat when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won Best New Artist, it’s likely that a little studying of popular music’s history is in order.
These battles can’t be won. Is Lorde as amazing as Joni Mitchell? Not yet, but it could happen, eventually. Will Macklemore & Lewis be remembered in a few years’ time? Probably not, but who knows? Maybe they’ll beat the sophomore slump and the Best New Artist curse at the same time. Will Bruno Mars end up an icon on the level of his obvious idols, Michael Jackson and Prince? Too soon to tell.
What we could discern in real time, as the ceremony unfolded on our televisions, was the difference between the wheat and the chaff.
When Keith Urban and Gary Clark Jr. jammed together, contemporary country and swampy blues didn’t seem like such strange bedfellows. Pink and Nate Reuss of fun offered a less-convincing meeting of the musical minds, one that felt forced and arbitrary.
John Legend sat at the piano and reminded everyone that real talent and strong songwriting don’t need the sort of flash and fireworks espoused by Katy Perry during her performance in order to reach us in an emotional manner. Robin Thicke teamed with Chicago, and did little more than make himself look a bit lame – the older band’s songs were so much stronger than Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and his tendency to avoid melody lines in favor of modern urban pop coloratura was noticeable in this context.
Most of the big awards went to who you’d expect them to – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kacey Musgraves, Daft Punk, Bruno Mars. All of this almost felt like a sideshow, a corollary to the main action, which this year more than ever, was the live performances. In fact, by this point, playing a tune on the Grammys is probably better for your career than winning a Grammy. Many of the best performances on Sunday night came from artists who didn’t win, or won a lesser category than the one they’d hoped for.
The finest performances of the evening came from weird pairings that somehow worked – Daft Punk with Stevie Wonder, or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis with New Orleans virtuoso Trombone Shorty. Both of these pairings were less than promising on paper, but worked in the moment.
The most epic performance of the evening took place when Macklemore’s tune featured a mid-tune breakdown that became a mini wedding for both same-sex and heterosexual couples in the audience, presided over by Queen Latifah, and accompanied by Madonna singing “Open Your Heart.” This was profound, amazing, forward-looking, and wholly unexpected. When pop music can act to destroy barriers constructed of ignorance, prejudice, and fear, then it is doing its job.
Of course, what Macklemore and Co. did with this tune transcended the music itself, which is basically a direct lift of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” with some very intelligent lyrics rapped atop it. From a more purely musical standpoint, Metallica’s thrillingly grandiose reading of “One” with virtuoso classical pianist Lang Lang along for the uber-metal ride, took the cake. Hearing progressive of metal of such musculature at the Grammys felt subversive, exciting, and very cool.
But for us, here in Buffalo, the high point of the evening came when Recording Academy President Neil Portnoy, John Legend and Ryan Seacrest came out to pay tribute to the first winner of the newly launched Music Educator of the Year Grammy, which went to Kent Knappenberger, of Westfield Academy and Central School. The camera panned to Knappenberger, who stood and waved, beaming, while Jeff Tweedy of Wilco stood behind him and applauded. This was incredibly moving.
At times, the Grammys can give us reason to worry over the future of music. But if we give Knappenberger the last word – culled from an interview conducted prior to the ceremony – then we are granted a bit more perspective.
“Music is life abstracted through sound,” Knappenberger said. “As long as there is life, there will be music.”