The Recording Academy likes to call the Grammy Awards “music’s biggest night,” but it’s really only mainstream music’s biggest TV production, and based on last night’s 55th annual presentation, it’s looking to be in real need of major revamping.
After years and years of following the MTV Video Music Awards template so well that it outdoes them in high production values, poor scripts, predictable performances and clearly forced excitement from those hand-waving kids placed up in front, artists and industry in the audience have finally had it.
The tried-and-false overuse of celebrity reaction shots told the true story: The kids might have been jumping around in self-induced ecstacy, but everyone else was either sitting there stonefaced (Jay-Z, for example, over and over again) or worse, feeling obligated to stand stonefaced (Jay-Z, for example, over and over again). And confidential to Grammy producers: Cutting to one person standing up only draws attention to the fact that no one else is.
The good: Beyonce looked stunning on big-event TV for the second Sunday night in a row. Rihanna looked great and sang great by playing her parts comparatively straight.
The duet pairings of Miguel-Wiz Khalifa and Miranda Lambert-Dierks Bentley worked fine. Kelly Clarkson was outstanding on her tribute to Carole King and the late Patti Page, and gave the second best acceptance speech to fellow deserving award-winner Gotye’s genuinely provocative one.
The bad: fun. definitely deserved Song of the Year for “We Are Young,” but should have been arrested for letting the rain come down on a Hammond B3. Ed Sheeran was so overshadowed by Elton John on “The A Team” that he seemed all but invisible. Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait” was needlessly marred by too-busy editing (the quick cut to Jay-Z showed him clapping but bored stiff).
The ugly: Prince looked sillier than usual in presenting Record of the Year to Gotye, same with Johnny Depp, also equally sullen in introducing Mumford & Sons. Before coming alive to “Freedom At 21,” Jack White & Co. looked like outcasts from a vampire/zombie movie on “Love Interruption.”
The big numbers were decidedly mixed. At first the star-studdded Bob Marley seemed like just a poor excuse to dust off a tired Sting—after the night’s too respectful host LL Cool J trivialized the music of Marley’s “timeless island rhythms.” Things thankfully picked up when Damien and Ziggy Marly came out, and Rihanna was a perfect choice for this grouping. But they should have brought out the recently reunited Graham Parker & The Rumour, who were one of the first and best 1970s bands to incorporate reggae into their sound—and thereby give some play to one of the great underexposed groups then and now.
Likewise, the Levon Helm tribute could have done without the superstar lineup (Elton John and Mavis Staples notwithstanding) and brought out Helm’s terrific band, including his daughter Amy and celebrated multi-insturmentalist Larry Campbell, who continue to maintain Helm’s renowned Midnight Ramble shows.
The Dave Brubeck tribute with Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett and Stanley Clarke, of course, was best in show—and of course, shortest.
As for the farthest-out production values, the black-and-white opening part of Justin Timberlake’s swing band spot worked, but the video effects superimposed on Carrie Underwood’s dress made her seem infected by flesh-eating bacteria prior to morphing into butterflies.
That leaves the two main performers. Timberlake, obviously, is getting a billion-dollar push. But his voice was the weak link of his performance/production, and if this show was really “music’s biggest night,” they might have given some of his time to an act like, say, Wayne Toups, Steve Riley and Wilson Savoy, winners of the Best Regional Roots Music Album for The Band Courtbouillon.
As for Taylor Swift, well, it would appear that she’s hit the inevitable wall. Specatular opening performance, yes, but an already old and way overplayed song—and one that has helped make her and her primary theme targets of derision.
Swift, sadly, has now done it all at the Grammys—opened the show, sung with Stevie Nicks. At 23 she’s hit her peak, at least as far as what she’s done up till now. If she wants to honestly get the likes of Jay-Z out of his chair, she’ll have to sing a new kind of song next year.
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