Monday, February 14, 2011

The 2011 Grammy Awards

Bieber fever was strong enough to make Never Say Never, a documentary about the pop singer, a hit at the weekend box-office, but it did not result in enough votes from Grammy voters to make him the Best New Artist. That honor went to someone named Esperanza Spaulding, a jazz artist popular with President Obama, but fairly unknown to the mainstream public who swoon over the helmet-haired Bieber. I don't know much about Spaulding (or even how to spell her name), but the choice seems like a good call. The Monkees weren't even nominated for Best New Artist, and, as far as I know, neither was the Partridge Family, the Archies, Leif Garrett, Shaun Cassidy, the Osmonds, or Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus. Bieber is just the latest "teen idol." Other than 12-year-old girls, does anyone consider him worthy of serious consideration as an artist?

I'll watch the Grammys if I have nothing else to do, but unlike the Oscars, it's not an event that I mark on my calendar. Back in the 1970s when I still followed popular music, the Grammys went to the likes of Charlie Rich (Record of the Year for "Behind Closed Doors" in 1974) and Olivia Newton John (Record of the Year for "I Honestly Love You" in 1975) while cutting edge rock artists like David Bowie were ignored along with such still innovative '60s artists as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Even someone as mainstream as Elton John usually came up empty-handed at the annual bash. It wasn't until 1978 that the Stones were acknowledged with a nomination, but their Some Girls lost Album of the Year to the Bee Gees's Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. A year later, Dylan picked up his first Grammy for "Gotta Serve Somebody" in the newly introduced category of rock vocalist, but none of his albums or songs, including such mega-classics as "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A Changin'" and "Like a Rolling Stone," received so much as a nomination. In 1997, thirty-five years after his debut album, Dylan's Time Out of Mind, a comeback of sorts, was named Album of the Year. By then, Dylan, like the Stones, had been given a lifetime achievement award to make up for past slights. In 1986, Jagger told Entertainment Tonight that he regarded the Grammys as a "joke" for ignoring rock and roll in favor of the blandest pop.

Neither Jagger nor Dylan were up for any Grammys this year, and neither was Barbra Streisand, but all performed on the show's stage last night. The Grammys have never been the ratings powerhouse that the Oscars once were, and in recent years the ratings have often been embarrassing, so desperate measures are necessary to prop up the show. Instead of limiting the performances to the nominees, the Grammys now invite an assortment of legends to perform their greatest hits in the hope of attracting viewers who don't know or just don't care about Kanye West, Eminem, and Usher. Last year, or maybe it was the year before, Paul McCartney appeared to sing the Beatles oldie "I Saw Her Standing There," while Neil Diamond dug out his 1969 hit, "Sweet Caroline." This year, Jagger gave his first ever performance on the Grammy stage in a tribute to Solomon Burke, the blues singer who died last year. At 67, the rubber-lipped legend could show these youngsters a thing or two about showmanship. Wiggling his hips and belting the blues with full power, Jagger's performance was a highlight of the telecast. Babs was brought out to sing "Evergreen," her Oscar winning hit from 1976's A Star Is Born, and brought many in the audience to tears. Wearing a silk shirt and with his hair as wild as ever, Dylan joined several bands for a rendition of 1965's "Maggie's Farm." Dylan rarely plays guitar on stage these days, preferring to hunker over an organ, but last night he stood before a microphone stand waving his arms, danced a little, and blew a few brief notes on harmonica. My brother called me shortly after the performance and said he thought Dylan sounded like he had laryngitis. His wife, not a fan, said Dylan lives in his own world and got a standing ovation simply because he's Dylan. One of the mannequins who anchor Access Hollywood insisted he loved and respected Dylan ("He's an icon"), but said he sounded like he gargled with Drano. "Why would he agree to perform if he can no longer sing?" the mannequin wondered. Dylan sang very well when performing before President Obama around a year ago at a White House event celebrating the music of the civil rights era. His voice was rough as it always is, but crystal clear. I'm reminded of what Ringo Starr once said about the risk involved in attending a Dylan concert: "Bob gives you what Bob wants to give you." If he feels like giving his best, you'll get his best, as the president and first lady did in 2009. If he doesn't feel like it, screw you. I think that's what Dylan was saying to the Grammy crowd last night: "Screw you, you stupid Justin Bieber/Lady Gaga loving assholes. You are not worthy."

Lady Gaga was present to perform the song she's been accused of plagiarizing from Madonna. Indeed, it was identical melodically to the Material Girl's "Express Yourself." Gaga won the Grammy for Pop Vocal Album, but not Album of the Year as predicted. That honor went to a rock band called R.K. Fire, who, unlike most of today's music makers, actually know how to play instruments rather than distoring other people's records with a phonograph needle. Lady Gaga arrived at the ceremony in a giant egg. Like the "meat dress" she once wore and her gaudy oversized eyeglasses, this is apparently supposed to be an example of how outrageous and shocking she is, but for anyone who was around in the '70s when Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Alice Cooper were in their heyday, the only thing shocking about Lady Gaga is that she thinks there's anything shocking left to do. She's a bore. Give me Leonard Cohen in a suit and tie singing songs with intelligent, literate lyrics in a baritone unaccompanied by electronic effects. In today's world, that is truly shocking.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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