[pullquote1 quotes=”true” align=”center”]Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, Gotye emerge as big winners of night[/pullquote1]
The 55th Annual Grammy Awards were held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 10. It was hosted for the second time by rapper LL Cool J, who seemed like an old guy returning from exile to find out the world now had Twitter; he seemed especially enthralled with the word “hashtag,” which he used repeatedly throughout. Although it featured a fair share of genuine moments, the ceremony largely proved to be an uncomfortable display put on by a music industry that has still not figured out how to deal with the evolving times.
Record sales in the past decade have plummeted like the Dow Jones in 2008, and digital sales, plagued by illegal downloads, have been rising at a very slow pace. Furthermore, with the demise of album-oriented music and ever-distracted listeners only paying attention to singles, the music industry has been dwarfed in size by film and television industries. In the wake of this, one would expect the Grammys, the music equivalent of the Oscars (in theory), to put on a good show to remind its viewers (all three hundred of them) why they exist, but they missed more often than not throughout the night.
Before the event even began, a memo suggesting artists avoid revealing “problematic” amounts of skin was issued, which generated a lot of bad press for weeks before the show. The move, I assume, was made to prevent wardrobe malfunctions that might upset the audience, and the response from artists, ranging from casual violation to outright mockery, was not surprising. It instead served to highlight why the NARAS and CBS should have focused on the music — where they still have some power to make a difference.
However, the music industry still occasionally manages to pull through and provide instances of sheer brilliance, which in Adele’s case has lasted for three years now. Riding on the wave of her incredible, and deservedly so, success of 21, she won the Best Pop Solo Performance for the live version of her song “Set Fire to the Rain.” She also became the first woman since Barbra Streisand in 1966 to win the award two years in a row. The night’s biggest winners were blues-rock duo the Black Keys who took four awards home, including Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song.
The Australian songwriter Gotye was the other big winner and won three awards, including Record of the Year, for “Somebody That I Used to Know” and the Best Alternative Album, Making Mirrors, respectively. The pop-rock trio Fun. won Song of the Year for “We are Young,” which also features Janelle Monáe. As much as I love the two or three singles they put out last year, their award for the Best New Artist was a disappointing snub to critical favorites Frank Ocean and Alabama Shakes. Their style, as The New Yorker explains, incorporates “triumphalism without a subject, a celebration of something invisible that creates a hysterical response,” and they are still far from capturing the grandeur of Queen they seem to be aiming for.
Frank Ocean nonetheless went on to win Best Urban Contemporary Album for Channel Orange and Best Rap-Song Collaboration with Jay Z and Kanye West for “No Church in the Wild.” It was also nice to see the rise of acoustic folk rock bands like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers that rely on vocal harmonies and Americana simplicity in the face of the surging electronic dance music wave. Mumford & Sons took home the coveted Album of the Year while the Lumineers enjoyed multiple nominations.
Kanye West and Jay Z also added three Grammys to their growing list for various songs on their album, Watch the Throne, while the biggest snubs of the night went to Coldplay (Mylo Xyloto) and Bruce Springsteen (Wrecking Ball). Both of them were nominated for two categories (as was Carly Rae Jepsen!) and deserved an award for making an incredible, career-defining album with lush artwork and for penning the most bitter-yet-sublime satire of the recent economic crisis, respectively.
The live performances were largely disappointing and contributed — more than the awards themselves — to relegating the Grammys to Video Music Awards (VMA) standards, at best. Taylor Swift opened the show with her song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” with a circus-themed number full of jugglers, dancing clowns, and a few guys walking around on stilts, ironically foretelling what the rest of the show was going to be (yes that’s right, a freak show!).
Bruno Mars with his song “Locked out of Heaven” and the Police with “Walking on the Moon” led a tribute to Bob Marley. The performances showed considerable showmanship but had the downside of not being related to Bob Marley or reggae at all. The tribute to the late Dave Brubeck, a jazz legend, was tasteful but was shut down almost as soon as it started because CBS got reports that the viewership was down from the few hundred to just the critics who had to write articles on the show.
Justin Timberlake marked his comeback by performing his new single “Suit & Tie” while Jay Z rose up from the audience to join him (no one knew what it meant, but it was provocative).
Ed Sheeran, the prodigious 21-year-old British singer-songwriter, shone with “The A Team,” his ballad to a prostitute, and was accompanied by Elton John. However, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, who was also accompanied by Elton John (and Zac Brown) in her tribute to Levon Helm, and Miguel, best known for his song “Adorn,” were the best performers of the night and showed just what you can do when you simply know your music.
The night was hence a confusing one. A couple of genuine performers managed to shine through in a night dominated by awards mostly given to chart-topping artists. The music industry is confused by the crisis it faces on the business side of the spectrum while the current generation is torn between listening to mindless pop and finding genuine music, both old and new.
The Grammys have an immense responsibility to bridge the gaps and put on a show, which blends music’s history and its present. But the night only showed how confused the Grammy organizers themselves are when faced with this dilemma.
Maybe it’s time to reach out to the people who inhabit the other half of Hollywood, because, after all, the Oscars have been getting it right for a long time; Paul McCartney often attends them, while he chose to sit out the Grammys — despite winning an award!
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