Grammys hit high note

I hate the Grammys. Hate them. Every year the music biz hands out these ridiculous awards like fanatics at the airport giving away religious pamphlets – everyone who’s remotely involved with the industry gets a Grammy or at least several nominations. As a result, the awards just don’t mean a whole lot.

And the ceremony is usually pretty dull, too. They just parade out the flavor of the month and force him/her/them to perform a hit single in front of gyrating dancers and a painted backdrop. Bad music for bad people, as The Cramps might say.

Every now and then, you’ll see a member of the Old Guard like Bob Dylan get some deserved recognition, but for the most part the Grammys are a business scheme. Whichever current artist the labels want to push onto the American public is going to get all the awards. You know the scene: some talentless fool accepting some award with like 10 other Grammys in hand. That way, the artist can attach the “Multi-Grammy-winning” epithet to their latest record and move a couple million more units. It really is a set up, and quality of music has little to do with the nominations and voting process.

Of course, I watch the show every year, yelling and carrying on like a 7-year old being pushed off a swing. I can’t help it.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised that the 45th Grammy Awards, live from Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, was actually a great show. Seriously. The awards still mean less than zero, but there was a real sense of artist appreciation across the board. The industry today is divided along many lines – genre, label, P.R. firm and especially race (nobody wants to talk about this, but we’re going to have to sooner or later), so it was wonderful to see so many artists from different musical worlds give each other such a high level of respect. To see Eminem, Bruce Springsteen and Solomon Burke get standing ovations is something special.

Sunday’s broadcast owed its good feelings to two major changes in how the show is presented. One, the Grammy committee didn’t allow any artists to make political statements during the show. Lest you think this is censorship, no one wants to hear the same, stupid, “no blood for oil” statements every time some moron steps up to the podium. This didn’t stop Fred Durst from making a snide antiwar comment and the weird, pale guy from Coldplay writing something about fair trade on his hand. Oooh, these guys are so revolutionary. Come on. There’s a time and a place for political debate, and it’s not during a music show.

In addition – and surprisingly – the focus was on music. The other change in Grammy format was a celebration of songwriting, the creation of music, rather than the sale of said music. The show kicked off with a reunited Simon and Garfunkel doing “Sound of Silence.” Simon has been ignored by the Grammys since the late ’80s, so it was great to see the duo get an Artist Achievement Award. The performance wasn’t the hottest of the night, but it set the tone for dozens of other singer/songwriters to get their due.

James Taylor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed an outstanding duet of “Sweet Baby James” alongside pieces by contemporary songwriters Vanessa Carlton and John Mayer. Bruce and the E-Street Band rocked everyone’s face in, and the late musicologist Alan Lomax (founder of the Folkways label and responsible for piecing together the American folk canon by introducing the world to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Odetta among others) was recognized for his invaluable contributions to the concept of the American song.

Award-wise, everyone won a couple, or at least it seemed that way. The only big winner was Norah Jones, who received the big Grammy P.R. push by winning Song of the Year, New Artist of the Year and Album of the Year.

Interestingly, her hit single “Don’t Know Why” was actually written by songwriter Jesse Harris, who also received an award and got some airtime for an acceptance speech; usually, the Grammys focus explicitly on the artists and ignore those who work behind the scenes to actually write and arrange the music. About time the songwriters got some industry love. Ms. Jones is indeed a talent, and I’m not surprised the music biz is giving her such a push. Plus, she’s on Blue Note, the best label ever.

So I guess it’s time to give out my own awards – the Grammy Awards Awards, if you will.

Disappointment of the Night: Eminem performing with The Roots, “Lose Yourself”

Two spectacular performing artists who just couldn’t get it going for some reason. Maybe it was the song, but Eminem sounded bored and The Roots’ backing had little to add.

Pleasant Surprise of the Night: The Dixie Chicks performance, “Landslide”

OK. I don’t like the band or what they’ve done to one of my favorite songs ever (Fleetwood Mac did the original). On the radio single, they added some fake drums and annoying vocal harmonies, completely ruining “Landslide.” But the live version here was gorgeous with backing arrangements for mandolin and banjo. And, there was no drum machine – always a good thing.

Best Acceptance Speech: Eminem, for Best Rap Album

Eminem’s recent acceptance by mainstream America is a baffling and perhaps dangerous phenomenon. Yet he chose to thank a laundry list of his hip-hop influences for inspiration, from Run DMC to Nas. Was it a shallow attempt to earn back some love from the streets that he may have lost by whitewashing (in a racial and commercial sense) his image? I don’t want to be that cynical. A nice moment.

The Elvis A. Presley Award for Making Me Want To Shoot Out My TV: N*SYNC performing a BeeGees medley

Believe it or not, the BeeGees were fantastic songwriters and pop visionaries. They deserved a better performance than this, an a capella (the most hated of musical forms, for good reason) rendition of their biggest hits. The N*SYNC boys truly sounded terrible, worse than usual, in fact, especially when one of them tried beatboxing to “Stayin’ Alive.” Great to see the Brothers Gibb get a Lifetime Achievement Award, though.

Commercial of the Night: Jay-Z shilling for Heineken

After the whole Ludacris-Pepsi fiasco, you have to like seeing an MC getting some Madison Avenue love. A very funny commercial, wherein Jay’s girl asks him to get up and get her another glass of champagne and all he comes back with is a Heineken for himself.

Best Looking Gal: (tie) Gwen Stefani and Erykah Badu

Normally, this award goes to the female performer with the least clothing. But (sadly) pretty much everyone was decent Sunday night.

Gwen, as always, was absolutely hot in some kind of camouflage getup while No Doubt ripped through a couple songs early on.

Ms. Badu, on the other hand, was a bit of a dark horse in this category. But she came out to present an award with a huge afro, a sleeveless Dead Prez t-shirt and skin-tight jeans; she looked amazing. She kept lifting her arm to reveal a gigantic patch of armpit hair, but for some reason, this didn’t turn me off. In fact, it made her look even hotter. Perhaps I need to get my head checked.

Best Looking Dude: Bruce Springsteen

I’m not totally comfortable with handing out a best-looking dude award, but it is the new millennium and all. Equal opportunities and stuff. This award goes to the Boss primarily because he’s 53 years of age and looks like he’s in his 30’s. His secret? Rocking your face to the max every night.

Lame Industry Moment of the Night: Ashanti singing (badly) with a bunch of kids in costumes

This was just weird. First of all, Ashanti is a very beautiful woman, but she can’t sing worth a damn. You could hear the sound guys trying to tweak the mix during her song so at one point all you could hear were her backup singers. Then, this parade of kids dressed as doctors, firemen, policemen and stuff like that comes out on stage to sing with Ashanti. This was for some kids charity, a good cause and all, but it was pretty uncomfortable to watch. And I swear I saw some kid dressed up as Batman. Everyone’s dressed up as a profession, and someone dressed a kid up as Batman? Is Batman an occupation? Maybe he wouldn’t go onstage any other way. . .

Moment of the Night: A Tribute to the late Joe Strummer of The Clash

For those of you who only know The Clash from the T-shirt of that dude in “Bring it On,” they were one of the best rock acts ever and Strummer in his prime was as good a songwriter as anyone. Yet, he was always skeptical and critical of the music biz, which is why I find it odd that the industry gave him such tribute. Will they do the same when Johnny Rotten passes away? Why not honor Strummer before his death? In any event, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Steven Van Zandt (of the E-Street Band) came out to do a blistering version of the The Clash’s “London Calling.” It was exceptional and the MSG audience looked afterwards like they’d been kicked in the gut.

The only weakness of this year’s Grammys, up to that point, was a lack of pure, balls-out rock’n roll. But this was maybe the single best Grammy rock performance I’ve ever seen.

There was a close-up of each guy on stage and you could see the fire in their eyes, the way they spat out the lyrics in true ’77 punk rock fashion. They looked and sounded like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, channeling the rebellious spirit of past rock’n roll.

It was out of place amidst all the singer/songwriter jazz, but it blew all that stuff away and, for a brief moment, made music dangerous again. A great end to a pretty good Grammys show. Gotta give the industry a hand for this one.

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