steven ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*It was absolutely fitting that  at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, big winners Daft Punk stuck to their shtick of wearing robot masks.  The duo’s look pretty much personifies where much of popular music is at the moment: gimmicky, automated, passionless and   predictable.

I can remember tuning into the Grammys—when I wasn’t actually there covering it as a journalist—and finding something musically gratifying. In years past, there were performances that served as an artist’s coronation or  coming out of sorts.

Latin singer Ricky Martin, generally unknown by U.S. audiences, completely turned  out 1999’s  41st Grammy show with his  thunderous  performance of “The Cup Of Life” (“La copa de la vida”).  When he was done, the Grammy crowd was on its feet.  Martin’s hungry, inspired set effectively ignited his Stateside career.

At the 49th Annual Grammy show in 2007, there was a murder committed right there on the stage,  when  Christina Aguilera,  during a Grammy tribute to James Brown,  killed Mr. Brown’s  “It’s A Man’s World.”  KILLED it.  Before that,  I hadn’t given Aguilera much attention.   She’s had my attention ever since.

Michael Jackson actually lip-synced most of   “Man In The Mirror”  when he performed it at the 30th Annual Grammys in 1988.  But he made up for that with a climax that ended with him ad-libbing live and spinning and dramatically landing on his knees.  He did that twice; it had to hurt.  But  that’s the kind of leave-it-all-on-the-stage attitude that epitomizes the phrase, “Show Stopper.”

Now if I watch a Grammy show, it’s  simply  to get an audio/visual update on  just how low the music and performances have fallen.  From what I witnessed Sunday night, the average sinkhole finally has something to look down  on.

Beyonce, who opened the show,  works so hard these days to incite controversy with her sexualized performances  that it now feels like desperation.  Unless you’re a 15 year-old kid who has spent most of your  life away from a television or computer,  all  the  salaciousness has grown tired.  The performer of a certain age  should  be  beyond  exhibitions of  overt sexuality;  it  looks  silly.  Miley Cyrus made ample use of  it,  but  she and her core audience is younger,  whereas  Beyonce,  having gotten  the world’s attention  long  ago,   should be pushing the boundaries of  her  remarkable talent in other ways.

That could entail something as simple as the sterling performance of  a great,  original  song—a  REAL one;  you know,  with a  memorable melody.  As it is,  if I were suddenly kidnapped, bound, blind-folded and whisked away to an abandoned warehouse on  the outskirts of town  and,  with a gun to my head, ordered  to hum the melody to what  Beyonce  performed on the Grammys  OR  ELSE,  y’all would be  sweeping the  L.A.  River  for me.   All I remember about  her “song” is something about being “drunk”  and the refrain, “We be all night.”

Many   younger singers have an aversion to following a melody.  To truly sound “soulful,” apparently they  believe you have to be belly-aching (or, as Luther Vandross used to disdainfully refer to it, “yodeling”) all over a song.

Robin Thicke,  paired by the Grammys with the  band  Chicago  for  a medley of the iconic unit’s classics,  “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is,”  “Beginnings” and “Saturday In The Park,”  simply refused to sing his  allotted  verses s traight.   And when it was Chicago leader Robert Lamm’s  turn to  sing  a verse,  Thicke   ad-libbed  all over him.   At some point, Thicke  appeared to sing a verse that  wasn’t  his to sing.   By the time they got to Thicke’s  smash, “Blurred Lines,” I just wanted him gone.

For me, the show’s lone highlight was rapper Macklemore’s  proud and assertive performance of  “Same Love,” his  powerful  commentary  on same sex and race equality, accompanied onstage by vocalist Mary Lambert and  Trombone Shorty.

Surreal as it was, the 33 couples in the audience officially married right there on the spot  by  Queen Latifah (“by the power invested in me by the State of California!”) illustrated gracefully and poignantly  pop music’s  power to not only deliver a message,  but to bring people together, both figuratively and literally.

The music I came up on had that kind of emotional force.  I  realize  the  Grammys  can’t showcase all music–hell, we  were  complaining about  the music and  artists overlooked  by the Grammys  back  then,  too.   But  I k now there is more great music being created today than the Grammys  showcases,  and that’s a shame.

Sunday’s show was a yawn.  Most of the genre–crossing pairings of acts seemed forced.  It was delightful watching  Pharrell  Williams’s obvious glee at sharing the stage with Stevie Wonder during the performance of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which included  Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and Nathan East on bass.

However, it is disheartening to think that had Williams and Rodgers–who actually co-wrote and recorded the song with Daft Punk–recorded this on their own,  chances are good it wouldn’t be nearly as big for them as it is for two mute Frenchmen  dressed  like extras  from  “Stars Wars.”  I mean,  it’s Rodgers’ funky rhythm guitar that drives the track.  It sounds like a Chic record,  for goodness sake.  Go figure.

In any case,  by the time  Daft Punk was called to the stage to collect the final award of the night—Album of The Year for their collection, “Random Access Memories”—I’d  figured out at least one reason they wear those robot masks:  to conceal their  snickering.   All the way to the bank.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]