*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]