Thursday, February 14, 2013

14 Things That Didn't Suck At the 2013 Grammys (Plus, A Tribute to Boobs)

The Grammy Awards went down last Sunday night, and for the first time ever I managed to endure the entire telecast from Swifty's start to Mumford & Sons' triumphant finish being upstaged by the trainwreck/masterpiece of fashion that was Adele's dress. I will admit that I didn't hang around for LL Cool J's closing number because frankly I'm only human, but coupled with having watched (with at least one eye) the entirety of the pre-telecast ceremony that afternoon I consider this a major accomplishment, like running a marathon or getting through an entire Christina Aguilera album without a bathroom break. Also like those things, I have exactly zero desire to ever do it again, but since this is the life I've chosen I know deep down that I'm stuck with it as a yearly challenge wherein I must reaffirm my commitment to my occupation of choice. (Teachers enduring parent-teacher conferences or couples on Valentine's Day will undoubtedly sympathize.)

After leering at Beyoncé on stage during the show, Ellen Degeneres undresses another chesty star with her eyes.
In case you're just joining us and didn't gather it from the previous paragraph, I loathe the Grammy Awards, far more than any other aspect related to the music industry except possibly Chris Brown, Clear Channel, and the term "real music." There's very little I tend to unequivocally abhor, so when I encounter an apparent exception I spend a good deal of thought and consideration in order to make certain I haven't missed some fundamental point (e.g. M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes") or been misguided by some hidden internal prejudice I've yet to snuff out (e.g. Lance Bass' coming out), and in the rare event no such redemption can be found I get to enjoy the dubious pleasure of pure, solid, and fully defensible enmity, which I think is quite healthy in very small doses. (Hence traffic, in-laws and Kim Kardashian.) My general disrelish for Taylor Swift or Rihanna (which I have explored in depth on several occasions) is, critically speaking at least, on an entirely different plane from my thoroughly researched and justified scorn for Ticketmaster fees or Glee. I gave up trying to come up with an excuse to casually slip in a couple more examples, like Diane Warren's songs on Beyoncé's 4 and the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack (to name but two) or TMZ, but I hope you'll forgive me.

I explored some of the reasons for and ultimate futility of my objections to the Grammy Awards, and looking back a year later I find I don't really have anything to add nor subtract to my arguments, which just underlines the "futility" aspect I resigned to a year ago. This year I've called to mind the old trope about certain things so objectionable that it's easier just to tally the short list of elements that didn't suck, and perhaps reach some broad analytical conclusion tying them together and therefore indicating that there remains yet some hope for the institution after all. Then again, we're talking about the Grammy Awards here... so I promise nothing.



Whoever Dug Up Janis Ian for the Pre-Telecast Ceremony 

The two main things I learned watching the "At Seventeen" singer present at the pre-telecast ceremony were that she looked nothing at all like I might have thought she would and was in no way as obnoxious as I'd always assumed the singer of "At Seventeen" must be. Subsequent research yielded another interesting tidbit: while the arc of the character named Janis Ian in Mean Girls involves a false, and damaging, accusation of homosexuality, the singer Janis Ian is in fact openly gay; she came out in 1993, a year after fellow pioneer k.d. lang and well over a decade before Ricky Martin. Ian won her second Grammy on Sunday, for Best Spoken Word Album, but she also managed to win my approval in spite of the derisive scoff my father once made at the mention of her name. (Plus I fully support the ironic approbation of "At Seventeen" behind montages in which a The Simpsons character wanders around forlornly.)

38 years after winning her first Grammy, Janis Ian picks up a second for Spoken Word

Current/Past Artist Pairings

The concept of pairing up current artists with veteran musicians from years past isn't quite new to the Grammys, but after several years with rocky results, the gimmick seemed to stick the landing this year for the first time. Maybe it's thanks to more interesting and successful match-ups (who'd have guessed Elton John and Ed Sheeran would mix so well?), or more talented performers from group acts together instead of B-list obligatory acts paired with a big enough name that anyone might actually care (the grouping of lead singers from The Zac Brown Band, Mumford & Sons, and Alabama Shakes for "The Weight" alongside Mavis Staples, who sang the song in the 1975 film The Last Waltz, made for an inspired and appropriate tribute to the late Levon Helm). My lukewarm regard for Bruno Mars' overplayed "Locked Out of Heaven" was warmed up somewhat by hearing it in the impeccable voice of Sting, while even though he didn't get to do much of note I thoroughly enjoyed watching Dr. John on stage with the Black Keys because he's so effing cool and voodoo freaky and such. Even Alicia Keys and Maroon 5 managed to make one another's unremarkable songs seem somewhat greater during their surprisingly okay set (and Adam Levine filled those pants with an ass I was entirely unaware he had). Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley sounded fine, but I was too distracted by her disastrous outfit and my inability to decide whether Bentley was hot or if it was just the jeans and makeup (I never did manage to figure it out), and while Miguel and Wiz Khalifa delivered one of the better brief sets early in the show, any lasting effect they might have earned was negated when the next thing out of Miguel's mouth was "and now the nominees for best Country Solo Performance," a continuity failure so ridiculous I guffawed and slapped my forehead.


J.Lo's Leg Dress

Sure, it's a little odd that the network that brought us Wonder Woman, Survivor, and over four decades of Miss USA pageants ended up so terrified of boobies that this year it issued an official ban on tits and ass and camel toes prior to the event (although I haven't heard much of a stink about it, the wardrobe restrictions affected women almost exclusively, and read like frat boys trying really hard to disguise a "no fat chicks" rule). But thank god there's one entertainment industry that's still willing to let it all hang out once in a while in rebellion. I have a few favorites from the small but mighty pro-boob rebel faction that showed up on Sunday, but if I had to I'd probably hand the crown to J.Lo for her leggy bit of middle finger couture. Lopez, of course, is the one who posed the most ballsy challenge to the general prudery at the 2000 Grammy Awards with her instantly legendary plunging "I Dare You Not to Look at My Chest" gown, after seeing which for the first time my life has never been quite the same. As a renowned former soldier in the war on breasteses, naturally Lopez recognized the 2013 ban's insinuated relation to her personally, and, being the classy and clever lady she is, found a way to register her response not through civil disobedience but through pointed obedience and prominent use of loophole. The funny thing is, Lopez showed far more skin Sunday night in her floor-length one-shoulder black Anthony Vaccarello than in that infamous green Versace, which just goes to show that we have some seriously wacko notions about nudity in this country for reasons that often prove elusive. As a bonus, I enjoyed seeing her on stage with her simpatico partner in crime Pitbull, whose gaze at Miss Lopez further proved my belief that he honestly adores her, which I believe is what makes their collaborations work so exquisitely.

Two great fashion moments collide

Ellen Degeneres Messes With Beyoncé

I'm sort of in an "over Beyoncé" phase at the moment for assorted reasons but chief among them a disconnection from an artist so controlled and so relentlessly perfected that I feel no connection with her whatsoever and can't manage to believe anything she sings about because I've never seen her do anything but act. Beyoncé is an exceptionally gifted artist in terms of hitting the notes and nailing the choreography, but that's only interesting for so long (especially when you destroy your album by tossing in a dreadful Diane Warren stinker right at the end and ruin everything). Watching someone perform perfectly without any apparent effort is kind of like this hand-held bowling video game I once had where if you didn't touch any button you always got a strike, which was so boring you ended up purposely messing up just to make it at all interesting. That game was so stupid and annoyed me so much I remember it more than a decade later. Anyway, my reaction to Beyoncé and Ellen Degeneres sharing the stage was very "boo! yay!" but the most sublime aspect of their brief appearance was the bizarre awkwardness between the two for reasons ultimately unclear. Some have suggested Beyoncé had grown uncomfortable when Degeneres began staring at her midway through the introduction, and admittedly it did look like Ellen was messing with the Queen Bey. But Beyoncé first moved away from Degeneres after she jokingly assumed the accolades meant for the upcoming performer, Justin Timberlake, as if Ellen had somehow invaded her bubble. It looked to me like Degeneres' teasing stare was a response to Beyoncé's little "Um, you're a bit close to me" side step, but in any event the strange interaction did manage to prove that both superstars are, in fact, human after all: Ellen Degeneres is gay and standing next to Beyoncé and you can't tell me you wouldn't have stared, while Beyoncé may be half of arguably the greatest power couple in the biz, chummy with the Obamas and recent Super Bowl halftime show star, but she still can get a little freaked out when a white lesbian woman gets a little close and won't stop staring at her royal face (if you ask me, I'm impressed Ellen managed the face rather than the twin peaks at her eye level). An apparently leery Degeneres was later photographed staring in mock disbelief at Katy Perry's breasts as her wife, Portia di Rossi, erupts with laughter.


CBS Using Television Magic to Save Justin Timberlake's Set

As Missy Elliott, No Doubt, and Christina Aguilera have discovered the hard way in recent years, no matter how huge and how talented you are you simply cannot be absent from the music scene for half a decade or more and then decide to come back and expect it to work at all the way it did when you were a current star. It's not necessarily your fault in some ways: no one single could ever possibly live up to the hype and excitement surrounding the return of a much beloved artist, not even a masterpiece like "Umbrella" or "Toxic." Then of course there's the pesky problem of age, which happens no matter what you do but if you disappear at 27 and return at 32, people are going to remember you as 27 because that's the last they heard from you, and anyone beyond that age knows just how much transformation occurs between 27 and 32, but the majority of the pop music audience doesn't, and you might well be doomed to have to reintroduce yourself to an audience you don't understand while the audience that does understand you loses interest watching your desperate, futile attempt to get kids to fall in love with who you used to be. For these reasons alone, Timberlake's big comeback set at the Grammys almost seemed destined by nature to be a bit of a letdown since winning over all but a small portion of the audience might be a success given the circumstances but not when compared to the last time you performed for an audience you'd cultivated for years. It wasn't bad by any means; JT sported the unflattering side part up-and-over hairstyle that has managed to make the likes of Alec Baldwin and Ryan Seacrest look unattractive (although I will take it any day over the shaved-sides with big flop of hair on the top thing that seems to be coming into vogue even though I cannot imagine that anyone actually believes it's attractive); he sounded fine, and it was cool when Jay-Z emerged from out of the audience like Judi Dench at the end of Shakespeare in Love for his rap segment. But it was CBS' lame yet charming adjustment to black and white during the first number in a small effort to fit the throwback feel of the tune (a tactic it also used in 2011 during Bruno Mars' similarly retro performance) that sort of saved Justin from the weight of his own celebrity, causing viewers to momentarily remark or at least acknowledge the cute little trick and taking a bit of heat off the singer, allowing him to perform on a more fairly uninflated stage and his fantastic band to make me smile with their commitment to the verve.


Rihanna's Uncharacteristically Unobjectionable Performance and Reaction Backstage to Subsequent Loss to Adele

My attitude toward Rihanna has hovered somewhere between indifference and frustration since "Only Girl (In the World)," and she hasn't impressed me since "Rude Boy." I used to be much more a member of Team Rihanna back when she tended to have more accidental successes ("SOS," "Take a Bow," "Breakin' Dishes") than cynical pop-by-numbers manufactures ("Diamonds," "Cheers (Drink to That)"), by the way, and every now and then I put on "Pon de Replay" and make peace with her for having at least contributed some gems before veering off into lazy superstardom. Also, while I believe Chris Brown is a pretty vile character and have no desire to support him as a musician, I don't find myself at all wrapped up in his relationship with Rihanna the way so many folks seem to be, simply because a. I've done some pretty moronic things while in love with an abusive man, and b. Rihanna is a grownup and can and should make her own choices, right or wrong, and I have admired her stubborn insistence thereof during the past few years. But as of now, I'm still waiting for her to put out a song that wins me back to her side, because I liked liking Rihanna more than I like finding her aggravating now. I can't say I remember much about her performance of the ballad "Stay" on the broadcast, but I do remember thinking it was surprisingly tolerable, and since that bar is set so low that's all it takes for her to exceed my expectations nowadays. I also liked how she was caught on the nominee-cam backstage for the announcement of a Grammy with Adele's name already engraved on it, and the moment Adele's name was announced she peaced out - not in a huff or in poor sportsmanship but simply the way anyone who had no expectation of winning but was forced on camera for a reaction shot anyway would beat it. I identified with her in that moment.  


The Bob Marley Tribute

I have no idea why the Grammy producers felt it was necessary to pay tribute to Bob Marley, who has been dead for over three decades but who has hardly been forgotten, instead of anyone else in the history of popular music (seriously, I want to know how that conversation went: "Okay, we have this slot to fill and can get anybody at all in the industry and do anything we want to." "I've got it, let's do a Bob Marley tribute!" "Brilliant! That 18-29 demo we're so desperate to attract will definitely love hearing some hip new music like that." "And just to be sure we'll throw Rihanna in there too." "Genius."). But they did, and it didn't suck, partly because it would be hard to suck up "Could You Be Loved," partly because two of the guy's kids were there, partly because Sting was there, and partly because Bruno Mars tried so hard to please. Rihanna was there, but didn't do much except show the tattoo beneath her breasts whenever she lifted the mic and pretended to be enjoying herself, and I didn't really mind, although I did think as I often have before that Rihanna still sounds most comfortable and most like a performer of some modicum of artistry when she returns to her roots in reggae and dancehall, being the Barbadian she is.


Kelly Rowland's Dress

As much as I've grown resistant to Beyoncé I have grown to adore Kelly Rowland. How far we've come, really - I remember back in high school when I heard two of the girls in Destiny's Child had been kicked out and I hoped one of them was the tall chick with the short hair, for no other reason than that her hairdo annoyed me and I felt that members of a black girl group ought to have ghetto names like LaTavia and LeToya, not white girl names like Kelly and Michelle (I know). I remember thinking "Stole" was a fine single but not getting into much else until I came across a remix of "Work" at a club and thought it was fantastic, though it was embarrassing to find the original track from the album and witness how terrible it was. Then I spent 2010 watching Kelly Rowland excitedly as she put out a series of really neat, promising singles, many of which were dance singles, leading me to the conclusion I still hold, that Kelly Rowland ought to abandon her second-rate R&B career which even if she didn't get such poor material would always be overshadowed by Beyoncé, and realize her true calling as an electronic dance music diva extraordinaire. I'm still hoping she figures out she's worth more than what she's allowing herself to be and puts that incredible voice to good use before the curtain falls, and while Here I Am was a disappointment, every time I see her looking so fierce it's like being smacked in the face, I can't help rooting for her. I did it during the Super Bowl, and I did it when she showed up to present the Grammy to Frank Ocean (much to Chris Brown's demonstrated displeasure, because he's a vile immature little brat...there I said it. And I'm not even that fond of Frank Ocean) in a black George Chakra with strips cut across the front and back that definitely toed the line on that boobie ban and looked utterly fantastic doing so I whooped and said "YOU GO GIRL" in the way white people sometimes do when they know there are no actual black people around to make fun of them.



Carrie Underwood's Not Actually Obnoxious Projection Dress Gimmick 

When Carrie Underwood took the stage in a giant ball gown out of Cinderella, my first thought was how bizarre country singers' concept of fashion seem to be. My second thought, as I noticed her singing her song in her big poofy dress standing completely still, was that a female pop singer would never get away with that because she'd be accused of not knowing how to dance or not writing her own music (the Grammy-winning song Underwood performed, "Blown Away," was not written by Carrie Underwood, but no one seems to have a problem with that) or being fat or, if everything goes perfectly, accused of lip-synching. My third thought, as I saw the first projections on the now understandably vast costume, was represented with a roll of the eyes. But eventually I gave in and decided the whole act was just fine and I needed to stop taking my annoyance with pop deniers and anti-Britney stans out on Miss Underwood, and as it turned out hers was the one song I subsequently bought a copy of after the ceremony.

Butterflies are projected onto Carrie Underwood's dress as she performs "Blown Away"


Katy Perry's Boob Window Dress

Katy Perry has been blessed by the good Lord or whoever it is that doles out the bodily appendages with one of the most phenomenal racks on the planet, and I've always been extremely glad that she is apparently aware of the duty she has to grace the world with them whenever possible in one creative form or another. Every time a CBS camera cut to Chris Brown moping in the front because he's not nearly as offensive as a little bosom apparently, I thanked the gods for Katy Perry and her turquoise Gucci with full panoramic boob window, network memo be damned, who usually appeared on camera shortly after Brown since she too had a front row seat (albeit in the next section over, reportedly because she objected to being seated by longtime seatmate and awards show clown partner Rihanna since she would be with Brown) as a beacon of reassurance that things would be all right because there were still boobs out there even though CBS was determined to hide them. I also liked the way she casually pointed out that she's one of the biggest pop stars in the world even though she has yet to add a Grammy to her mantle (despite nine nominations) because not only was she confirming that the Grammys are bullshit, she was doing so from their own pulpit. Katy Perry has some boobs and she's got some balls.


Nate Ruess' Existential Crisis

The problem with an industry awards ceremony that gives awards to all the wrong people isn't just that the right people get shafted. Recklessly throwing accolades at acts that for whatever reason are obviously undeserving can really fuck with an act's head, too. (This happens even more often at the Emmy Awards.) What happens to a rookie band whose debut album is nominated for the top award and is showered with hyperbolic adoration and praise, even deserved praise, when their equally or nearly as good sophomore album gets completely ignored because there's a new flavor of the week? Ask Alanis Morissette, or Norah Jones, or Paula Cole - if you can find her. Also, because the Grammys are so reliably imbecilic much of the time, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some artists who win one of them find themselves wondering if they'd really earned it or not. Plus, it's totally embarrassing to receive an award you know you don't deserve and you know everyone else knows it too and their annoyance becomes directed toward the winner rather than at the stupid people who voted for them where it belongs. (This happens even more often at the Golden Globes.) I found it particularly fascinating to watch fun. lead singer Nate Ruess apparently experiencing a rather more complex existential crisis throughout the evening, though its roots stretched back to some interviews published subsequent to the announcement of the nominees (sample quote: "When I saw this category, it was like, "Holy shit, I can't believe we've been invited!" I'm going with Jack White." (Rolling Stone)). But in his first acceptance speech of the night, for Song of the Year ("We Are Young"), Ruess seemed to have traded newbie awe for the opposite. "I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote the chorus to this song," he said. "This is in HD, everyone can see our faces, and we are not very young." Of course, he's right: Ruess turns 31 at the end of the month, and has been active for nearly half a decade, prior to which he had been with the band The Format since 2001. Ruess is hardly the first musician to make his big break after many many years (Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj worked from their teens into their late 20s before their successes) - in fact, it's almost become standard practice that the Best New Artist award go to an act that severely challenges the term "new" so that people have something to bitch about on message boards. But I sympathized with his gentle self-mockery as someone whose 30th birthday looms not terribly far on the horizon. Then when the band won the Best New Artist award (see?), Ruess appeared even more vexed by the disconnects: between a New Artist award and a five year old band; between feeling too old for New Artist yet too green for Album of the Year; between turning thirty years old while your breakthrough song about being young and stupid shoots to #1 on the charts and later wins a major Grammy. "We're so old!" he exclaimed with a mixture of apology and embarrassment. Don't get me wrong: I'm not going to sit here and feel sorry for poor Mr. Ruess sitting at home with his Grammys and the dough pouring in from that goddamned song as well as the hits he wrote for Pink and Ke$ha. I simply found his psychological turmoil to be top notch human drama.


Prince

Prince was there, being Prince, which is in itself cause for celebration. I liked when he said "I love this song" before announcing Gotye and Kimbra's "Somebody That I Used to Know" as Record of the Year, even though I'm not sure I believe Prince listens to KIIS-FM. 

Prince awards Gotye and Kimbra Record of the Year with surprising grace

Moderately Nuanced Award Distribution

The lack of imagination among Grammy voters rivals even that of Top 40 radio programmers, which is why certain artists often sweep different awards across entire categories as if voters from outside a particular genre just went through and checked the same name because they'd heard of it (see Adele's six-for-six sweep in 2012 and seventh win this year for a live performance of a song that wasn't eligible this year otherwise; also Skrillex's two-year monopoly on the Dance categories, because Grammy voters don't have any idea what "dance music" means). But the major awards ended up spread out across a certain pool of acts, meaning nobody carried the night away but more acts got honored. Of course, these acts were almost all rock acts (and almost all men), as pointedly opposed to pop acts, which barely managed to get nominated at all much less take home a trophy. The music business is apparently still dominated by people who look down their noses at all of the acts that keep the business afloat so that the rest are able to make music that's less than a massive mainstream success. As Bonnie Raitt said on NPR's Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me, "Katy Perry helps pay for all those Americana acts that don't shave - men and women." But not only is pop music pop music, it's currently a genre dominated by women, which is why it's not in the least surprising that the Grammys nominated only men for Album of the Year and spent three and a half hours showering awards on male rock acts since rock music is in crisis and the boys can't deal with being trounced by a bunch of mostly blonde girls (unless they're fat girls from England, who apparently pose much less of a threat to the male sense of superiority). That said, I guess I'm not sure if this actually was a good thing about the Grammys after all, but I was pleasantly surprised at Gotye's Record of the Year win and felt more than a little schadenfreude as Frank Ocean was passed over for Best New Artist because I'd rather it go to an act I could take or leave than an act that has been so grossly overrated by unimaginative critics following the wave.


Adele to Fashion: "Fuck Off!"

Adele (in upholstery) supposedly confronting Chris Brown (not the case, but a good shot anyway)
Last year, I was annoyed by Adele at the Grammys, for no fault of her own but rather because of how Grammy voters' lack of imagination in the pop categories (by the way, why are there now only three pop vocal awards but four rap categories, five rock/alternative categories, and five R&B categories? And why are there songwriting awards in R&B, country, rock, and even RAP, but not pop? Aren't the Grammys essentially saying that pop songwriting is not worthy of award recognition and is somehow inferior to writing for those other genres? I mean, COUNTRY?) meant that the awards for the genre in which I specialize would not be competitive. This year, she rocked. When she got up on stage in those drapes like Carol Burnett in Gone With the Wind and made a joke about getting knocked up and the Mumford & Sons boys were obviously starstruck by being in her mere presence despite having just won the same award she'd won the previous year, I couldn't help grinning. Maybe it was because I knew the damn thing was almost over, or maybe it was how horrid yet brilliantly ballsy her dress was, or maybe I'd succumbed to Grammy delirium, but in any event, and even though I've never had any particular fondness for her, I was happy to see Adele close out the show.



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