Poor Michael Greene. Here the NARAS president/CEO thought he had finally made the Grammys relevant by creating a flash point of controversy (and ratings bonanza) by uniting irresponsible id Eminem with the still-standing Elton John. The ceremony would be hip! Exciting! Talked about! Tres moderne! Then the voters of his organization go and award Album of the Year to ... Steely Dan, for their reunion album Two Against Nature. Hands up if you've heard it. Didn't think so.
For youngsters wondering if Mr. Dan has ever appeared on a Dr. Dre album, here's a lesson: He's actually a pair of smart-ass songwriters who were big in the '70s. While Eminem uses Spin as a bully pulpit, Dan-sters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker hide behind session musicians. While Eminem rhymes about being pissed-off trash, they cop their name from a sex toy found in William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. They may be the only group ever to send a song that was either about a gay pickup, a drug dealer, or Rick Derringer "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" into the top five. Judging from the way Fagen now resembles the hunchback of Passaic, he's not in Tommy Hilfiger's Palm Pilot. Sorry Mike, but the old boss isn't going anywhere.
Madonna seemed to acknowledge that a generation gap was in the house in her opening performance of "Music," writhing before a giant screen that flashed images from a career that blossomed during the very time Steely Dan had been dormant. It was as if she were ready to give herself a Living Legend award. Instead, Maddy delighted in being endearingly useless. Eighteen years still hasn't taught her how to dance, but her nod to Aleem's electro jam "Release Yourself" and a bongo break straight out of the record collection of her old '80s beau Jellybean Benitez suggested she was indeed reeling in the years.
Other old pros didn't have as quite a firm grasp on second childhood. Paul Simon's Afro-pop grooves are now as laboriously preened as Steely Dan's, and by way of stagecraft all his performance of "You're the One" showed us was a few expressive hand motions that suggested he had closely studied Joel Grey's Oscar-winning turn in Cabaret.
Destiny's Child had the same idea, stealing Sally Bowles' bowler hat albeit studded with this year's fashion essential, the rhinestone and a few strategically placed pieces of fabric to storm through a medley of "Independent Women Part 1" and "Say My Name" like they were determined to make Elton John a heterosexual again. Sadly, the Best Bump 'n' Grind Routine Grammy category went out with universal suffrage, otherwise even my bookie could say lead singer Beyoncé's name correctly.
There was more nostalgia when Moby and Jill Scott teamed up with Blue Man Group for what host Jon Stewart assured us would be a tremendously experimental performance of "Natural Blues." While Moby's song made the audience nostalgic for a word from our sponsors and Jill Scott made me wonder whatever happened to Lauryn Hill, the Blue Man Group made like Laurie Anderson trapped in a laundromat. Very downtown. Somewhere Robert Mapplethorpe was taking a photo of an angel with butt cheeks spread wide. Earlier, 'NSYNC made a real claim for the performance art crown with some technical sleight of hand that turned the TV so black and white I thought their maudlin ballad heralded the return of Your Show of Shows.
Memories were still the order of the day when it came to the other performances. Faith Hill's orchestra-swamped version of "Breathe" only needed Neil Diamond to break the schmaltz-o-meter, while you youngsters should know that Bono has been doing that walking into the audience shtick since Steely Dan's last album. Sheryl Crow and stonefaced Best New Artist winner Shelby Lynne probably miffed that she was wearing a shirt designed for Shania Twain wrought plenty of emotion from a sobbing steel guitar, but it was up to Dolly Parton to remind us that some singers can be legendary and carry a tune at the same time.
Best Double Act had to go to Record of the Year presenters Joni Mitchell and Carlos Santana, who share 114 annums between them and traded quips with the gritted teeth of a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis reunion. U2 must have been terrified to pick the award up from such a frosty old guard, although Santana's wry tease that John Coltrane's A Love Supreme was the winner was more spontaneous than anything he's done in the last decade.
The venerable Robbie Robertson dripped even more venom when, presenting the Best Native American Music Album award, he noted that Indian activist Leonard Peltier still has not been pardoned. "Maybe he's not Marc Rich enough," surmised the former Band helmsman to the blank-faced crowd. Memo to Robertson's gag writer: Remember 25 percent of the Grammy audience are drummers.
The Grammys weren't the only thing getting old. By the time Christina Aguilera emerged from a moon-shaped pod ready to demand "Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia" in eight octaves or less, this spectator was reaching for the Vivarin. But in between advertisements that discouraged prejudice and encouraged kneecapping the 7-Up guy, the announcers promised us an epochal Elton/Eminem appearance. Thankfully, there was a classical performance to doze through.
The most irritating part of Elton John's musical contribution was that it denied the rather lovely Dido of any exposure, and "Stan" ultimately reveled in the pointlessness of the collaboration. John is too professional to let something like an unfamiliar key interfere with his stentorian rumble, while the network censors rendered the entire song Swiss cheese except for the all-important "sh--s" and "f---s." With John's Casio keyboard lending "Stan" all the sterility of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," Eminem's sad song said so little.
But the rapper couldn't have asked for a more ironic coda. What would Eminem's archetypal fan Stan think of the way things turned out, as the artist of the moment was trumped by two curmudgeonly pop professors delighting in a punch line worthy of one of their own albums? Eminem would have him ease the deacon blues with some gasoline and a copy of Aja. We ordinary music fans went to bed.