Kurt Loder On The Grammys: Close, But No Cigar

After years of lameness, Grammys finally come through — sort of.

Not bad. The Grammys are usually the snooziest of awards shows — and that’s saying something, given all the glut: the American Music Awards, the Billboard Music Awards, the Soul Train Music Awards, the World Music Awards, and of course, MTV’s annual Video Music Awards, which (call me biased) are pretty clearly the best of the hybrid award-show/pop-concert genre.

After years of being slagged for the lameness of the scripted banter imposed upon their presenters, their sometimes baffling choices for award winners and their often tired-ass taste in performers, the Grammy people have obviously spent a lot of time analyzing the VMAs. Thus, this year they went for more music (although in a sofa-sagging three-and-a-half-hour format) and also attempted to create more VMA-like “moments”: unusual pairings of people, both as presenters and performers. True, there was no real reason for Olympic gold-medal winner Sarah Hughes to be joining the Backstreet Boys in announcing one category, but the Boys realized this, and quickly elbowed her
aside. On the other hand, it was interesting to watch Christina Aguilera dominating the multi-diva “Lady Marmalade” extravaganza with her soaring voice — and then watch as Patti LaBelle (whose group, LaBelle, did the chart-topping 1974 rendition of the song) popped up out of nowhere, in full
shriek, and simply took over. (LaBelle materialized again later in the broadcast, in a commercial for a menopause medication.) And who is likely to forget (at least for the next couple of days) the sight of Destiny’s Child camping it up behind hot Latino star Alejandro Sanz, or star-of-the-night Alicia Keys slinking across the stage with tall, dark and tight-panted flamenco star (?) Joaquin Cortez. I mean, if you’ve gotta go slick and
over-produced, goofy-slick and over-produced is the way to go.

The banter was still a problem, starting with opening presenters Britney Spears and Matthew Perry. (“I think of you as a friend,” she told the “Friends” star. Said he: “I get that a lot.” Who writes this stuff? Do they just set their computers on auto-blab?) And the painful sight of Pamela Anderson, Jamie Foxx and the otherwise estimable Ja Rule straining — and
failing utterly — to be funny (with Foxx finally reduced to making a leering remark about Anderson’s famous home-porn video) must have sent a few million viewers racing for their refrigerators. Even the usually brilliant host, Jon Stewart, seemed a little off.

But there was more than the usual allotment of good stuff, too. Train were good, nice cello-player on the side. ‘NSYNC — not my kind of thing, really, but their collaborative romp with Nelly was well-done, right? (Apparently it’s impolitic to grab your crotch on the Grammy stage, so Nelly had to make do with occasionally lifting the hem of his shirt a bit.) Outkast were wonderful, as usual, rolling out “Ms. Jackson” one more time.

But U2 — the only rock band fronted by a world political leader — seemed a little sour at the beginning of their show-opening performance of “Walk On”. And Bob Dylan was … well, given the fact that he’s been performing for more than 40 years, and that he still spends a lot of each year on the road (coming soon to a state fair near you), he was atrocious. No other act this side of Chuck Berry seems to give less of a damn about presentation and backup — his band appeared to be playing three different songs at once. The lighting gave the impression that Dylan was mumbling at the bottom of a crater at a floodlit disaster site. And what was with the big box they were all standing in? Soy Bomb security?

Even more alarming — and this really must be said — was the irritating Canadian Nelly Furtado. Bad enough that she chose to perform her hit “I’m Like a Bird” (A crow? A woodpecker?) with the misguided art guitarist Steve Vai (a man too accomplished to have once played in Whitesnake, but who once played in Whitesnake nevertheless). But when she bounded up to collect her Grammy for that song (“Woo! Cool! Totally unexpected!”), she felt compelled to thank her record company “for recognizing artistic integrity.” May she
soon join Paula Cole in the land of the semi-retired.

Along with Michael Greene, one can only hope. Greene, the head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which runs the Grammys, was recently revealed to be paying himself some $2 million a year — making him the most lavishly compensated head of a non-profit group in the world, ’tis
said. None of Greene’s big bucks have been spent on public-speaking lessons, though. The man is an annual annoyance at the Grammys; but this year, his mini-tirade about Internet file-sharing, or music “piracy,” as he put it — well, it’s a very valid issue, don’t get me wrong. But addressing it in a tone of scolding condescension (to the accompaniment of occasional boos from the audience) isn’t likely to win over the un-converted.

The most edifying aspect of Grammy night this year was the triumph of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, which, pretty amazingly, won five awards, including Album of the Year. People say they’re startled that a bluegrass album could sell so well. (“O Brother” has sold more than 4 million copies to date, and after more than a year on the Billboard chart, it’s still
a top 20 hit.) But this is more than just a bluegrass album. There’s no shortage of those in record stores: the albums that “O Brother” standout Ralph Stanley made with the Stanley Brothers have never gone out of print; and the music of the Carter Family — heavily featured in the Coen Brothers’ film — was the subject last year of a 12-CD retrospective issued by the German Bear Family label.

What sets “O Brother” apart from these vintage works is, for one thing, the ability of movies to introduce old music to a new audience, and, for another, the ability of a gifted and determined producer — in this case, T-Bone Burnett, who also won a Producer of the Year Grammy on Wednesday — to reinvent the bluegrass sound for modern ears, creating a resonant new aural context for the ancient truths of the mountain-music canon.

This year’s Grammy show offered the usual moments of flash and dazzle, and interludes of cluelessness and empty celebrity, too. But in honoring “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” so copiously, the Grammy voters may have helped to point a possible new direction for popular music, one that’s anchored to a central root of the American musical tradition. Something real, in short. And
that was kind of inspiring.

For more Grammy news, check out the MTV News Grammy Archive .

Kurt Loder