Why do I hate the Grammys so? In large part because the Recording Academy, the name used by the organization that presents the annual telecast, purports to speak for the music industry writ large. It doesn’t. There isn’t a music industry, there are several parallel and unequal music industries. The Recording Academy limned out one of these parallel industries this year when they eliminated almost half of their awards, including a substantial number that presented Grammys in more “ethnic” categories, including several Latin awards, large and growing potential audience or not.
The Grammy Awards celebrate the big Music Industry, the one that has the lock on radio formats and televised singing contests, and that still manages to move lots of hard copies of recorded products. I could call it mainstream, but I think it’s an idea of mainstream more than a material mainstream. Or, I could call it the “residual” music industry, but there are ways in which it is still dominant, at least in theory. The Grammy Awards are one of the ways that it maintains that fiction. Throw a big, glossy celebration on television, feature bands that people like me wouldn’t know if they stopped us on the street and gave us a special performance, allow a controlled amount of crossover from one of the parallel music industries (sorry, Justin Vernon, that you showed up to receive your award at all kind of cancels out your reluctant acceptance speech), and call it Music’s Biggest Night. This year it kind of worked, as the telecast drew its best ratings since 1984. But the show may have drawn that audience only because of the death of one of the self-proclaimed Music Industry’s most representative artists, Whitney Houston, the day before. That, and the hype about Adele, who as predicted swept the Grammy table, taking home six of them.
For a while it seemed like the broadcast was hastily re-engineered into a Whitney-fest, squeezing in “Grammy moments” featuring Houston. The evening’s host, LL Cool J, led the audience in the Staples Center and presumably, those at home, in a prayer for Houston. Many artists and presenters said kind words about Houston throughout the evening, and Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” was moving and for a program riddled with overblown (Nicki Minaj) or underthought (whatever that dance tribute to Don Cornelius was) routines, nicely conceived.
Overall the program felt like a transmission from 1984 or 1985, before digital technologies ravaged the Music Industry’s bottom line, but with modern set design and technological trickery. In this vision of 1984, wife or partner abuse hadn’t yet emerged as an important social and cultural problem, so the Recording Academy presented us with three appearances by Chris Brown, even as his victim, Rihanna, participated in the proceedings. In this 1984, rock, or rawk, still rools! Especially Brooce! Bruce Springsteen opened, singing a populist anthem about how “we take care of our own.” Perhaps he should write a check to the many musicians in one of the parallel music industries who are living without healthcare, or otherwise scraping by. I stopped counting after the four shots of Paul McCartney and his wife in the first ten minutes. James Brown, er, Bruno Mars followed dressed for the Apollo even further back, circa 1964.
As much as I don’t want to, during this telecast I found myself agreeing with Simon Reynolds. Retromania has taken over music, there’s nothing new going on. Then again, in the Grammy’s Music Industry, there’s no retromania because the record-selling/reissuing oldsters haven’t gone away. The list of aging performers included what’s left of the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, Paul McCartney (twice), the Foo Fighters (twice) and Tony Bennett. Several very bland newer bands, reminding me of some of the white mainstream of the 1980s (remember Christopher Cross, anyone?) also performed. Country was represented in several rather conservatively staged numbers, and yet another Taylor Swift diss of Kanye West (a no-show). Oh, Bonnie Raitt was half of a too-short tribute to Etta James. In this parallel universe represented by the Grammy Awards, women don’t rock or do much beyond dance and dress up as smurfs in bondage gear (yes, I’m talking about you, Katy Perry). Or they do the obligatory “I’ve reached the point in my career in which I must take on the Catholic Church” number (Nicki Minaj) that seems de rigeur for every pop artist in since Madonna in, you guessed it, the mid-1980s.
Unless they’re Adele. I like Adele, and Rolling in the Deep is the rare ubiquitous song whose enduring earworm is not at all annoying. I like her look, and the fact that she’s zaftig and proud of it. Her sound is at the same time a throwback and contemporary. It’s a true crossover, much like Houston’s 25 years earlier. And it sells lots and lots of records. As deserving as she is, I fear that Adele’s coronation as the new Queen of Pop could decrease the volume of other, more adventurous, more diverse voices on the pop scene. (Scepter or not, Lady Gaga was a non-presence at this year’s awards.) Then again, the Grammy’s celebrate those who still move large quantities of recorded product, and that more than any other agenda will continue to drive their award ceremony for years to come. I don’t think I’ll be watching.