The 57th annual Grammy Awards were another showcase of mostly mediocre music and an unabashed advertisement for the host television network, CBS. There were no major breakthroughs, surprises or flubs. The main reason I watched was the enormously popular work by Sam Smith, whom I wanted to see perform, speak and, hopefully, win (which he did—four times).
Smith, who paired for a warm and inviting duet with Mary J. Blige of his introspective hit song about the one-night stand, “Stay with Me”, spoke with humor and rationality. He spoke of the man with whom he fell in love that broke his heart and led to his writing the tune. He also spoke of choosing to stop living for others and instead being true to himself as the turning point in achieving his goal. What he said is especially insightful for one so young and I have every reason to believe he’ll have a great career in music. Read my review of his brave album, In the Lonely Hour, which has sometimes been damned with faint praise for lyrics that are too plain—the more I listen, the more I think his simple, rhyming words are among his top talents—here.
Other Grammy highlights included a spontaneous Paul McCartney grooving to the music, Usher exuding confidence while singing a Stevie Wonder song while accompanied by a harpist, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine singing with a slouching, lackluster Gwen Stefani and carrying the song by himself very nicely and good performances by Beck, Ed Sheeran and Electric Light Orchestra’s founder Jeff Lynne. I wanted to like what Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett were doing while singing about dancing to “Cheek to Cheek” though I thought it was a missed opportunity. I thought Annie Lennox, formerly of Eurythmics, expelled a lot of energy during her performance.
The problem with the show is that it feels overly staged and forced, with these highly pre-ordained and publicized duets and “mash-ups” or mixtures of songs, artists and styles. There’s an excess of publicity pummeling viewers with promotional Tweets and posts and then an excess of performances that rarely live up to the hype. The announcer kept overselling each number during the telecast, forecasting that everyone would be talking about this or that part of the show. The effect is distracting and depleting. I wish they’d just put on a show and let it be, handing out awards here and there. Good music usually comes with some degree of spontaneity.
There wasn’t much that felt unrehearsed tonight, from the see-through dresses to the pedantic, preachy appearance by the president about creating “a society where violence isn’t tolerated” even as he addressed an audience with prominently violent ex-convicts and as he urges compromise with an Islamic dictatorship that subjugates women, homosexuals and freethinkers. The heavy-handed rap song from the movie Selma, prefaced by a religious song by Beyonce, felt preachy, too, with rapper and actor Common ending with a display of his fist to the audience after lecturing them in a rap infused with the idea that the collective matters more than the individual.
Rapper Kanye West appeared in sweat pants, looked down and rapped to an apparent electronic manipulation of his voice. Madonna—introduced as “my bitch” by Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj—did her typical routine, emasculating the faceless male dancers, who were once again denigrated and objectified, which appears to be Madonna’s only artistic statement. She dressed as a matador—surrounded by men dressed as bulls—and, after taking the bulls by the horns, ended up being gored to death by them. This came with Obama’s message urging pop stars to lead by example about violence against women.
The only Grammys theme, if any, to emerge, was faith. “I’m at your service, Lord,” Grammy winner Pharrell Williams announced to no one in particular after doing a gothic or death-themed version of his song “Happy”. Beyonce thanked God and so did many others and there were so many choir singers that it felt at times like watching the Christian Broadcasting Network. I half expected Mike Huckabee or some big-haired evangelist to come out and start slapping and singing right along. Indeed, the infidel was relegated to representation by AC/DC’s performance of “Highway to Hell”. Even an Imagine Dragons song during an ad for Target confessed contrition. No one dared to say Je Suis Charlie.
On the other hand, when Mary J. Blige reached out to Sam Smith as they sang the aching, gospel-tinged “Stay with Me”, they finished the song together, ending in an embrace after the performance. Affirming a common bond, they achieved through music a real sense of amity. This is the 57th annual Grammy awards’ telecast’s most genuine moment. There were others, but this is the music and moment which will stay with me.