Music lovers complaining about the out-of-touchness of the Grammy awards is like stand-up comedians complaining about airline food. Both are overdone and clichéd, but the frustration is a shared experience that people instantly identify with. With the Grammys, sometimes an unlikely win or loss is so infuriating and baffling, people can’t help but go ballistic. This year’s event was a rollercoaster that reflected both the Grammys’ perpetual practice of giving trophies to irrelevant and/or the “safest” artists and the program’s well-intentioned efforts of late to get with the times. I can’t remember ever describing a Grammys ceremony as “shocking,” but this year’s was full of surprises both pleasant and mind-numbingly inexplicable.
Although every year I find myself somewhat excited to tune into the Grammys telecast, I usually end up flipping channels 10 minutes in when I realize, “Oh yeah, this usually sucks pretty badly.” This year was no different (and Fox’s “Animation Domination” was on at the same time), so I only caught random chunks of the 2011 ceremonies.
I again saw plenty of performances that didn’t do much for me, but also a few that were, at the very least, interesting and, at most, riveting. The Bruno Mars/BoB/Janelle Monae was surprisingly exciting, and not just because Mars was playing drums (very well, in fact) and BoB could hold his own on guitar. (Monae’s solid, energetic performance was less surprising because I’ve witnessed her magic in concert before.) Mick Jagger proved he still has it, taking over the show for a tribute to the late Soul legend Solomon Burke in which the Stones frontman commanded the stage and had the audience in the palm of his hand. If not the greatest band frontman of all time, then who?
Cee Lo was fabulous in his enormous, Technicolor-nightmare peacock outfit, performing a version of “Fuck You” with a stage full of puppets crafted by Jim Henson’s company. But amidst this dazzling array of colors and sights, Gwenyth Paltrow’s appearance as Cee Lo’s duet partner was senseless and off-putting, even if she does have a not-horrible voice. And it was great to see Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers get some stage time and eventually back up Bob Dylan, though his voice and confused look made me feel sorry for the aging legend. Still, what a cool moment for the two modern Folk ensembles, whose members all looked like they had just heard their numbers called in a $500 million lottery drawing
The hep spoken-word spiel by the Recording Academy’s president over light Jazz music was hilarious (unintentionally), but my favorite funny moment was when Cee Lo’s song was consistently announced as “The Song Otherwise Known as ‘Forget You’.” I imagine Cee Lo or someone in his camp came up with the censors-friendly fix, but if it was someone from the Grammys, then kudos for showing a sense of humor.
But the three biggest shocks came via four of the biggest awards of the night. Canadian Indie Rock faves Arcade Fire scoring the Best Album award was stunning, a triumph for independent, non-corporate labels like Merge, the imprint founded by members of Superchunk in North Carolina for which AF records. The band’s second, post-win song at the end of the broadcast was reportedly not planned (something that rarely occurs during the Grammys) and watching the AF members’ faces in total stunned shock and joy was goosebump-worthy.
But more shocking were the awards for Best Song and Best Record, both of which went to the easy-listening Pop Country band Lady Antebellum and its hit ballad “Need You Now.” In both categories, the group’s nomination seemed like a token Country inclusion amongst the other more contemporary and colorful songs. The winning tune is by no means awful, but the songwriting is merely a couple strong hooks better than a million other typical, uninspired songs pumped out of Nashville’s music machine. And the production (which is what the “Best Record” trophy allegedly is based on, mostly) is just fine, but far from earth-shaking. Or even interesting, for that matter.
The New Artist category is almost always a trainwreck, with confusing rules about who can be considered “new” and a track record of winners never heard from again. I was thrilled that Esperanza Spalding won the award for her creative take on slinky Jazz, but it seemed odd given her competition, which included some heavyweight superstars. At first, I pitied all of those Justin Bieber fans who stayed up past their bedtime to watch the Pop star win an armload of prizes (he went home without a single award). But then I read about all of the online attacks on Spalding by Bieber brats and felt even happier about Spalding’s big victory.
It was upset city at the Grammys last night, for better or worse. It was still a mess, but a more entertaining one that usual, providing reason to tune in next year (if there's nothing better on that night). The biggest losers weren’t Justin Bieber or any of the other artists who lost their chance to hold up that golden gramophone. The biggest losers were the weirdos who actually place big bets on who will win. The odds-makers’ picks were often disastrously off the mark, making perhaps the biggest winners of the night the gamblers who bet big on Esperanza Spalding and Arcade Fire, whose odds of winning were on par with the odds each year of the Pittsburgh Pirates winning the World Series. I hope all of the upset victors get fruit baskets from those risk-taking, newly-wealthy gamblers.