And the Grammys go to… the Brits

Frankly my dears, I don’t give a damn who wins at the Grammys. The awards have never had much to do with what’s going on at the cutting edge of popular music, and as evidenced by the proliferation of trophies given out on Sunday night to Coldplay and Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, in the face of much more interesting competition, it’s evident that such conservatism won’t be changing any time soon.

But speed-watching the Awards Show last night, I came away with a couple of firmly positive impressions. The first regarded the telecast itself, which seemed to reflect a more exuberant determination than usual to blend musical cultures (which, by extension, also means a blending of the races). Certainly, the decision to highlight New Orleans’ continued plight three and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, with a performance that pitted Lil’ Wayne against Robin Thicke with Allen Toussaint – the kind of incongruous line-up that ONLY makes sense at something like the Grammys – indicated a healthy focus on social issues. And if you are going to put the Jonas Brothers on live TV to get the teen audience, you may as well have Stevie Wonder in the band to remind them just how good they have to be if they expect to still be around in 45 years. Chris Martin of Coldplay’s solo rendition of “Lost!” was greatly enlivened by a cameo from Jay–Z. And though Dave Grohl is in danger of becoming this year’s Awards show gadfly, the ex-Nirvana drummer provided Paul McCartney with the kind of backbeat he could use on the rendition of “I Saw Her Standing There.” (The less said about John Mayer getting to sit alongside Buddy Guy and B.B. King the better.)

Coldplay at the Grammys. Guest appearance by Jay-Z.

All these were watchable, but for me, there were two stand-out performances. The first was the all-too-easily-monikered Rap Pack, introduced by Queen Latifah and dressed to impress like Dean Martin: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I., who have enough platinum discs between them and enough diamonds upon them to prop up the world economy. Still, their throw-down of “Swagger Like Us” would not have been half as powerful without the presence of a nine-months-pregnant M.I.A., whose “Paper Planes” was truly THE song of the last year (or two) and whose glorious polka-dot outfit purposefully highlighted her momentarily-impending motherhood. In a performance celebrating a musical culture that has all-too-frequently traded on misogyny, the sight of the Sri Lankan/Brit/world traveler holding her own on the mike even as it appeared her waters might break in the process was a reminder that woman has always been the stronger sex. (The YouTube link is “disabled by request” but you can see it here.)

And it would be a cold-hearted individual who wouldn’t have been swayed by the appearance of the USC Trojans Marching Band on Radiohead’s “15 Steps.” I’ve not always been convinced that Radiohead’s experiments match the group’s admirable ambitions (my purchased copies of “Kid A” and “Amnesia” have been gathering dust for years), but Thom Yorke’s vocal delivery Sunday night, and the use of the brass and bass drums in place of the album version’s electronic beats, was nothing short of staggering. It’s one for the YouTube ages…

Radiohead at the Grammys. Guest appearance by the USC Marching Band

And this brings me to my other conclusion. It was hard not to note, as the show progressed, just how powerful a presence the Brits remain within the American music business. Literally four and half of the five nominees for Record of the Year were Brits and throughout the night, there were multiple performances, nominations and awards for the UK: old guard lions Robert Plant (with Alison Krause, of course) and Paul McCartney, mid-career rockers Coldplay and Radiohead (with Chris Martin’s wife Gwyneth Paltrow effusively introducing Yorke and co.), and singular relative newcomers M.I.A., Estelle, Duffy and Adele. The latter’s teary response to her Best New Artist award made me swell up with pride in the home country’s still-occasionally-extant humility. Good on her.

What does it all mean? For one, that the Grammy voters and TV producers hear something in Coldplay and Radiohead, in Adele and Estelle, that they don’t get from Oasis, Stereophonics, Girls Aloud and Glasvegas. (Thank God.) For another, that there’s every chance Lily Allen could be swearing from the podium next year, rather than merely looking on from the top of the UK charts, where she currently resides with the ab-fab single “The Fear.” And it means that in our downloadable world, where individual tracks nestle up against each other on the iPod even closer than our 7” singles once used to on our shelves, it’s ever harder to confine our artists (and their awards) to a single genre. Or; the music business may be hurting, but the business of making music looks as healthy as ever. Happy New Musical Year.

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December 2021