The Grammy Issue

The Grammy Awards are that one Sunday night every January, when for a few brief hours, I try to imagine what people on other continents (in not other planets) think of America when they watch this silly, frivolous, super glam display of Las Vegasness come to the Staples Center. How incredibly ridiculous we must look to the rest of the world. During the telecast, I’m liable to claim I’m from Canada. By the end, I want to take a shower and scrub off the sleaze. The whole thing is so bad, so not about music, that I have to change channels throughout the telecast if only to cleanse my palette. Last night at one point, I flipped over to the hi def Palladia network and there was a Britney video of her tune, “Womanizer,” which was nominated for a Grammy but lost to Lady Gaga. Owing to the fact that much of the video takes place in a sauna, with Brit writhing around nude (creatively covering her nasty bits), the contrast between Spears skin and the absolute nonsense that was goin’ on in L.A. made Little Miss Crazy look like the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Let’s start with the host, Stephen Colbert who was too stiff for this kind of show, and his attempts at being a cheerleader for the music business were painful to watch. He did however manage to get in a couple of zingers, when he kicked off the first presentation by saying, “Now let’s give each other awards.” His tweak of Jay Z, when he pulled out his iPad and ask Z whether or not he’d gotten one in his goodie bag was fun to the point that Z himself had to laugh. The whole night was the Beyonce/Jay Z celebration. Beyonce—that woman has some thighs on her damn!—came out with this military–themed big production number that included a quote from Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know,” before Beyonce got on her knees and swung her hair in a move that had to be seen to be believed.

Of course Beyonce looked like Garbo compared to Pink’s Flashdance–meets–Cirque du Soleil meets a high class strip joint. If you didn’t see it, there’s no way to describe it. Load up the version and see for yourself. It involved her being basically nude, suspended from bandages from the roof and then spinning around while singing and then being dunked in water and twirling as the drops flew. It was the night’s weirdest moment. But hey, if you lack talent never fear: the Grammys aren’t about music, they’re about pageant and spectacle. And censorship. And young fresh faces like Taylor Swift who could not sing harmony with the great Stevie Nicks to save her life. Swift is too scrubbed clean to watch. Really, I cannot watch her and her 19–year–old blonde tresses, although I will give her credit for performing with a low key Americana band rather than in some big shiny production number.

As for censorship, at first I assumed the B grade technogeeks at CBS were merely fucking up the audio portion of the show, but then it dawned on me that the audio drop outs were deliberate and someone’s hot little finger was hovering over the bleep button which in this case was merely silence, no actual bleep. So pitiful. There should be a real version that’s carried on cable so those for whom “FAMILY VALUES” are a synonym for RANK HYPOCRISY can watch it with all the big bad words left in. And how does Pink get to parade around in a nude leotard and every other word of Eminem’s rhyming was cut? So weird.

Before this entire post is swamped with negativity let me mention that few and far between scraps of reality and real music that somehow slipped into last night’s idiocy. It was good to hear and see Jeff Beck if only for a few minutes. Leon Russell and Waddy Wachtel also both made very welcome appearances as sidemen. My dear friend Ken Weinstein and his publicity/management agency, Big Hassle Media, got a wonderful and well–deserved shout out on national television from Kings of Leon when they won, Record of the Year. Congrats Ken!! And KOL!!! First time I heard it, I knew, “Use Somebody” was the kind of solid, hooky, tune that would push them to a higher level. Sometimes the Grammys, yes, even the Grammys, manage a wonderful surprise or two and this year it came in the form of the very inspired pairing of Alice Cooper and Katy Perry to present Best Rock Album and the performing duo of two of my least favorite artists (or most favorite objects of scorn) Mary J, Blige and Andrea Bocelli, both of whom seriously sang their asses off on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Brought on to pump his musical movie, Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges actually mentioned Louis Armstrong’s name which I considered a major moral victory of sorts considering that fact that half the “artists” in the arena have never I’m sure heard a Pops cut even though they are “stars.” The Grammys very slight connection to the past was maintained with the In Memorium montage when artists like Jim Dickinson, Stephen Bruton, Jay Bennett, Vic Chestnut, Les Paul and Sam Butera were honored along with famed Living Presence record producer Wilma Cozart Fine

My favorite moment of all though was when Wyclef Jean offhandedly commented that “even if there ain’t no more record companies,” and a ripple of nervous laughter echoed across the arena. All the glam masked the hard truth that the record biz is in serious trouble. And in case you weren’t aware who sells records these days and who doesn’t, the performers and the awards given live told the tale. Country music and Hip Hop sell and so were featured. Classical music and Jazz no longer pull their weight in sales and so get no presence at the Grammys. Even rock was marginalized. Seeing Bon Jovi, the night’s “big” rock act, submit to being forced to play “Living on a Prayer” because fans chose it from three possibilities up for a vote on was pathetic.

Audio gear heads got a special nod this year when during the Black Eyed Peas much bleeped performance, the stage was filled with robots clad in bookshelf–sized speakers that had been sawed in half and spray painted metallic silver. That and a commercial from Harmon International were the only signs that audiophiles even exist.

Greg's picture

Well done and well said.We watched most of the show, with the TV muted and listening to I See Hawks in LA. A strange pairing but it worked well.Thanks.Greg

jrmandude's picture

long live lester bangs

Astor's picture

Agreed. I hope this is the final nail in the Taylor Swift coffin. Same goes for most of the acts that appeared come to think of it.

Tim K's picture

The Grammy's have been a joke for more than 20 years now. Seriously, I'm 41 and can't remember a time when they had any true meaning or connection with the art they pretend to represent.

zane9's picture

It's ok to admit you're actually a Canadian. I am!The Blige-Bocelli duet was an amazing performance and my personal favorite of the broadcast. The low point was Taylor cutie-pie trying to sing on-key with Stevie Nicks. My wife and I looked at each other with the same expression of horror!

Rex's picture

I think the Stevie & Taylor "duet" is a great indication of just how bad music has become. Most pop music is nothing more than marketing garbage for soft drink companies. It's okay though most people see through the bullshit hype and just download the music. Why pay for a whole CD when 10 of the 12 tracks are garbage?

Steve Dollar's picture

There are two Grammy Awards: The one for the celebs and the one for the real industry backbones. I'm happy that my friend Lance Ledbetter, of Dust-to-Digital, was up again in the best historical box set category for another great rare gospel set. The bullshit factor was high this year, though ... and maybe the Taylor Swift performances were too revealing of her weaknesses as a singer, but she wasn't hiding behind Auto Tune. Her karaoke act, well ... at least it was REAL. I didn't make it to Mary J (and wonder what it is about her that bugs Mr. Baird so much). Opted out for a crappy Nic Cage horror flick.

zane9's picture

Congrats to your friend, Steve. My favorite "real industry" award was to Imogen Heap - -a massively talented songwriter and performer and someone completely in control of technology. She won for Best Engineered Album, Non Classical.

Austin's picture

To me there's at least something to be said for spectacle for spectacle's sake.... the Pink act was pretty cool actually. And at least it was produced, as opposed to a reality show.That said, we watched about 15 minutes.

Bill's picture

Not that Nicks has a great voice, but she's clearly better than little Taylor Swift. Swift can't sing. My wife & daughter listen to her CD and I can't listen to it. Wafer thin voice, even if she's on Auto Tune. Live, she's even worse.Music hasn't been good in the last 25 years or more. It's pretty sad that rock stations now only play music from the mid-60s thru 1980 (Pink Floyd-The Wall.) There's nothing new that's great or memorable.How many of today's Beyonce/Spears/Swift artists will be remembered in 20 years?

Daniel's picture

What's sadder is that (in my opinion) there HAS been some superb music released in the last 25 years, but discovering it can be a matter of pure serendipity.The prevailing commercial landscape means that they just don't get the 'power-sell' that can propel a photogenic bimbo/himbo (aided by some serious studio trickery) to the top of the charts and all over the started with the pop industry and, in the last 10 years or so, has deeply infected the classical scene. If you thought the Grammys were appalling, make sure you never see a British awards ceremony called 'The Classical Brits'. You'll want to ram hot needles through your ears and sandpaper off your eyeballs.

Bill's picture

I agree with Daniel that there has been some superb music in the last 25 years. But there was a time when music stations would break new songs by "old" acts, break new artists and get you into buying an album. At least for me, it used to be exciting to hear a song on the radio and I couldn't wait to sit down experience the music at home. There has always been disposable pop and there's nothing wrong with that. But it seemed that there were artists who had something to say, something to sing and they could play their own instruments. Now most everything on the radio is disposable, digitized, & Pro-Tooled. Radio is dominated with so much quick, get-you-hooked mentality. I don't imagine Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus or Beyonce singing about the madness of war or being ticked about the economy. But this is what has become of music.

Paul S.'s picture

I didn't watch the Grammys. I won't watch any award show that features celebrities patting each other on the backs.I did see the Taylor Swift thing on Youtube and all I can figure is that people don't care about quality at all anymore. Whatever happened to talent?There really hasn't been much memorable music in the last 30 years. Sure, a few songs have fallen through the cracks but overall most of it is has been tripe.There were a few bright spots in the early 90s. Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, etc. But then the "boy bands" reappeared and it all went to hell again and now pop music has stuck in "tween" mode for a decade and counting.

Bombast's picture

"Music hasn't been good in the last 25 years or more." Yawn"all I can figure is that people don't care about quality at all anymore." Yaaawn"there HAS been some superb music released in the last 25 years, but discovering it can be a matter of pure serendipity." YAWWWNNNSeriously, what a bunch of pathetic dribble, all over a once a year awards show. Baird your better than though preaching is a key reason why "audiophile" has no resonance with today's youth. If it's not "my" kind of music then it's "crap". "This young generation I tells ya..." Whatever there grandpa, go back to listening to your "quality" music on that fifty thousand dollar system, cause, you know, it's not really music unless you can hear it properly. As for not being able to access quality music, umm, it's a little something called Internet, and it's opened up a world of selection, but oh, that's right, music can't be listened to from computers without high priced DACs, outboard amps, On behalf of the youth of the world, YAWN!

Chris Connaker's picture

I actually enjoyed the Grammys. I love music and watching live performances. I'll take Taylor Swift's new album, containing all songs written and performed by Taylor, over an album of Chinese toothpick flicking that sounds spectacular any day. I also thought it was really cool to see how excited Taylor appeared when she won Album of the year. Contrast this to when Steely Dan won album of the year for Two Against Nature, an album I own and love. Those guys almost had to be nudged in their chairs to wake up when their name was called. One thing Country Music has done correct in their awards is to give away an entertainer of the year award. They realize some of this stuff is more entertainment than music. I frequently tell my friends that Britney Spears is an entertainer not necessarily a singer or musician. I've been to a Britney concert and was very entertained. She didn't sing a lick but I had fun. I've also seen Clapton at Royal Albert Hall and had just as much fun. I love music and music entertainment.

Bill's picture

Some of us old farts on here are in their 40s, far from being grandparents. There are many reasons why being an "audiophile" allegedly has no resonance to today's youth. One is the illusion that it's for only the rich (it isn't if you shop correctly). Yes, the Internet opened up a lot of selection in music. But most of it is based on poor sounding audio files. It does make a difference in how you hear and experience music. A lot of today's music is flash. It has been for a long time. Not to say that U2 or the Rolling Stones aren't flashy. But at least they can sing (Jagger..well, he's Mick and he's got a great band and song catalog) How many times have you sat down to listen to a Britney Spears or Taylor Swift album? American Idol, Disney Channel & Internet helped take music down to the quality of karoke. When I was growing up, sonny, I used to listen to my dad's albums from the 60s/70s. You don't need an audiophile system to appreciate great music, but it doesn't hurt.

Norm's picture

Every time the Grammy's come on T.V., I remember the Simpson's cartoon where Homer gets hit by one, and upon realizing what it is, also throws it away.Like all awards shows; a total waste of time.

Bombast's picture

"You don't need an audiophile system to appreciate great music, but it doesn't hurt." - actually the best music experiences I've had are in my car with its less than stellar speakers, on my computer with it's $50 speakers, and, wait for it, on my iPod. And btw I happen to own a fairly nice dedicated "audiophile" system $6K. Or rather did, after the past three years on the audiophile merry-go-round fuelled by industry mags like stereophile constantly flogging the next best thing I'm selling my gear and downsizing to a simple iPod based system. Why is that for about $1500 you can get a state of the art 47 inch tv that when paired with a basic blueray player will provide stunning results but with audio that same investment barely buys you an "entry level" amp?? Hell, for many "audiophiles" it doesn't even by speaker cable or interconnects. Video, particularly to the quality now seen with Bluray, is a hell of a lot more difficult to achieve than audio nirvana, yet achieved it's been, and at a fraction of the cost

Paul S.'s picture

Bombast: I agree with you about the high-end merry-go-round. It does seem as though nothing is ever good enough, though I remember being totally engrossed in the music as a teenager while listening through VERY cheap equipment. In the end you have to settle on what is best for you. For me its a vintage Adcom CD player, a modified Dynaco ST70 tube amp, and PSB Alpha B1 speakers[there cheapies were highly recommended by this very magazine a few years back]. That's it. My whole system for around 1k. Humble, yet satisfying. I do disagree with you about the state of modern music. It is dull and boring. Just look at Taylor Swift, it doesn't get much more boring than that. Even Lady Gaga with all of here outfits is still a tired, old formula. It's all been done before[and better]. Pop music desperately needs to turn a corner but there is nowhere to turn. So we end up with countless re-hashes and Disney confections for the kids to spend their parent's money. 1969 it is not! [and I wasn't even born yet in 1969!]

Bill's picture

I've also enjoyed songs from my car stereo, my iPod, and hold your breath, transistor radio! Some of my best musical experiences came from my Sanyo rack system. But a good "entry level" pre-amp/amp can make a big difference in how a person experiences music. It doesn't mean a person has to mortgage their kid's college fund to get there. Some audio components cost a lot compared to massive TV/Blu-ray mfrs because they are made by much smaller companies. Ayre, VTL, Vandersteen, etc. invest in R&D and use higher quality parts and outstanding engineering. You can hear the difference. I like Blu-ray, too, but I wouldn't consider it a good source for great audio, especially on music (the new Denon player might be an exception). It comes down to what you enjoy. As for Lady Gaga and her processed music, she owes thx to Bowie, Elton, Queen and I hate to say it, Madonna (!).

kc's picture

I did not see the grammies and had no desire to watch the dreck. I am older and remember when the fifth dimesion beat the beatles in a song category for a grammie. Yeah right, better than the beatles, sure, yup. I guess as a music critic you had to watch and comment on it. My hat is off to you for being able to somewhat tolerate it.There is great music out now, you just have to find an independent station that actually plays it.

Nathan's picture

This generation's dreck is next generation's 'ain't what it used to be'. I'm not saying I care for any of the aforementioned performers, but I've heard/read pretty much the same criticisms Baird is using, directed at 2Pac, Madonna, NWA, Public Enemy, U2, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, the Beatles, Elvis, Coltrane, Hancock, Miles Davis, Hendrix, Johnny Cash, *insert your own sacred cow here*.There's no empirical method to determine how good a performer/songwriter/singer is or isn't. So what I hear is a bunch of pontificating on subjective matters as if they were somehow ontological.

Chris Mayer's picture

Agreed Im 23 and am sick of this so called "music scene" , i dont even bother watching that crap , i would rather listen to my Magico V3's and enjoy my music even tho most music is compressed to crap anyways.

RAB's picture

My single biggest issue with the state of the music industry is the old 'it's all been done before' argument. The 60's brought us psychedelia and experimental rock, the 70's arena and prog rock, the 80's metal and synth pop, the 90's..well, I guess I'll begrudgingly give the 90's 'grunge'. Hell, even as much as I despise rap it was still something new to the scene! But anything I hear released within the past 15-20yrs is just a poor imitation...

Nathan's picture

RAB, what are you saying? There hasn't really been anything new in music since Jazz, unless you count experimental stuff like Captain Beefheart. Those "new" forms you mention are just reorganizations of the same thing. They differ from each other mainly by choice of instrument, trends in progressions, and most significantly production styles. Heck, even rap isn't new. Johnny Cash was intoning his lyrics in a rythmic fashion before most of the hip-hop pioneers were even born. Listen to "A Boy Named Sue" and tell me that isn't the same thing, albeit with live instrumentation versus samplers and turntables. It's ALL imitation, whether they realize it or not.

buddha's picture

Interesting to see that "Las Vegasness" has surpassed Hollywood's aura to become the pinnacle of metaphors for wretched excess.

Reminds me of alot of Hi Fi gear, these days!

zuberjk's picture

I will never understand people's demands that ALL music be meaningful,introspective or metaphorical. Most of today's pop is made for a purpose, the quick enjoyment by one of the most powerful comsumer bases out there, teenagers/young adults. In this mission, making a song meaningful or deep is a much less important goal than making it marketable or catchy. But is this necessarily a BAD thing? Some music is made to just be enjoyable, danceable, or to be sang at the top of your teenage lungs driving in your first car. Pop music may be empty in many ways, but to say it is categorically bad is a shortsighted viewpoint. It has a purpose, and that purpose is fulfilled. If the intended audience enjoys the music that you may despise, isn't that a good thing? Wouldn't that be deemed a success? Impactful, moving, and emotionally charged music has its place, but it sometimes doesnt lie in the heart of the greater public, who may just want a quick, cheap toe-tapper for the way home from work or school.

DLKG's picture

Why do people keep saying there is no good new music anymore? C'mon just turn on the internet. Go to Pandora and put the name of your favorite band in. I have found so much great stuff that I never knew existed. Then instead of downloading the low rez files buy the CD or LP.