Before anything else, I have to give serious props to Jennifer Hudson for doing her acapella tribute to Whitney Houston, whose death at age 48 cast a noticeable pall over the otherwise celebratory evening. With a photo of the recently deceased pop legend hanging over her and millions watching, Hudson pushed back her emotions to deliver a rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” that few could pull off in any situation, let alone one with that kind of pressure. She proved herself a true professional and a peer worthy of comparison to other superstar divas like Houston.
Beyond that stand-out moment, the Grammys offered what seemed to be a house divided in the music world, some of which was reassuring, and some of which simply made me feel old and out of touch.
As for the latter, nothing struck me as more self-consciously ridiculous and desperate than Nicki Minaj’s “Roman Holiday” performance. A haphazard mix of religious iconoclasm and shock-pop weirdness, her set was symptomatic of a handful of performers who seem intent on battling one another in a race to the top of “look at me” mountain. I mean, compared to dancers shoving their crotches in the faces of young altar boys and an awkward blend of S & M kitsch with Catholic tradition, Katy Perry’s, um, bouncy spandex performance stood no chance of being remembered.
The pair, along with the likes of Lady Gaga, actually do a disservice to their great talent, in my opinion, by shrouding it in so much pageantry that their true ability is nearly lost. Sure, pop music is about entertaining, but there’s a fine line between being provocative with substance and engaging in an orgy of self-absorbed personal expression, while neglecting to think about what exactly it is that you want to express.
Incidentally, if you want to see the video of Minaj’s Grammy performance, feel free, but I decided not to link to it. It’s not actually that I found it particularly offensive (it would have had to been trying to make a point to do that), but rather that it felt like an empty attempt to grab headlines. Okay, Nicki, you got our attention. Now what?
What I found particularly encouraging was the prevalence of what I’ll call “roots” or “lo-fi” music in nearly every genre. And not only did the more grounded music styles manifest themselves in performances; they raked in awards by the armful.
Most obvious was, of course, Adele, who won all six Grammys for which she was nominated. Personally, I’d be suspicious of anyone who doesn’t like this woman’s singing. And on top of that, she just seems like a down-to-earth, decent person. While accepting her sixth award of the night, an emotional Adele joked about blowing a little snot bubble on herself, reminding us she’s just another person at the end of the day.
Stripped-down projects like the Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light” record, which they recorded themselves in a “garage” (guessing it is a little different than my garage, but hey) with longtime friend and producer, Butch Vig. Though singer Dave Grohl’s speech went long and got a little preachy, I loved the fact that he extolled the importance of music itself and the craft of being a musician above the other distractions often laid upon popular music.
Add to this grounding performances by Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars, which goes to show that the Country genre has not entirely lost its soul. Oh, and who didn’t dig Bruno Mars’ nod to James Brown, complete with a horn section, throwback dance moves and a-ma-zing vocals? There was even ample screen time offered to living legends like Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell and Tony Bennett, reminding those who may have not been around the first time that the roots of rock and pop music go back further than the current charts indicate.
All told, the big winner for the night was (at the risk of sounding cheesy) music itself. Those artists who put their craft first rather than themselves went home with far more recognition than those clamoring for the spotlight. Call me an optimist, but it suggests to me that people are, more often than not, looking for something that helps them feel, rather than simply something to ogle and then forget when the next distraction comes along.
There will always be sensational outliers in the world of pop music. But for every Chris Brown, there is a Bon Iver; for every Lady Gaga, there is a Mumford and Sons. And it’s not even that these more grounded alternatives are necessarily better musicians. But they do seem to get what is most important.
As both a lifelong performer and avid consumer of music, I’m grateful for that.
All of this brings me back to Hudson’s tribute to Whitney Houston. The fact that Hudson has remarkable talent is unquestionable. But what made the moment work was the vulnerability and emotional risk she took in how she delivered. In so much as true art is intended to speak to humanity at a deeper level, I think this and other moments point to a reclamation of sorts of the real art of music. Yes, there will always be voyeurism and shock value in popular music, but it’s reassuring to see the soul beneath it all rise to the surface and be recognized.