The 2004 Grammys

I was amazed at just how self-congratulatory the entire ceremony felt.

Partly because I was feeling a little masochistic, and partly because I was feeling a bit ornery, I got together with a couple of friends for a night of music snobbery and scathing commentary, courtesy of this year’s Grammy Awards. Now, I feel about as far removed from the mainstream music industry as one can get — I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t watch MTV, and I recognized maybe 25% of the people that appeared throughout the night — but even so, I was amazed at just how self-congratulatory the entire ceremony felt.

What with all of the memorial awards, trustee awards, lifetime achievement awards, bowling trophies, blue ribbons, and merit badges that were handed out, it seemed like every single person in the Staples Center got an award. Such back-slapping grew rather annoying after awhile. It began to feel as if the primary purpose of the entire night was to try and convince those of us viewing at home that they’re okay, that all of these people cavorting about onstage are worthy of our admiration (not to mention our hard-earned cash). It also makes you wonder just how valuable, really, such recognition is if everyone is getting recognized.

What irked me even more were the show’s efforts to cross genres and generations by presenting rather incongruous pairings throughout the broadcast. Seriously… the Foo Fighters and Chick Corea? Justin Timberlake and Arturo Sandoval? It’s always great to try and transcend borders and boundaries, but these felt so gratuitous and random. The only one that felt even halfway right was the funk medley, featuring the likes of Earth, Wind, and Fire (whose bassist was one of the night’s true highlights), OutKast, and P‑Funk. But even that felt tired and tepid.

One couldn’t help but get the feeling that some of those artists had never even heard of their “partners” until the night of the festival. And that was even more apparent during the endless litany of awards being handed out by 16-year-old teen starlets to figures who had retired from the music industry long before they’d even been born — and yet they still had to conjure up an amount of enthusiasm and interest. Some of those pretty faces looked halfway between bored and ill as they recited the accomplishments of these “legendary” and “groundbreaking” individuals. One could see deep pools of ambivalence beneath the makeup, perfect smiles, and applause.

If I ever felt like the music industry was on its last legs, making its last tortured gasps for air, it would have to be now. And I think that can be seen in the shameless grabs for attention that ailing, once-great entertainers make in order to boost their flagging careers. I am, of course, referring to Madonna, with her lesbian liplocks, and Janet Jackson and her jewelry-encrusted boob. This time it was Prince who starred as the aging performer making one last desperate stab at relevancy as he performed a medley with Beyoncé Knowles (I refuse to refer to her by her first name only — she hasn’t earned that right yet in my book). Let me ask you — has Prince done anything, anything in the past 5 years to merit such a prominent display on this, the music industry’s holiest of holy nights?

But the lowest of the low points, the moment that just made me absolutely sick to my stomach and had my friends and I hurling curses at the TV was the tedious speech given by Neil Portnow, the Recording Academy’s president. Although it started out as a plea to support music education (a noble goal, to be sure, despite the fact that I’ve found formal music education kills creativity as much as it encourages it), it soon devolved into yet another tired and cliched spiel against file-sharing and music downloading. And to top it all off, a new anti-downloading campaign was unveiled, featuring one of the most uninspired and browbeating commercials I’ve seen in a long time. When the TV spot finished, it was greeted with a response so chilled the temperature in the auditorium probably dropped a good 5 or 10 degrees.

Still, the night wasn’t without some highlights. Andre 3000’s acceptance speech was the ceremony’s most brilliant moment. After the cameras frantically scanned the crowd for him, he sauntered on stage, took his trophy, said “Thank You”, and sauntered off, leaving the entire production completely hanging. The technical difficulties surrounding Celine Dion’s performance were great as well, if only because it’s nice to see a perfectly coiffed “diva” get put on the spot every now and then. And the night’s performance of “Hey Ya” — featuring Andre 3000, a bevy of dancing beauties, and a marching band all decked out in warpaint and Indian feathers — might’ve been the night’s most tasteless moment… as well as it’s showiest and most entertaining.

I’m sure some of you are probably asking “Well, what did you expect? It’s the Grammys, for crying out loud!” And you’re absolutely right. I wasn’t expecting much at all, but I’ll admit that I was surprised at just how little I got. Once again, I was reminded of the incredible disdain I have, on some levels, for popular media culture. I don’t claim to be completely beyond its influence. I’m an American, and it’s impossible to escape the pervasiveness of our pop culture. But I like to think that I’m perhaps a bit more objective than others I know, that at least I know how pervasive it is and that it is something that, while not entirely evil, does need to be held in check.

Whatever the case, between the Grammys, the Super Bowl, and the upcoming Oscars, I think I will have had my fill of popular, primetime entertainment for the rest of the year.

Read more about Grammys.
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