Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I watched the 61st annual Grammy Awards two nights ago, a musical spectacular I make a point of watching every year, and there had been the usual controversies swirling around it even before it happened. Some major artists who were invited to perform, including Ariana Grande and Kendrick Lamar (though I regard Kendrick Lamar’s “music” as total shit, even more obnoxious than the common run of most rap, and especially annoying in that his records are so overproduced you can’t even make out what he’s saying — and one would think in rap, which has embraced only words and rhythm and thrown out melody, harmony and all the other traditional aspects of music, the sine qua non would be that at least you should be able to hear the words!), declined. That meant I didn’t have to endure either one of Lamar’s repulsive production numbers in the show itself or the reviewers afterwards inexplicably hailing it as the greatest thing on the program, whereas my reaction to Lamar’s uncool extravaganzae in 2016 and 2018 was just to hold my nose and wait for them to be over. (The 2016 one was especially sickening because it was slotted right after a remote telecast from New York of the Hamilton cast on Broadway doing that show’s opening number, and just as Lin-Manuel Miranda and his crew had convinced me that rap can be beautiful and even moving, and express a higher artistic purpose, on came Kendrick Lamar to remind me of the garbage rap usually is.)
Ariana Grande — who I must confess I wasn’t all that interested in until her concert in Manchester was attacked by a terrorist bomber who killed 23 people, and she responded with real class by scheduling another concert in Manchester, a benefit for the families of the victims, and not only was it telecast internationally but she ended it with a beautiful rendition of “Over the Rainbow” — clashed with Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich because he wanted her to perform a song off her last album, the one that was in Grammy contention, and she wanted to sing something from her new album, which is being released this week. The show that did air began with a hugely overproduced version of a song called “My Heart Is In Havana” (at least I think that’s what the title was: most of the songs weren’t announced) by a cast of “B”-listers including J Bolian (no period after the initial), Camila Cabello, Arturo Sandoval (the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie discovered in Havana in the early 1980’s and sponsored his immigration), Ricky Martin (the most famous person in this cast, at least to me, though his 15 minutes expired years ago) and a rapper called Young Thug (whenever anyone asks me why I don’t like rap, one of the reasons I give is the extensive glamorization of crime that runs through most of the genre and leads to performers taking street names like “Young Thug,” as if being a young thug is something to be proud of). It was a loud, obnoxious, messy and way overproduced number and a bad omen for what was to come — though I did like the extra in the number who was holding a newspaper that said on its big headline, “Build Bridges, Not Walls.”
There wasn’t much of the overt politicizing that we’ve seen on other awards shows, but there was enough to indicate that the music community — or at least that part of it that gets nominated for Grammy Awards — is part of the half of America that rejects Trump and everything he stands for. The point was also made by the surprising appearance of Michelle Obama on stage next to host Alicia Keys — and I liked the fact that an actual musician was hosting the Grammys instead of a comedian peppering the ceremony with bad jokes — though the former First Lady wasn’t introduced. She was just standing on stage in a black leather pantsuit (not the way we’re used to seeing her dressed) and looking like yet another Black soul diva up for an award, and Keys’ costumes were even sillier. Just about everything she wore showed as much of her breasts as they could get away with on network television and looked like a “wardrobe malfunction” waiting to happen.
Next up on the entertainment program — Ken Ehrlich has gone so far in reinventing the Grammys as a musical variety show (with all too little variety — just about all the music last night was in the dance-pop genre that has become the default popular music of today; there were a couple of rappers but none of the brief acknowledgments of classical and jazz that used to turn up on previous Grammy shows) that only nine awards were actually presented during the program — was a song by Shawn Mendes, the Canadian singer of Portuguese ancestry who’s apparently (at least according to Charles, who’s read quite a few tweets about him from young Queer men) become something of a sex symbol in the Gay male community even though he’s either not Gay or not “out.” (Troye Sivan, who is both Gay and “out” and is a similar “type,” both physically and musically, to Mendes would seem a better candidate for this sort of adulation among young Gay men.) I thought the song was called “Help Me” but according to its Wikipedia page its real title is “In My Blood,” and it was genuinely moving for the first chorus — in which Mendes simply sang and played piano — but became just another slice of power-pop once he brought in a band for the rest of the song, albeit with an unusually sensitive lyric that chronicles Mendes’ own struggles with anxiety.
Next up was “Rainbow” by Kacey Musgraves, a country artist who would go on to win Album of the Year; I liked the song but it was pretty much your standard smiling-through-adversity number and didn’t sound really special to me. Things got better, though, with the next number by Janelle Monáe from an album called Dirty Computer; the song she was performing appeared to be called “That’s Just the Way You Make Me Feel” and from the rather jerky motions she and her chorus line did to it — as well as her opening the song playing electric guitar as well as singing, though she quickly ditched the instrument — it seemed like she was trying to reinvent herself as a female version of Prince. Then someone called Past Malone came out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers — whose lead singer, Anthony Kiedis, is getting to be just a bit too old for the shirtless bit — doing something it was hard to tell whether it was one song, two or three; the titles I scribbled down as my guesses as to what the songs were called were “Don’t Count on Me to Explain” and “Dark Necessities.”
Things started looking up with the next segment, an awesome tribute to Dolly Parton with an all-star country cast featuring Maren Morris (a great singer who’d be the perfect choice to play Janis Joplin in a biopic if anyone would cast her in it while she’s still young enough for the role), Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry (whose voice was surprisingly soulful), Kacey Musgraves and the band Little Big Town. The medley focused on Parton’s late-1970’s crossover hits — “Here You Come Again,” “Jolene” and “Nine to Five” — though it also included a song that appeared to be called “Look at Mother Nature On the Run in the 21st Century” and a new song called “My Red Shoes” that’s sort of a follow-up to Parton’s mega-hit “Coat of Many Colors” — once again she’s flashing back to an impoverished childhood when she was teased for something she wore that wasn’t shiny or new. This number reached exalted status when the singers were joined onstage by … Dolly Parton herself. Most of these medleys feature the honoree sitting in the audience looking nervous while others cavort on stage to her songs. Not this one: Dolly came out onstage, and from the moment she walked out there, opened her mouth and revealed a voice that’s held up spectacularly well, she took over and never let go. It was an exalting moment — I dashed to my computer during the next commercial break and posted to Facebook how much I’d liked it.
Fortunately, the next number was not the anticlimax it could have been: it was the modern-day R&B singer H.E.R. Her real name is Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, she’s part Black and part Filipina, she’s from the San Francisco Bay Area (as am I!) and she released her first single at age 14 in 2014 under her real name before adopting H.E.R. as a stage name. It’s supposedly an acronym for “Having Everything Revealed,” but it’s pronounced simply “Her.” By any name she’s a quite remarkable singer, a descendant of Odetta, Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman among Black women singers with deep contralto voices and powerful deliveries; her song was “Caught Between Your Love and a Hard Place” and reflects a dilemma often faced by women these days and frequently dramatized in their songs: stay with a man and accept being diminished and not allowed to be yourself in the relationship, or be single and accept loneliness as the price of independence and freedom. The song was a bit overarranged and it was hard to make out some of the lyrics, but it didn’t matter because what you could hear of the words, and H.E.R.’s impassioned delivery of them, were powerful and emotionally moving.
The next performer was rapper Cardi B — her name looks like a weight-loss plan involving both diet and exercise — making little impression on me, which given how much I actively dislike most rap (if Big Brother ever puts me into Room 101 he could do worse than feed me an incessant playlist of rap “songs”) is actually an improvement. After that came the host herself, Alicia Keys, doing a medley of songs she said she wished she could have written herself — starting with an instrumental version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” then segueing into “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “I Want You to Forget Me,” “Unforgettable” (fortunately she resisted the temptation to have Nat “King” Cole’s and Natalie Cole’s voices spliced in to change the song from a “ghost duet” to a “ghost trio”), “I Can Use Somebody,” “My Feelings,” “That Thing,” and closing with a song she actually did write, the surprisingly somber “New York.” (Most songs about New York are openly celebratory — Bernstein’s “New York, New York,” Kander and Ebb’s “Theme from New York, New York,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” — so Keys’ was a surprise, though it worked beautifully when she performed it at the end of the benefit for Hurricane Sandy relief in December 2012.)
Then it was time for another country segment, Dan and Shea doing a duet on a song called “Tequila” — not the classic early-1960’s instrumental by the Champs but a vocal number which is pretty typical of the drowning-my-sorrows-in-alcohol sub-genre of country music but at least has the novelty of the substance being something more outré than the usual beer or whiskey. The next showcase was a tribute to Diana Ross on her 75th birthday, looking utterly stunning — though she trotted her nine-year-old grandson out to introduce her and one wonders why she made the poor kid wear his hair in a big Afro that made him resemble Michael Jackson at his age (remember that Jackson’s first album was called Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5). She did two of the sappiest songs she ever did as a solo artist, “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” but her voice was as spectacular as ever (between her and Parton this show was a great advertisement for properly trained septuagenarian singers) and so were her looks.
Next up was Lady Gaga doing a solo version of her song “Shallow,” co-written with Bradley Cooper for their film together, the umpteenth remake of A Star Is Born (it’s actually the fourth version — fifth if you count the predecessor, 1932’s What Price Hollywood? with Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman; the other “official” A Star Is Borns are the 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, though imdb.com lists three others: a 1960 Korean film, a Filipino version from 1973 — shot in Tagalog — and a 2010 music documentary from Hungary), and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song (an honor the big songs from the Garland and Streisand versions — “The Man That Got Away” and “Evergreen,” respectively — both won). Gaga’s voice showed off her soul chops and her remarkable ability to sing virtually anything — if she’s announced as Brünnhilde in a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen I won’t dismiss it out of hand — and if anything the song sounded better as a solo than it did with Cooper’s non-voice croaking out a duet part. Then came another medley with Travis Scott, Philip Begley and Earlyne Wright doing three songs that weren’t familiar to me — my guesses at the titles were “Trouble,” “Flight Path” and “The Party Never Ends.”
Then came what became the most controversial number on the show, a 75th anniversary tribute to Motown Records which began with Motown veteran Smokey Robinson and Alicia Keys warbling a bit of his old hit “Tracks of My Tears,” but went downhill from there. It was billed as a number involving Robinson, Black neo-soul singer Ne-Yo (his name keeps fooling me — I expect him to be a rapper, but he isn’t, thank goodness) and Jennifer Lopez, Instead Ne-Yo got crowded out of the picture and it turned into a pyrotechnic feature for Lopez, one of those annoying personalities I can’t stand (I’ve seen her on TV twice performing her preposterous song “Jenny on the Block,” which attempts despite all evidence to convince us that despite her riches and fame she’s still the plain ol’ girl from the streets of the barrio where she grew up). She’s a good, if aggressively acrobatic, dancer, though her movements had little to do with the tight precision choreography of the original Motown acts (taught them by the man Motown founder Berry Gordy — still alive and in the audience for this — hired for that purpose, the great Black tap dancer “Honi” Coles) and the song choices — “Tracks of My Tears,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” “Money (That’s What I Want)” (interesting that the Grammys’ Motown tribute featured two songs in a row that the Beatles covered), “Do You Love Me?,” “Save It, Baby,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “War,” “I’m Taking Love” and “For You” — were good except they ignored a lot of Motown’s legacy and in particular omitted completely probably the two most creative artists who ever worked for the label, Stevie Wonder and the late Marvin Gaye.
Part of the controversy centered around the way the tribute to Motown was built around a non-Black artist — though at least Lopez is a person of color and Robinson made the rather lame statement in her defense that “Motown made music for everybody” — but what really put me off about the number was the sheer over-the-topness of it, with Lopez flipping herself around in space and more fireworks going off behind her than were probably set off by everybody who did fireworks on the last Fourth of July. Fortunately, the show got better and finished strong: the next performer was Brandi Carlile (she doesn’t use the silent “s” that’s usually part of that name — maybe she decided it was redundant, the way Barbra Streisand was originally named with the normal spelling of “Barbara” but decided the middle “a” was redundant), who along with H.E.R. turned in the most wrenching performance of the evening by a current artist. Her song was called “The Joke,” and it was similarly themed to H.E.R.’s number: a woman declares her determination to leave a man who constantly belittled her and does so with her head held high and tells him that the joke’s on him now. It’s a great message and fortunately Carlile wrote a great song around it — and in this era of collaborative songwriting I give her a lot of points for writing “The Joke” and the rest of the album it’s on, By the Way, I Forgive You, all by herself.
Afterwards a new Black R&B duo, Chloe x Halle (that’s how it’s officially spelled!), did a duet on the old Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway hit “Where Is the Love?” that was quite impassioned and just as good as the original — though the song takes on a quite different affect when performed by two women instead of a man and a woman — it seems odd that Donny Hathaway’s daughter Lalah wasn’t invited to perform her late dad’s big hit (or anything else on the program — maybe they should have given her the Motown tribute — even though she’s a recording artist in her own right and she was nominated in the R&B categories). After that came one of the highlights of the program, St. Vincent and Dua Lipa — those are both individuals, not groups — looking so much alike they could have done the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup — doing a medley of two songs apparently called “Bright Seduction” and “One Kiss Is All It Takes.” Dua Lipa won for Best New Artist, and while I’d rather have seen that award go to H.E.R. (but then H.E.R. has been recording since 2014 and so calling her a “new artist” is a bit of Grammy Newspeak) or Chloe x Halle, she’s clearly a formidable talent and I look forward to hearing more from her.
The closing number was an inevitable tribute to the late Aretha Franklin and was done the way the Motown tribute should have been: three Black singers with Aretha-esque voices, Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia, and just one song, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a superb performance that showed off both Aretha’s gospel roots (the song was written for her by Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin, and in an interview just after Aretha’s death King recalled that as soon as Goffin came home with the news that they had been hired to write a song for Aretha Franklin the first thing King did was go to her piano and start hammering out gospel chords) and the way her style has been extended into the future. The show ended with the announcements of Record (i.e., one song — what they used to call a “single”) and Album of the Year: the Record of the Year was “This Is America,” a politically themed rap number by Black TV comedian Donald Glover (no relation to Danny, as far as I know) performing under the name “Childish Gambino” (and once again, a rap artist shows the basically anti-social and pro-crime nature of the form by taking a stage name from one of the five New York-based crime families that historically ruled the U.S. Mafia), and the Album of the Year was Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.
That was a bit disappointing — if the Grammy voters had wanted to give the big award to a country album it should have been Brandi Carlile’s! — but it’s not a bad choice, and while for years the Los Angeles Times has been bitching that the Grammys have never given Album of the Year to a rap record, that’s just fine by me! The Grammy Awards were a rather lumbering spectacle — even with Ken Ehrlich cutting the number of awards actually given out during the telecast to just nine, the show overstayed its official 2 ½-hour running time by 13 minutes and seemed to go on forever — but there were enough exalting performances both by veterans (Dolly Parton and Diana Ross) and relative newbies (particularly Brandi Carlile and H.E.R.) to make this show “special” and one of the best Grammy programs in recent years. If nothing else, the 2019 Grammy Awards show documented how much women have taken over the top of today’s music scene both creatively and commercially: not only did a woman win Album of the Year but women dominated the musical program as well as the awards themselves. Maybe the U.S. isn’t ready for a woman President, but it is ready for powerful women’s voices to sing to us and make us feel their music and their inspirations!