by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Last night CBS-TV telecast the 62nd annual Grammy Awards from the Staples Center in Los Angeles — billed as “the house Kobe Bryant built” because the arena was originally built at least in part to host the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team when Bryant was one of its stars. By a freak of timing, Bryant had just been killed in a helicopter crash that day along with his daughter and seven other people. So the Grammys largely became, in a weird but appropriate way, a tribute to a celebrity and his tragically premature demise even though the music world the Grammys supposedly honor and the sports world in which Bryant thrived are normally miles apart.
If nothing else, this gave the Grammy participants and organizers something legitimate to mourn over and took attention away from the latest scandal surrounding the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which puts on the Grammys: the sudden either resignation or firing of the group’s first female executive director, Deborah Dugan, four days before the show. Last December Dugan filed a 46-page complaint against the group alleging she was sexually harassed by general counsel Joel Katz, and also that NARAS wanted to re-hire former director Neil Portnow as a consultant despite an outstanding rape charge against him by a female recording artist. (Portnow’s predecessor, Michael Greene, was also forced out over sexual harassment allegations.)
My source for the story was the Hollywood Reporter at https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/can-cbs-grammys-telecast-weather-an-explosive-scandal-1272073. The article explained that the Dugan issue threatened to cast a cloud over the awards show — particularly since one of the sins she’s accusing NARAS of is rigging the awards and the live telecast so female artists (and probably not just female artists!) are being boosted with awards and appearances on the show based on whom they’re sleeping with. At least two major women singers ended their performances last night by walking into the audience and singing the final verses directly to much older men in the front rows.
Being able to honor Kobe Bryant and turn the ceremony largely into a memorial tribute to him, even though he had nothing to do with music (unlike some other major athletes these days, Bryant blessedly didn’t think he could sing or act, and therefore didn’t try to do those things in public), gave NARAS and the on-air talent a way out of having to confront the latest Grammy scandal. Bryant’s death united the crowd both at Staples Center and on TV in mourning for a celebrity tragedy instead of thinking, “Who’s been sleeping with whom to get this award?”
Billie Eilish the Night’s Big Winner
The top awards at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards came to a prodigiously talented Irish-American singer-songwriter named Billie Eilish. I first encountered her when I bought her CD as part of a bunch of discs I picked up one night at a Target store (which since the demise of most brick-and-mortar record stores under the lash of the Internet has become one of the most convenient places to pick up CD’s of current mainstream pop) and I’m not sure why. Having the same first name as my all-time favorite singer, Billie Holiday? Putting a provocative cover on her release: a photo of her with long black hair and a baggy white outfit draped over what’s either a white piano or a white couch? Or giving her record a philosophical title: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
My first impression when I actually played Eilish’s disc was, “If Tori Amos made a drum-and-bass record, this is what it would sound like.” It’s a sound that’s hard to characterize — if you look it up on Apple Music’s Gracenote database it gives Eilish’s genre as “Electronica,” and there are certainly elements of electronic dance music in it. But the sound Eilish and Finneas, her brother, producer and co-writer, have created is a haunting blend of low-frequency dance-pop bass lines; bits of guitar, piano and synth used as ornaments, Eilish’s own multitracked vocals and a matter-of-fact singing style that projects richly — if sometimes self-consciously — “poetic” lyrics.
Yes, like just about every woman singer-songwriter who attempts depth in both her music and her words these days, there are elements of her great predecessors — not only Tori Amos but Joni Mitchell before her and Melanie before her. (I still think Melanie is one of the most savagely underrated artists of the 1960’s; she’s remembered — if at all — only for hippie-dippy anthems like “Beautiful People” and “Brand New Key,” but she wrote a lot of songs about the darker sides of human existence and sang them in a wrenching soul voice matched, among white women singers in the 1960’s, only by Janis Joplin’s. If you like Cyndi Lauper, Jewel, Lorde or any of the other white women today who sing enervated songs in high ranges with fast vibratos, you’re liking Melanie whether you know it or not.)
I hope whatever Deborah Dugan has to say about the process by which the Grammys are awarded — and how NARAS, in her telling, is an organization that makes Harvey Weinstein’s operation look like a model of feminist sensitivity by comparison — doesn’t take away from Eilish’s achievement. She won Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year (for “Bad Boy,” shared with her brother, Finneas O’Connell) and Best New Artist. Despite the unfortunate green patch she splashed on her hair — she looked like the guy in the Dr. Seuss story Green Eggs and Ham threw out the green eggs and they landed on her head — she presented herself on the show as an artist, not a sexpot.
She also seemed overwhelmed by the attention she got. Both she and Finneas said that they never expected their album to sweep the Grammy Awards. Neither, quite frankly, did I. I thought she’d have a career like Tori Amos’s, releasing delightfully enigmatic albums at regular intervals and building up a cult following without making it into the major music marketplace. I didn’t think music this complex, this individualistic, this unique and this beautiful was going to land its maker on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Eilish is probably the most off-beat Grammy Album of the Year winner since the Canadian band Arcade Fire. This seems like one time the much-maligned NARAS — whom I still haven’t forgiven for giving the 1984 Album of the Year award to Lionel Richie’s All Night Long instead of one of the two ground-breaking masterpieces released that year, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain — got it triumphantly right.
Not, of course, that there won’t be crabbing. Doubtless there will be some complaints from the hipper-than-thou critics at the Los Angeles Times that once again the NARAS voters have failed to give Album of the Year to a rap (or “hip-hop,” to use the euphemism for rap by people who like it) release. There will also probably be people who will claim Lizzo, the giant African-American soul belter, should have won Album of the Year and Best New Artist, and claim that she didn’t because NARAS is racist.
But from what I’ve heard of Lizzo (whose silly stage name sounds like a cheap knock-off laundry detergent you buy at 99¢ stores or in Mexico), she isn’t doing anything Aretha Franklin didn’t do better before her, or Dinah Washington didn’t do better before Aretha did. Lizzo’s great, but we’ve heard her music before. Despite the influences — not only the ones I mentioned but the ones Eilish has copped to: rapper Tyler, the Creator (who won the 2019 Best New Artist Grammy I thought should have gone to the searing R&B singer H.E.R.), Childish Gambino, Avril Lavigne (another of Melanie’s artistic daughters!), Earl Sweatshirt, Amy Winehouse, the Spice Girls and Lana Del Rey — Billie Eilish is unique.
The Song-by-Song Countdown
In previous blog posts on the Grammy Awards I’ve mostly given a song-by-song countdown on the various musical performances incorporated into the show. As the Grammys have evolved the pretense that it’s an “awards” show has become weaker and the showcase numbers by major musical stars have become the show’s point. What’s more, the range of musical styles showcased has become narrower and narrower: the brief appearance after the “In Memoriam” segment honoring the people the music industry lost in 2019 of a band billed on screen as “Orleans Street” but advertised in the narration as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing the classic New Orleans funeral song, “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” it was a flashback to the days when the Grammys at least acknowledged, via a token song, the existence of classical and jazz.
The show was hosted by Alicia Keys, a talented singer but one with an exaggerated reverence for her own talents: she sang several numbers throughout the show, including a moving a cappella version of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” as a tribute to Kobe Bryant (which was nice) and a lo-o-o-ong tribute to the Grammys themselves (which wasn’t). The show opened with Lizzo — taking a slot that in previous years has gone to Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, U2, Don Henley and Billy Joel, among others — doing what appeared to be a medley of songs called “I’m Crying ’Cause I Love You” and “Shampoo and Brush Get You Out of My Hair.” I loved her form-fitting outfit — like Adele, Lizzo is a “woman of size” and isn’t afraid to show it off — and the fact that she plays flute as well as singing. Vocally she’s a great soul belter, and if anyone wants to do a biopic of the great 1940’s-1960’s gospel singer Mahalia Jackson she’d be a good casting choice — but she’s still a great practitioner of a familiar style.
After Lizzo’s opening and Alicia Keys’ Bryant tribute, the next artists up were country singer Blake Shelton and his current squeeze, Gwen Stefani. I’m not a fan of Blake Shelton and I don’t find him sexy at all — I was astounded when he won one of those “Sexiest Man Alive” awards — and I still can’t understand how this homely, not particularly talented and uncharismatic man has managed to get two far sexier and more talented singers, Miranda Lambert and Gwen Stefani, to fall in love with him. (“Maybe he has a big dick,” said my husband Charles.) At least I can hope that they’ll break up and Stefani will make a great album about it the way Lambert did.
Next up, after Keys’ interminable Grammy salute, were the Jonas Brothers doing a surprisingly good song called “What a Man’s Gotta Do,” which isn’t the slice of mindless machismo one might expect from the title. Afterwards came a rap number of mind-boggling pointlessness and pretentiousness from Tyler, the Creator — not only did he take the 2019 Best New Artist Grammy H.E.R. deserved, but his stage name is so egomaniacal I couldn’t resist joking to Charles, “Now we know God’s last name” — along with Charlie Wilson and some genuine musical talent from a great group, Boyz II Men, attempting to redeem what aside from their sweet vocal harmonies was a pseudo-musical mess.
After that was a musical salute to Prince led by Usher — who was actually a good choice — with former Prince associate Sheila E. and someone else whose name I missed. They did some pretty obvious song choices — “Little Red Corvette” from 1999, “When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain, and “Kiss” from Parade (the soundtrack album to Prince’s self-directed film flop, Under the Cherry Moon) —but did them better than just about anyone besides their creator could. Then Camila Cabello, who had opened the 2019 Grammys with her ridiculous tribute “Havana,” came out with a surprisingly different song choice, an intense ballad called “First Man.” “I like her better when she’s channeling Melanie than when she’s channeling Gloria Estefan,” I commented.
The next song up was one of the most powerful and emotional selections on the program: an aging but still attractive Tanya Tucker, her voice ravaged by the years but still powerful, doing a song called “Bring ’Em Home” in which she bids her lover to bring her flowers while she’s still alive instead of waiting to send them to her funeral after she croaks. Brandi Carlile, one of the greatest current talents in country music, appeared with Tucker but only as her piano accompanist; part of me wishes they had done a duet but part of me realizes the song was more powerful with Tucker alone; like Loretta Lynn in her later recordings, Tucker summoned up her history to drive the song home with maximum impact.
After that came Ariana Grande, a singer who’s impressed me not only for her noble response to the terrorist attack on her concert in Manchester, England on May 22, 2017 — instead of either canceling her tour (which would have made it look like a victory for the terrorists) or continuing it (which would have made her look insensitive), she scheduled another concert in Manchester, made it a benefit for the victims’ families, and closed it with a moving version of the classic “Over the Rainbow.” She wasn’t on the 2019 Grammy Awards because she wanted to perform a song from the CD she had just released, and Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich wanted her to do a song from the previous album she’d been nominated for.
Last night she did a medley of songs that included, at least according to my best guesses of their titles, “Kiss Me and Take Off Your Clothes” (I like role-reversal songs in which it’s the women telling the men to get down to business and have sex already!), “Imagine My World,” “My Favorite Things” (yes, the Rodgers and Hammerstein “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, but with additional lyrics that turned the song into a sexy Madonna-esque romp — just how she got the famously protective Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization to let her do that is a mystery to me), “Gimme the World” and “Morning Love.” I like the idea of Ariana Grande better than I actually like her act, which seems to be yet another attempt by a baby diva to step into Madonna’s seven-league stiletto heels.
Next up was Bille Eilish’s number, which was just her and Finneas doing a simple performance of a song whose title I noted as “I Like It Like That” — doubtless it was called something else on her album but I can’t identify it without a recording of the show with which I could compare it to the CD — and then there was a reunion of the rock band Aerosmith with the pioneering rap act Run-D.M.C. (back when rap still had the potential to develop into a genuinely powerful and sophisticated musical form instead of hardening into a disgusting set of braggadocious clichés about how many women the singer has fucked, how many cops he’s killed, how many Queers he’s bashed and how much money and “bling” he’s accumulated) that started with Aerosmith alone doing “Living on the Edge” (a better song than I remembered it) and the Run-D.M.C. collaboration “Walk This Way.”
After that there came another unlikely collaboration of screaming-queen rapper L’il Nas X (he couldn’t even come up with an original name!), one-hit wonder country singer Billy Ray Cyrus (who’s had the indignity of seeing his daughter Miley have a longer and more lucrative career than his!), Diplo, the Korean “K-Pop” boy band BTS and someone else whose name I didn’t catch on the song “Old Town Road.” The song set a record by remaining Number One on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart for 19 weeks — though one wonders how much that had to do with the lack of competition — and the Wikipedia page credits L’il Nas X with inventing “country-rap” as a genre (haven’t these guys heard any of Johnny Cash’s many talking songs?). Frankly I’ve liked some of the covers better than this version — though I suspect the Grammys crowded the song with too many guest artists — and Johnny Mercer did the same basic concept better with “On the Nodaway Road” in the 1940’s.
After that came one of the most powerful, wrenching moments of the show: Demi Lovato singing her heart out on a song called “Anyone.” The announcement of her performance stated that she had written the song just a few days before a terrible crisis in her life — just what the crisis was wasn’t stated but, according to a post-Grammys article by Spencer Kornhaber on The Atlantic’s Web site (https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/01/demi-lovatos-beautiful-shocking-grammys-song-anyone/605509/) , it was a drug overdose that led to her hospitalization. Backed only by a piano — like Tanya Tucker and Billie Eilish, she eschewed the insanely elaborate productions that studded the show and made some segments (especially Tyler, the Creator’s) virtually unwatchable — she tore into a song about her history of depression and how everything she’d tried, from music to substances, hadn’t been able to heal it.
Kornhaber read the song as connected to her O.D. and her relapse into drugs after six years loudly proclaiming her sobriety: “I tried to talk to my piano, I tried to talk to my guitar / Talked to my imagination / Confided into alcohol / I tried and tried and tried some more / Told secrets ’til my voice was sore.” My only modification would be that Lovato has a long history of delivering emotionally raw and flabbergasting performances that shatter the usual anodyne character of awards shows. I searched my http://moviemagg.blogspot.com blog for my references to her and found that again and again — the Ray Charles tribute at the White House on March 1, 2016; “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” on December 31, 2016; the “Hand to Hand” hurricane relief mini-telethon on September 12, 2017; and the 45th annual American Music Awards on November 19, 2017 — I’ve praised Lovato for blowing away the pretensions of such occasions and delivering raw, emotion-ridden, soulful performances.
Next up was a tribute to slain rapper Nipsey Hussle, an L.A.-based performer who got literally caught up in the crossfire of the long-standing rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips gangs. To me, as someone who generally can’t stand rap and who had never heard of Nipsey Hussle before he was killed, Hussle’s murder was just more evidence of the fundamental evil behind most rap: the genre is so committed to extolling the “virtues” of crime and killing that even someone who tries to communicate a positive message through rap and use the money he made from it to better his community will ultimately fall victim to the vicious, anti-social nature of the form.
Among the artists who paid tribute to Hussle last night at the Staples Center (which had also been the site of his memorial service on April 11, 2019, 12 days after his murder) were John Legend, Meek Mill, D.J. Khalid, Kirk Franklin and (via a clip from one of his videos) Hussle himself. After that Rosalía, a Latin music sensation, did a couple of songs in Spanish (I couldn’t make out many of the words beyond “A ma cantar” and “La noche liber”) which were good attempts to incorporate flamenco music, including the traditional way of singing it, into modern pop — but I think I’d rather hear real flamenco than Rosalía’s rescension of it.
Then came one of the surprises of the night — introducing the award for Song of the Year Smokey Robinson and the country group Little Big Town did an a cappella version of the classic “My Girl,” which Robinson wrote for The Temptations back in 1964. (Actually he wrote it for his own group, the Miracles, but the Temptations managed to wrench it away from him.) Robinson is surprisingly well-preserved both physically and vocally; as I told Charles during his segment, watching him now it’s hard to believe he had his first hit, “Shop Around,” 60 years ago.
The next number was Alicia Keys doing her third number of the show (how’s that for over-exercising a host’s prerogative? The more she showed off her ego, the more I thought the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made the right move by doing away with a host at all), “Underdog,” with Brittany Howard, the powerful lead singer of Alabama Shakes and an excellent solo artist in her own right, behind her. Alas, Howard only played guitar behind her and wasn’t allowed to open her mouth — much the way Tanya Tucker treated Brandi Carlile in her segment, but without the power of Tucker’s vocal that made up for it. After that H.E.R. (true name: Gabriella Wilson) did a song I noted as “Sometimes” that to me was great but didn’t live up to the scorching performance she’d given on last year’s Grammys — though Charles identified H.E.R. as the artist on the program of whom he’d most like to hear more.
Then former Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt — her famous red hair starting to get streaked with grey — came out and did “Angel from Montgomery,” but only did one verse of it because she was introducing it as a tribute to its composer, John Prine, one of this year’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners. Then Gary Clark, Jr., whose style is perched between neo-blues and neo-Hendrix, did a great song called “This Land Is My Land” that was the title track of his most recent album and was one of the few openly political songs on the show.
Though there were a handful of very veiled anti-Trump statements on the program, there was almost none of the Trump-bashing we’ve seen on other awards shows, at least partly because even more than other branches of entertainment, music is controlled by gatekeepers (especially in the channels musicians need to get their music out, like radio and streaming services) who are on the Right of the political spectrum. Frankly, these days the most politically progressive songs are coming from people like Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Neil Young who are already way past their commercial primes and therefore can afford to piss off the people who control much of what we hear.
After a moving “In Memoriam” segment and the Trombone Shorty/Orleans Avenue/Preservation Hall performance of “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” the Grammys lurched to their overdue end (the show was blocked for 3 ½ hours and still went 20 minutes over), with what has been billed as a tribute to music education. One of the few unambiguously good things NARAS has done is not only lobby public school districts to maintain their music programs in the face of the so-called “back-to-basics” movement, which holds that the schools’ job is to teach reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic without any of those humanistic and politically suspicious frills like art and music, but also give grants and awards to particularly stellar music programs.
To communicate this message, the 62nd annual Grammy Awards entrusted a head-spinning list of talents — Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, classical violinist Joshua Bell, Ben Platt, The War and Treaty (a Black duo of whom I inevitably joked to Charles, “Which one is The War and which is Treaty?”), Lee Curran, Guy Clark, Jr., Black ballerina Misty Copeland, classical pianist Lang Lang, and an orchestra and dancers selected from music students across the country — to perform a song from the 1980 musical film Fame. The moment I heard that I dreaded that I would hear another dreadful slog to Irene Cara’s hit song from the film, “Remember My Name.”
Instead they did the film’s spectacular closing anthem “I Sing the Body Electric,” a phrase with an interesting history. It began as a line in a poem by Walt Whitman, then was used by Ray Bradbury as the name for a science-fiction story about domestic robots, and later the title of the second (and best) album by the 1970’s jazz-rock group Weather Report. Here it came out as an anthem to hope, and while the plethora of guest stars (including two musicians from the classical world the program otherwise totally ignored) weighed it down and seemed too consciously intended by Ehrlich (who was directing his 40th and last Grammy Awards telecast) to create a “Grammy moment,” it still moved and brought this lumbering beast of an awards show, with the palls of Demi Lovato’s near-death, more sexual scandals from NARAS and the insanely macabre end of Kobe Bryant, to a powerful and affirmative close.