Sunday night, at the 54th Grammy Awards, it was 2003 redux. I mean, 1999 redux.
Or was it 2007? To say nothing of 2005, 2000, 2009 and 2002.
For the third time in recent memory, the Grammys dropped a boatload of awards on a young female singer-songwriter and her breakthrough album. This year it was Adele, who won six for her work on “21” (XL/Columbia). In 2003 Norah Jones took in five for “Come Away With Me” (Blue Note), and in 1999 Lauryn Hill did the same with “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (Ruffhouse/Columbia).
Coincidence? Perhaps. But for the umpteenth time, the Grammys went with familiarity over risk, bestowing album of the year honors (and several more) on an album that reinforced the values of an older generation suspicious of change. In the recent past that trend has included the Dixie Chicks’ “Taking the Long Way” (Columbia), in 2007; the Ray Charles duets album “Genius Loves Company” (Concord/Hear Music), in 2005; the collaboration-heavy Santana album “Supernatural” (Arista), in 2000; the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration, “Raising Sand” (Rounder), in 2009; and the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack (Lost Highway), in 2002. That it was done this year under a veneer of progressivism — the anointing of a modern young star as a marquee talent — only makes it more loathsome.
Charming though Adele’s album was, there is nothing forward-looking about it, or about the accolades rained down on her this year. “21” is a spare, slightly haughty pop album, at the intersection of classic soul and singer-songwriter post-folk, sounds that have long been welcome at the Grammys. The same was true of the work of Ms. Jones and, to a slightly lesser degree, Ms. Hill, who was the most adventurous of the three but who was recognized largely for making hip-hop palatable to Grammy voters.Photo Adele's awards haul was reminiscent of Norah Jones's Grammy night in 2003. Credit Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse
Appropriately, Adele’s ascension happened during one of the dullest Grammy ceremonies in recent memory, a tour de force of bumbling anti-imagination hampered even further by the death of Whitney Houston the day before the show, which left producers scrambling to fit in raw tribute with shimmering and gauche spectacle.
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What emerged amid the celebration of Adele and other winners and the often clunky musical performances was a stubborn and almost total reluctance to engage with the music of the day. Younger artists were allowed stage time only when they were matched up with more established acts: Maroon 5 and Foster the People bolstering a reunited Beach Boys, or Blake Shelton and the Band Perry accompanying Glen Campbell. And when the kids were left to their own devices, they were hung out to dry, as on the disastrous live collision that included David Guetta, Deadmau5 (pronounced “dead mouse”), Chris Brown and Lil Wayne. (And Foo Fighters — more on that later.)Continue reading the main story
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Meanwhile, more traditional artists like Adele, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney got to perform unencumbered. Of younger, riskier artists, only a handful got that privilege: Katy Perry, who was at her most vicious; Nicki Minaj, who was at her most disturbed; and Chris Brown, who was at his most limber. Even Rihanna was saddled with dragging Coldplay out of its doldrums.
Pop music has been at its most exuberant, plastic and confusing — in the best way — in recent years, but this ceremony hardly captured that. Instead the show went out of its way to uphold antiquated values. The induction of Adele into a not-so-secret society will be cheered as a triumph over artifice, and what an unfortunate thing that will be.
Also troubling was the domination in the rock categories of Foo Fighters, who took home five awards. In acceptance speeches during both the pretelecast and the main show, the band’s frontman, Dave Grohl, invoked the garage in which it recorded its winning album, “Wasting Light” (Roswell/RCA), and advocated for the “human element” of making music that way, as if no humans were involved in the making of other nominees’ music.Photo In 1999 Lauryn Hill won five Grammys for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Credit Kevork Djansezia/Associated Press
Even the most reluctant Grammy winner unconsciously echoed the night’s theme of old-school Puritanism. Bon Iver was named best new artist, and Justin Vernon, the creative force behind the band, gave an aw-shucks speech that was rooted in nostalgia for the indie ethics of the 1980s: “When I started to make songs, I did it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I’m a little bit uncomfortable up here.” (It was a softer step than how he suggested, in an interview last year, that he’d approach such a situation: “Everyone should go home, this is ridiculous.”)
Even when the music wasn’t conservative, Grammy voters were. The familiar name and demonstrably serious musician Kanye West was the night’s big hip-hop winner, with four awards. He didn’t even bother to show up for the broadcast, which was well enough, because hip-hop was almost completely marginalized, reduced to a token Lil Wayne verse during the dance-music collision. In the dance categories Skrillex emerged as a new force with three awards, victories that reflect his being a brand name in a genre most voters very likely know next to nothing about.
Given these choices, the ubiquity of Foo Fighters in award collecting and stage time came as no surprise. The band is dynamics-free and tiresome, not much more than a cover band gone legit, except instead of covering songs (though it does that too, in concert), it covers whole styles, guaranteeing that fans of 1970s hard rock, 1980s hair bands and 1990s post-grunge will all be soothed equally. Its stand-alone performance was middling, and it was also part of the dance-music tragedy, during which it performed the popular Deadmau5 remix of its song “Rope”; its presence came off like baby-sitting.)
That’s no shock: it will take decades, probably, before guitars cede their Grammy primacy, even if they’re losing it everywhere else. The show opened with Mr. Springsteen humorlessly churning through a new song, “We Take Care of Our Own,” which mistakes jingoism for empathy, and closed with a performance by Mr. McCartney — his second and maybe the best of the night — who was joined by Mr. Springsteen, Joe Walsh and, inevitably, Mr. Grohl, cheesing for the cameras.
Forget women. Forget black or Latin stars or those of any other ethnic background. In a year in which the Grammys could have reasonably tried to sell progress as a narrative, it chose to end the night with a phalanx of older white men playing guitars, a battalion guarding the rickety old castle from attack, a defiant last stand of yesteryear.Continue reading the main story
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