Memories of Grammy gaffes and the next legends

February 7, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

In an effort to generate some excitement, underscore the allegedly historic nature of the evening and shore up the sagging ratings of Sunday night's 3-hour telecast, the producers of the 49th annual Grammy Awards have spent the last few weeks asking music fans to remember their favorite "Grammy Moment."

A Web site launched by an advertising partner of Grammy organizers the Recording Academy offers the following supposedly indelible moments as examples:

     2000: "Really, does anyone remember anything about this Grammy night besides that J. Lo dress?"

     2001: "Elton and Eminem sang their famous duet, while Destiny's Child, U2 and Madonna also rocked."

     2003: "Legends Simon and Garfunkel reunited, but it was newcomer Norah Jones that stole the show."

     2004: "OutKast and the White Stripes were red hot, and Prince and Beyonce were the hottest of all."

     2005: "Gwen and Green Day made statements fashion and political." (Oddly, the Web site avoids mentioning that Green Day bandleader Billie Joe Armstrong, while accepting an award for "American Idiot," surprised the censors by flipping the bird.)

Judging from that list, you're justified in thinking that the Grammys would be the runaway favorite to claim Most Bloated, Least Interesting Awards Show, if such a prize existed. But while they hardly justify the length of the telecast, the Grammys have given us a few memorable, bizarre or must-see moments in the last few years. Here are some from my list:

     1994: Frank Sinatra is praised to the high heavens as he's awarded a Grammy Legends honor. But when Ol' Blue Eyes begins an emotional thank-you speech, the director unceremoniously cuts to a commercial in mid-sentence. Frank died in May 1998; said director is now rumored to sleep with the fishes, as well.

     1998: One the dancers hired to shuffle around behind Bob Dylan during a performance of "Love Sick" suddenly strips his shirt off, exposing the inexplicable words "Soy Bomb." Mr. Bomb shoves his way to the front of the stage, Bob chuckles slightly, and the interloper is hauled off by security 40 seconds later.

     1998 (again): Opera great Luciano Pavarotti, who cancels almost as many shows as he plays, calls in sick at the last minute, leaving producers with a gaping hole where the aria "Nessun Dorma" is supposed to go. They turn to fill-in Aretha Franklin, who makes the tune her own. The Queen of Soul ... and Puccini, too.

     2006: The homage to Sly and the Family Stone turns very strange as Sly, making his first public appearance in 19 years in a blond Mohawk and silver cape, mumbles part of "I Want to Take You Higher," then wanders off in the midst of his own tribute.

Moments like these may be the stuff of chatter at the water cooler the next morning, but they don't necessarily draw viewers. The Grammy Awards are flawed, but they remain the most credible and prestigious honor in the American music industry. The show, however, seems to become more boring and less of a guaranteed television blockbuster every year.

In 2006, CBS moved the Grammy telecast from Sunday to Wednesday to avoid competing with ABC's lineup of "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." But the move pitted the Grammys against "American Idol" at the peak of its popularity. The result: "American Idol" drew 32 million viewers, while a mere 17 million tuned into the Grammys, comprising one of its smallest audiences ever.

This year, the Grammys are back on Sunday, when the show airs at 7 p.m. on WBBM-Channel 2. Yet while they're no longer competing with Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and company, the Grammys are bringing a little idolatry into their own proceedings: The other part of the "Grammy Moment" promotion involves a contest whereby "one unsigned, mostly unknown artist" was selected by a vote of ordinary citizens who auditioned them online, selecting a lucky winner to perform onstage with Justin Timberlake during tonight's show.

How does trotting out an unknown singer in a transparent attempt to ape "American Idol" square with the stated purpose of the Grammys to "honor excellence, achievement and innovation in the recording arts and sciences"? It doesn't, and that underscores the biggest problem with the awards show: It increasingly has very little to do with the actual awards.

Last year, by the time the broadcast started, 95 of the 108 golden gramophone statues already had been handed out. This isn't to say that watching the winners of obscure categories such as Best Polka Album, Best Spoken Word Album for Children, Best Album Notes or Best Hawaiian Music Album accept their trophies and thank their Creator makes for riveting viewing. But it is supposed to be the reason we tune in.

Instead, producers have remade the telecast into a glorified musical variety show that tries to provide something for everyone -- a smattering of jazz, classical and Latin music, a few dollops of rock and hip-hop and plenty of mainstream pop -- leaving dedicated fans of those genres unsatisfied and pleasing no one. The trend in recent years has been toward big, glossy, star-heavy medleys like the one in 2004 that paid tribute to the Beatles by giving us mismatched pairings such as Dave Matthews, Vince Gill and Sting stumbling through part of "I Saw Her Standing There." We don't even get to hear many full performances by the original artists -- which is sad from an organization that's supposed to honor musical excellence.

The biggest news Sunday is that the three original members of '80s New Wave hit-makers the Police will reunite to kick off the show. Yes, this is one performance that may have some sizzle. But it is also the sweetest advertisement for what could be the most lucrative stadium tour of the 2007 summer concert season.

Also scheduled to serenade us: Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, the Dixie Chicks, Gnarls Barkley, John Legend, Ludacris, John Mayer, Corinne Bailey Rae, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Carrie Underwood.

Some names in this mix could deliver surprises that will have fans buzzing on Monday morning: Legend and Blige are powerful live performers, and Gnarls Barkley, the avant-rock-funk/ hip-hop collaboration led by DJ Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green, is a gonzo wildcard capable of something mind-blowing. The question is whether any of it will be worth 210 minutes of your time and long stretches of dull television, in between commercials left over from the Super Bowl.

My advice: Set your digital or video tape recorder to tape it, watch the three or four highlights Monday and skip the rest. You'll be glad you did.

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Every year, when it comes time to handicap the top Grammy Award categories, I cheerfully note that your guess is as good as mine. With 20,000 voting members and more hidden motivations and competing agendas than the House of Representatives, the Recording Academy is notoriously difficult to predict.

For every act that would seem to be an odds-on favorite, there's been another that's come from left field, if not Mars. How else to explain the Starland Vocal Band?

Nevertheless, I'm always game to try to predict the Grammy future. So here are my choices for the top categories in 2006.

RECORD OF THE YEAR

(awarded to the artist)

The Nominees: "Be Without You," Mary J. Blige; "You're Beautiful," James Blunt; "Not Ready to Make Nice," the Dixie Chicks; "Crazy," Gnarls Barkley; "Put Your Records On," Corinne Bailey Rae.

The Predicted Winner: This one's a tough call: Blunt's soporific ballad is exactly the sort of bland but ubiquitous pop that conservative voters love; Blige is a true diva whose multiple nominations indicate that the Academy is ready to crown her anew as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and there are, no doubt, liberal voters who'd like to congratulate the Dixie Chicks for thumbing their noses at President Bush at the expense of losing many of fans in the so-called red states. It's just a guess, but I'll go with Blige.

The Most Deserving: Gnarls Barkley, which absolutely made the most exuberant, inventive and unforgettable record of the year.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

The Nominees: "Taking the Long Way," the Dixie Chicks; "St. Elsewhere," Gnarls Barkley; "Continuum," John Mayer; "Stadium Arcadium," the Red Hot Chili Peppers; "FutureSex/LoveSounds," Justin Timberlake.

The Predicted Winner: Mayer, though I really hope it isn't so. I'm afraid that the scattershot nature of this category will divide the voters, with country, rock and dance-pop fans all going down those side-alley detours while bland, mainstream Mayer plows down the middle of the road.

The Most Deserving: Gnarls Barkley again -- it's the only album here that made my 10-best list -- but Timberlake is also deserving.

SONG OF THE YEAR

(awarded to the songwriter)

The Nominees: "Be Without You," Johnta Austin, Mary J. Blige, Bryan-Michael Cox & Jason Perry, songwriters (Mary J. Blige, artist); "Jesus, Take the Wheel," Brett James, Hillary Lindsey & Gordie Sampson, songwriters (Carrie Underwood, artist); "Not Ready to Make Nice," Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison & Dan Wilson, songwriters (Dixie Chicks, artist); "Put Your Records On," John Beck, Steve Chrisanthou & Corinne Bailey Rae, songwriters (Corinne Bailey Rae, artist); "You're Beautiful," James Blunt, Amanda Ghost & Sacha Skarbek, songwriters (James Blunt, artist).

The Predicted Winner: This is a sad lot of nominees. Blige has had much better moments, but she may claim this category if the Recording Academy gets on a roll in honoring her. Unfortunately, I suspect that massively popular musical mediocrity will prevail, so I'll say the prize will go to Blunt.

The Most Deserving: The Dixie Chicks, if only for their admirable gumption.

BEST NEW ARTIST

The Nominees: James Blunt; Chris Brown; Imogen Heap; Corinne Bailey Rae; Carrie Underwood.

The Predicted Winner: This batch is an even more pathetic group than the contenders for Song of the Year; in fact, it may be the sorriest bunch I've seen among the top four categories since I started covering the Grammys as a journalist and critic. Blunt, I am sorry to say, may claim the prize.

The Most Deserving: On this list, there's only one interesting artist, the British art-pop ingenue Heap, who's been recording for more than a decade. But it's an absolute travesty that Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco didn't make the cut, because he's a more daring and promising new artist than anyone who did.

Fiasco is up for three lesser prizes in the categories of Best Rap Solo Performance, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Album. He deserves Best Rap Song, to be sure, but I'm afraid he'll be shut out of all three of his categories by more established names such as Missy Elliott, T.I. and Ludacris.

 

 

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