Of all the awards shows out there, the Grammys may be my favorite. It’s not that I think the Grammy voters have particularly good taste (I thought “Use Somebody” was an unfortunate choice for Record of the Year, for example), or that the show elevates unfortunately overlooked artists in a way that’s useful. But for someone like me, who is not particularly album-oriented, it’s a fun singles jukebox, a chance to see what folks have got without Auto-Tune working, and an opportunity to see a bunch of absurd, excess-oriented people try to outdo each other. And last night certainly succeeded on all of those fronts.
First, just to get this out of the way, Pink gave the best female non-Mary-J.-Blige-raising-money-for-Haiti vocal performance of the evening, straight-up, no question. She’ll be remembered for the bodysuit, and the water, and the aerial acrobatics, because people don’t remember ballads, and because she’s not as extreme a performance artist as Lady Gaga, and doesn’t employ hairography like Beyonce. But her rendition of “Glitter in the Air” was gorgeous and unstrained, not something that I think could be said for any of the other women who performed (Taylor Swift sounded flat for a lot of the time she was on stage, a particularly disappointing surprise). Seeing Lady Gaga with Elton John was fun, but her voice sounds beat-up, I thought the factory-style intro was odd and not in an effective way, and the duet would have been more effective if done straight, and without references to who the performers were. We don’t need to be told it’s cool to see them at twin pianos together.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I thought a lot of the imagery of the night was pretty strange. There’s the New York Times‘s ArtsBeat liveblog declaring “The theme of this Beyonce performance: Rhythm Nation goes totalitarian?” which I thought was pretty much exactly right (and Matt Yglesias was correct to point out on Twitter that her welching on the “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her” line from the “You Oughta Know” cover section of “If I Were A Boy.”). Will.i.am showed up in bandoleers and a Destro mask, and Jamie Foxx appeared to bearing a Union general’s dress uniform jacket and jeans. And Zac Brown Band wrapped up the oddly martial cast to a lot of the evening with their live performance of “Chicken Fried,” which, with its call to “Salute the ones who died / The ones that give their lives so we don`t have to sacrifice” is neither subtle nor unproblematic.
All of which contributed to making the tribute to Michael Jackson even more jarring than it already was, a maudlin mishmash of environmentalism and do-gooderism that completely ignored his legacy as a dancer, the deep and abiding problems with his philanthropic efforts, and frankly, his sexual persona. I assume the latter was because his children were going to be there, which I thought was awful, jarring, uncomfortable and sad. I wish someone had the good sense to keep them home, and let them grow up into functional adults. It’s more than their father ever had. And his experience should teach a lot of people that the Grammys is no place for them to do it.