Column: Keeley's Corner
Grammys: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 20:02
Last Sunday, in the midst of compiling this paper in a busy Heights office, I watched the Grammy awards with a mixture of distraction, amusement, enjoyment, and confusion. I suppose that’s about the usual range of emotions experienced when sitting through an awards show, but the Grammys are a special case. Most surprises at the Oscars or Emmys are contained to the winners’ speeches, and the rest is all rehearsed monologues and montages. The Grammys, though, are by their nature performance-based, and thus a bit more unpredictable. Compared to other awards shows, the Grammys always offer some element of surprise.
Sometimes the surprise is unwelcome. Exhibit A: Taylor Swift’s opening rendition of the ever-popular “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Since she first hit the music scene, Swift has been gradually shifting away from country-pop to just plain pop, and this smash single is certainly her poppiest effort yet. Sunday’s performance—complete with a Mad Hatter outfit, Wonderland-themed clowns, and animals jumping around, and all sorts of bizarre design elements—seemed like an attempt to furnish the image of Swift as a crazy, outlandish pop star along the lines of Lady Gaga. But she’s not. Her entire popularity rests on her carefully crafted persona as a sweet, simple Southern belle. Even for devoted Swifties, it’s hard to deny that her surrealist nightmare of a Grammy performance was a definite miscalculation.
The night certainly had its share of misguided performances—not as hugely wrong-headed as Swift’s, perhaps, but head-scratching nonetheless. Who ever thought of putting Ed Sheeran together with Elton John? What do they share, besides being British men with red hair? It’s a classic example of the Grammy producers randomly throwing together a veteran musician with a younger one to try to make some sort of vague cross-generational statement. I have nothing against John, and I think Sheeran has a long and promising career ahead of him, but the pairing was rather unnecessary. Ditto the pairings of Rihanna and Jack White, and Maroon 5 and Alicia Keys. I’d rather see those artists perform on their own, rather than being awkwardly shoehorned in with someone else for ratings purposes.
And there are some artists I’d rather not hear at all. Grammys and popularity be damned, I can’t stand fun.—from their complete disregard for logical punctuation to their shrill, annoying harmonies, they seem designed to annoy me. Kelly Clarkson is a perfect example of a great voice with no personality: she did a technically fine job singing “Tennessee Waltz,” and she nearly put me to sleep in the process. The various country bands chosen to perform were about as interchangeable as you’d expect.
So who managed to actually make a favorable impression? Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, for one: recently back in the spotlight thanks to “Suit & Tie,” the unlikely duo showcased their effortless star power with that song and the debut of a new one. White, when given a chance to perform apart from Rihanna, lived up to his high standards with two cuts from his excellent solo album Blunderbuss. And hey, there were even a few unlikely collaborations that delivered the goods. The Black Keys, Dr. John, and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined forces for an electrifying take on “Lonely Boy,” and an all-star tribute to the late, great Levon Helm found Mavis Staples, Mumford & Sons, Zac Brown, and others grooving along to “The Weight.”
Finally, I would like to throw in my support for Frank Ocean. There’s been a noticeable backlash against the R&B star recently, as is typical for artists rumored to be the next big thing. Many scoffed at his Grammy performance of “Forrest Gump”—a short, slow album track off Channel Orange that lacks the obvious pizazz of singles like “Thinkin’ Bout You” or “Sweet Life.” But “Forrest Gump” is one of my favorites from Ocean, and his Grammy performance honored the original track while also changing it up—playing with the pace, offering new vocal inflections, and modifying the lyrics.
Perhaps that’s why people didn’t respond well: Ocean simply didn’t deliver what was expected, and ultimately, he lost out on Album of the Year to Mumford & Sons’ Babel. As much as I enjoy Mumford & Sons, I can’t say they have ever surprised me the way Ocean has. I expect them to continue to deliver more high-quality folk-rock on their third album, much in line with their first two. I genuinely don’t know what Ocean will do next—that, to me, makes him the more interesting artist, and the real winner of the night.