News in Review: The Final Word on the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards (2010)

First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2010, Volume 17, #3

Written by John Metzger

Mon March 8, 2010, 06:30 AM CST

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Contrary to the criticism that it generally faces, the Grammy presentation is relevant. Nevertheless, its importance emanates not from the artistic talent it reveals, but rather from the omnipresence of the ceremony itself as well as its ability to act as an effective vehicle for sales. The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS), which stages the festivities each year in Los Angeles, has built a massive platform on network television, and over the past 52 years, it has grown too big to ignore.

The Grammy program routinely highlights all of the artists who have been nominated in each of the major categories — Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year. Still, music fans should expect more. Over the past decade, the event’s scope has tightened considerably, and the Grammy broadcast now provides only a superficial glimpse at the music business. This is why, in many circles, the ceremony lacks respect.

Like most oversized corporations, NARAS has become a proponent for maintaining the utter blandness of the status quo. As a result, it frequently chooses to take the easiest and safest route to pleasing the masses. Late to the party, so much so that it often fails to recognize the talent of up-and-coming artists, the organization often misunderstands the performers that it should be supporting. Even worse, NARAS has shown an increasing tendency to reward commercial success and generic appeal rather than artistic talent.

Consider this: Beyoncé has won 16 Grammy awards, six of which she picked up in 2010, and this year, Taylor Swift won four awards. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley nabbed merely three trophies in his entire career; The Beatles received only seven nods from NARAS. Part of this perplexing situation can be explained by the explosion in the number of categories covered by the institution. Still, even if the numbers were reversed, it doesn’t account for the enormous gap that lies between the quality of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — which was named the Album of the Year in 1967 — and Swift’s Fearless, which received the highest honor in 2010.

The worst part about the Grammy broadcast, however, is the sheer number of missed opportunities to highlight those performers who have made artistic statements with their work. In fact, this year’s ceremony may have been the worst program that NARAS has ever assembled. The show was designed to emphasize showmanship and spectacle rather than musical ambition. The program was staged, choreographed, and rehearsed to death, and a few ringers — such as Elton John, Andrea Bocelli, and Stevie Nicks — were invited to perform, as if their presence would bestow greater credibility upon the entirety of the affair.

Despite the never-ending stream of theatrics — such as Pink’s near-naked baptism, Lady Gaga’s recycled Madonna routine, and a weird union of Jamie Foxx, T-Pain, and Slash — the Grammy ceremony was dubiously dull. The few moments that might have been worthwhile either were undercut by blatant product placement or were executed poorly. Stephen Colbert’s opening monologue undeniably was designed to suit one purpose: the unveiling of the iPad. Elsewhere, Green Day plugged its Broadway musical by performing with the cast of American Idiot, while the collaboration among Eminem, Drake, and Lil Wayne was so heavily censored that it was turned into an incoherent joke.

Each year, Neil Portnow, the president of NARAS, takes a moment to articulate the importance of music education in the public school system. This is a noble gesture, one that is sorely needed. Yet, at the same time, the Grammy ceremony increasingly has shrunk from the task of presenting the full-range of artists who have been nominated for awards. There is no attempt by NARAS to enlighten viewers. Instead, the show is geared toward the lowest common denominator. Bocelli wasn’t invited on the program to introduce the uninitiated to the world of opera; he — along with Mary J. Blige and pianist David Foster — performed a remarkably bland rendition of Paul Simon’s Bridge over Troubled Water.

It is truly sad that the highlight of the Grammy broadcast looked like an afterthought: As an ode to Les Paul, Jeff Beck united with Imelda May to perform an overly rehearsed rendition of How High the Moon. Still, it is nice to see an elder in the music business actually gain some recognition for his highly influential contributions. Perhaps the key to enlivening the Grammy ceremony lies in the need to jettison the short-term flashes of fame that are recognized each year so that greater emphasis can be placed upon the people in the industry whose work has had a long-term impact. Instead of showcasing acts and songs that no one will remember, NARAS should force the newcomers to honor the recipients of the Lifetime Achievement and Trustees awards. Then again, Swift’s collaboration with Stevie Nicks was so painful to watch, it might be better to just forsake the up-and-coming performers entirely — at least until the record labels start taking the steps that are necessary to nurture them.

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Category: Record of the Year

Who won: Use Somebody (Kings of Leon)

Who Lost: Halo (Beyoncé), Poker Face (Lady Gaga), I Gotta Feeling (The Black Eyed Peas), You Belong with Me (Taylor Swift)

Comment: None of these songs is very appealing. Given the resurgence of the single as an art form, NARAS could have done much better with the selections.

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Category: Album of the Year

Who won: Fearless (Taylor Swift)

Who Lost: I Am...Sasha Fierce (Beyoncé), The Fame (Lady Gaga), The E.N.D. (The Black Eyed Peas), Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King (Dave Matthews Band)

Comment: Once again, N.A.R.A.S. missed the boat with its selections. It is difficult to imagine a blander slate of nominees than this. U2’s No Line on the Horizon deserved to be recognized, but it might have been too challenging for voters.

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Category: Song of the Year

Who won: Single Ladies [Put a Ring on It] (Thaddis Harrell, Beyonce Knowles, Terius Nash, & Christopher Stewart)

Who Lost: Pretty Wings (Hod David & Musze), Poker Face (Lady Gaga & RedOne), Use Somebody (Kings of Leon), You Belong with Me ( Liz Rose & Taylor Swift)

Comment: If these are the best-written songs of the year, the music industry is in bigger trouble than anyone previously believed.

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Category: Best New Artist

Who won: Zac Brown Band

Who Lost: Keri Hilson, MGMT, Silversun Pickups, and The Ting Tings

Comment: This is a better crop of artists than usual, and at least most of them are relatively new the scene. Still, it shouldn’t be surprising that the band with the biggest buzz and the biggest label took home the prize. At least, if Grammy history holds true, the Zac Brown Band will quickly fade away.

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Category: Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance

Who won: Bruce Springsteen (Working on a Dream)

Who Lost: Bob Dylan (Beyond Here Lies Nothin’), John Fogerty (Change in the Weather), Prince (Dreamer), Neil Young (Fork in the Road)

Comment: Springsteen’s album was better than Dylan’s. However, this is a performance-oriented category based on specific songs. Dylan should have been rewarded for his efforts on Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, one of the undisputed highlights of Together through Life.

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Category: Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals

Who won: Kings of Leon (Use Somebody)

Who Lost: Coldplay (Life in Technicolor II), Green Day (21 Guns), U2 (I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight), Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood (Can’t Find My Way Home)

Comment: The good news is that Coldplay did not win this year. The bad news is that there are a lot of performances that were overlooked in favor of buzz bands and established standbys.

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Category: Best Rock Album

Who won: 21st Century Breakdown (Green Day)

Who Lost: Black Ice (AC/DC), Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King (Dave Matthews Band), No Line on the Horizon (U2), Live from Madison Square Garden (Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood)

Comment: Arguably, U2 made a better album than Green Day. Nevertheless, it is difficult to dispute this selection, given that 21st Century Breakdown rocks much harder than No Line on the Horizon.

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Category: Best Rock Song

Who won: Use Somebody (Kings of Leon)

Who Lost: The Fixer (Pearl Jam), I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight (U2), 21 Guns (Green Day), Working on a Dream (Bruce Springsteen)

Comment: There are better songs on 21st Century Breakdown, No Line on the Horizon, and Working on a Dream that were not nominated. Pearl Jam deserved to win this category.

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Category: Best Alternative Music Album

Who won: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Phoenix)

Who Lost: The Open Door (Death Cab for Cutie), It’s Blitz (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Sounds of the Universe (Depeche Mode), Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (David Byrne & Brian Eno)

Comment: Phoenix put this category away a long time ago. Still, the selection of Byrne and Eno would have been a bolder move.

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Category: Best Country Album

Who won: Fearless (Taylor Swift)

Who Lost: Twang (George Strait), Defying Gravity (Keith Urban), Call Me Crazy (Lee Ann Womack), The Foundation (Zac Brown Band)

Comment: Like all of the other categories, the nominees are a poor reflection on the state of the music business. Swift’s victory likely made Hank Williams, Sr. roll over in his grave.

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Category: Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Who won: Five Peace Band: Live (Chick Corea & John McLaughlin)

Who Lost: Brother to Brother (Clayton Brothers), Remembrance (John Patitucci Trio), The Bright Mississippi (Allen Toussaint), Quartet Live (Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow & Antonio Sanchez)

Comment: This category has become a popularity contest for those artists with widespread name recognition. Once again, the acts that were deserving of an award were not even nominated.

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Category: Best Americana Album

Who won: Electric Dirt (Levon Helm)

Who Lost: Together through Life (Bob Dylan), Wilco [The Album] (Wilco), Little Honey (Lucinda Williams), Willie and the Wheel (Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel)

Comment: On occasion, the Grammy program does get it right, and oddly enough, it generally happens in the Americana category. Arguably, Neko Case deserved to receive some attention here. Nevertheless, given the nominees, Electric Dirt is a fine selection.

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Category: Best Contemporary Blues Album

Who won: Already Free (Derek Trucks Band)

Who Lost: This Time (Robert Cray Band), The Truth According to Ruthie Foster (Ruthie Foster), Live: Hope at The Hideout (Mavis Staples), Back to the River (Susan Tedeschi)

Comment: Surprisingly, Staples received a nomination, and based upon the merit of the albums that were competing in this category, she likely posed the biggest threat to Trucks.

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Category: Best Contemporary Folk Album

Who won: Townes (Steve Earle)

Who Lost: Middle Cyclone (Neko Case), Our Bright Future (Tracy Chapman), Live (Shawn Colvin), Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (Elvis Costello)

Comment: Since Case wasn’t nominated in the Americana category, she should have taken the trophy home for this one, even though Middle Cyclone isn’t exactly a folk-oriented effort.

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Category: Producer of the Year, Non-Classical

Who won: Brendan O’Brien (AC/DC’s Black Ice, Mastodon’s Crack the Skye, Killswitch Engage’s Killswitch Engage, and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream as well as Pearl Jam’s single The Fixer)

Who Lost: T Bone Burnett, Ethan Johns, Larry Klein, Greg Kurstin

Comment: This category was really a toss-up between O’Brien and Burnett. O’Brien has the more commanding profile. Hence, he took home the trophy. Still, his victory was well-deserved.

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Of Further Interest...

47th Annual Grammy Awards: Commentary and Winners (2005)

48th Annual Grammy Awards: Commentary, Nominees, and Winners (2006)

49th Annual Grammy Awards: Commentary, Nominees, and Winners (2007)

51st Annual Grammy Awards: Commentary, Nominees, and Winners (2009)

53rd Annual Grammy Awards: Commentary, Nominees, and Winners (2011)

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