For me, the Grammys largely come and go most years without much notice. I occasionally have some small emotional stake in one or two awards. This year I was pleased to see Bon Iver (praised here) not only nominated but win, and I was pleased that they refused to perform. I don’t often watch the show. It’s not out of protest or an attempt to be some sort of hipster; I’m more curious in the outcome than the fanfare, presentations, and most performances. And yes, I’m well aware that the Grammys are more of a corporate than artistic affair. (That’s part of what made Herbie‘s well-deserved 2008 Album of the Year win so exciting.)
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
This year I actually had Sunday evening free and decided I’d watch the awards show. You know, give it a chance. (After all, I was hoping for some Bon Iver success, and I was quite looking forward to the Beach Boys‘ reunion performance.) That lasted about 30-40 minutes, or however long it took for Chris Brown‘s sad display to end, before I shut it off. Bruce was Bruce (and wasn’t helped by the awkward camera work), and the derivative Bruno Mars set lost my interest after a minute or two. (I love James Brown’s music, especially when it’s James Brown doing James Brown. [Un]fortunately [for Bruno Mars], it’s more than wardrobe and staging.)
Then good ol’ Chris. Not only was I offended when I first saw it (having looked up from my laptop, as I was also following the Greek debacle), but my irritation has grown as the week’s progressed. His performance, as I’m sure you know by now, sparked controversy across all media, but not for artistic reasons. Everyone’s been in a furor over 1) the Grammys allowing him to perform after his pre-Grammy domestic violence a few years ago, and 2) various reactions to those reactions, etc., especially via the all-powerful Twitter (granting gravitas to dumb 14 year olds everywhere). Yes, domestic violence is awful, and should not be either taken lightly or even forgiven. But here I’m coming from a strictly artistic point of view – music only, personal history aside. People who have done far worse have received infinitely much more praise throughout the years, and it’s often necessary to separate the music from the (wo)man. As someone with a deep, deep love of the music of both Miles Davis and Richard Wagner, I know this all too well. As high as a mantle as I may place the appropriately-named Prince of Darkness, I know and discuss his many shortcomings. It would’ve been amazing to have been his employee and band member, but not so much his friend or acquaintance. Forget Brown, Miles could have given a masterclass in misogyny and domestic violence. (Let’s not forget that he also enjoyed boxing). And of course there was his legendary drug addiction. Yet he recently received his own US stamp…
Often, an artist is quite complicated, and while a person’s life can and does inform their art, the art can – though understandably not always – also be judged separately from the (cult of) personality. Sure, different strokes for different folks – what some can compartmentalize others cannot. It can be as severe as Miles, or as subjective (for me) as Ted Nugent. 🙂
Anyway, back to Mr. Brown. Aside from his absurd staging, which resembled more of a realized Q*bert fantasy than anything else, his lip-syncing was atrocious. Not that he was lip-syncing, but that he was doing so poorly. Unless, of course, he wanted onlookers to believe he could circular breathe while doing so. Add to that the fact that he was lip-syncing something that was severely auto-tuned and you’ve got a recipe for something really special. I watched it as one would watch a train-wreck, and then to my astonishment the crowd (largely of music industry types) went wild. Hm. A man lip-syncs vocal effects in front of thousands of musicians and is adored. Corporate or not, that’s something to behold.
This whole last week, Adam Carolla has been saying about Brown on his podcast that, “We’ve constructed a society in which you can be forgiven for anything as long as you can dance.” While he was saying that in context of Brown’s domestic violence and Jacko’s many controversies, his point could just as well be applied to Brown’s performance itself (and many other pop acts). As with most things, Ace was on-point.
I simply waited until Monday to catch the Beach Boys performance on the internet, and I must say I watched it probably twenty times. What a joy. Unfortunately, most reviews referenced or centered around their age and appearance, but let’s not forget that they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary. (That generally means old.) Sure, some of the harmonies could have been a little cleaner, but overall they sounded quite good for all being near 70. And in context, they outdid the preceding lackluster cover performances by Maroon 5 and Foster the People. (Case in point, when Adam Levine and that other guy joined them for the end of “Good Vibrations,” Levine made no effort to actually sing into the microphone. Was he afraid the judge wouldn’t turn his/her throne around?) Yes, the Beach Boys are old, and Brian Wilson often looked near death. However, given everything they’ve been through – professionally, emotionally, physically, mentally, and psychopharmacologically – it’s amazing those survivors did anything at all. (Just skim their lineup history for a taste of the drama.) And Brian Wilson actually looked to be having a ball at times.
As surprised as I was to hear so much discussion of Chris Brown after the Grammys, I was equally surprised – and disappointed – at the lack of Beach Boys discussion. While I didn’t expect them to receive undying praise from all media outlets, it seems as if their performance was largely unnoticed. Perhaps I’m cynical, but maybe there are just too many left alive to care. I mean, The Beach Boys are one of the biggest rock/pop acts in American music, and Brian Wilson is consequently considered one of the great American pop songwriters. The Beach Boys also allowed the US to give England & the Beatles a run for their money in the 1960s. I’m sure part of it is their heavy association with a particular geographical area (i.e., the tropical coast), and the fact that their enduring career provided a decent amount of cheese, possibly diluting the more substantial material. (I can’t be the only one my age who remembers endlessly hearing “Kokomo” at the roller-rink in elementary school.)
[This of course touches on a whole other area worthy of much discussion – longevity and surpassing one’s prime – distilled in this clip from High Fidelity (a GREAT movie for pop music snobbery — one of my favorites, and one I often reference in this blog) – simply substitute The Beach Boys for Stevie Wonder.]
Although Brian Wilson (and the rest of his bandmates) have enjoyed wildly different post-1960s careers than those of McCartney, Lennon, et. al., and even the Grateful Dead, the fact remains that they belonged to bands that laid the groundwork for much of what took place the subsequent 4+ decades. I saw a (skeletal) Beach Boys performance around 2003 – Mike Love had licensed the name for touring with bandmate Bruce Johnston and a backing band that I think comprised most of the Grammy backing band – and it quite fun. Similarly, and more profoundly, when I saw the original Black Sabbath in 2004 & 2005 and The Dead in 2010, I knew that I was seeing a genuine piece of rock history. Also in those cases, the old original members blew away their younger competition.
Going back to the aforementioned Grammy performances, The Beach Boys actually sang (!!!) those trademark tight vocal harmonies and ended up a footnote, whereas Chris Brown pretended to sing auto-tune and walked away with much of the press’s attention (thanks also to his tremendous hubris).
And jazz and classical musicians are sad to be largely excluded from this circus…? Blech.