An Askew Take on the Grammy Awards

by Bob Schwartz

Lorde - Grammy 2014
There are a few kinds of award shows. One is the kind that you’re glad you watched live, even if you can always see it in a recorded version later on, skipping the ads and the bad or worst parts, focusing only on the good or (if any) great parts. The other is the kind that, assuming you didn’t escape early, leaves you wondering whether or how you can get the two or three hours of your life back.

So which kind was Grammy 2014? Far from a CWOT (complete waste of time), with moments of validation, pathos, and brilliance. But with all the coverage and videos you can find, you don’t need one more. If you haven’t heard about Pharrell William’s hat or about Taylor Swift’s seizure-style hair whipping and mistaken belief that she won album of the year, check it out. Or not.

Here instead are a few askew points.

Lorde – Okay, this is close to mainstream coverage, but having written so much about Lorde before, I can’t skip it. She won Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Song for Royals. That’s best songwriting won by a seventeen-year-old. She also performed Royals, with a really haunting arrangement of an already haunting, what’s-that-sound track. She also has a softly herky-jerky stage presence, not quite Joe Cocker, but very cool and punk (unlike Taylor Swift’s hair whipping). Accepting an award she said, “Thank you everyone who has let this song explode. Because it’s been mental.” That’s her performing above.

Paul Williams – When Daft Punk won Album of the Year, one of their many awards, and couldn’t speak for themselves (because they are robots), a somewhat short older guy came to the mic, as one of the songwriters. That guy is Paul Williams, 72, who has been around the business so long that a recent documentary about him is called Paul Williams Still Alive. Many if not most viewers had no idea who this guy is, but he gave the final speech of the night, a funny, wonderful, inspirational few moments that put the whole Ryan Lewis and Macklemore/Same Love/mass gay marriage event in brightly positive context. For those who don’t know, Williams is a songwriter, singer, actor and, currently, president of ASCAP. His compositions include Top Ten hits for Barbara Streisand (Evergreen), Three Dog Night (Just an Old Fashioned Love), the Carpenters (We’ve Only Just Begun, Rainy Days and Mondays), and many more. Now he’s part of the Album of the Year in 2014. How f***g cool is that.

CBS and Language – And speaking about language, CBS or any broadcast network that wants to feature music awards, or for that matter movie or television awards, is going to have to figure out how to deal with language in 2014. Questions about the evolution/devolution of language norms and niceties are huge right now, but outside the scope of these notes. Kendrick Lamar’s electrifying performance with Imagine Dragons wasn’t spoiled by the bleeps (the button guy missed one, by the way), but it goes beyond silly to artistically hurtful. If you’re going to feature and exploit current art, take it and present it for what it is, or don’t. But if you want to feature universally praised nude paintings as cultural highlights, neither CBS nor the FCC should be putting black bars across the nice but naughty bits.

The Finale – And speaking about artistically hurtful, the show ran late, as awards shows will. The Grammys and CBS make a big promotional deal about all-star finales, in this case an interesting combination of Dave Grohl, Lindsey Buckingham, Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age. For those who don’t follow music, three of these people are in the pantheon: Grohl (Nirvana), Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). Most of these big-name combinations don’t work, but this was really captivating, in a kind of dark, progressive, alt rock way. It seemed a little unusual as an ending, but artistic, edgy and vital. Before it was done, though, the cameras pulled back, and the sponsorship promos began, followed by the credits—all while the artists were still performing.

Reznor tweeted: “Music’s biggest night…to be disrespected. FUCK YOU guys.”

Led Zeppelin – In covering the nominations, I wrote about the absurdity of Led Zeppelin being nominated for Best Rock Album. In 2014. For a performance in 2007. Of songs released in 1975. They won.