The GRAMMYS turned out to be one of the classiest and most entertaining award shows ever. Certainly the show blew away the Super Bowl on both fronts. Even the commercials paid their audience the compliment of being clever, genuinely witty, and even musically sophisticated.
Compared to, say, the Oscars or even the Golden Globes, the Grammys display little personal vanity, fashionable “Hollywood” political correctness, or drama detached from the artistry being honored. There’s a lot that could be said about the general high level of performances and deep respect shown for the American tradition of popular music.
So let me just mention seven moments that particularly moved me, keeping in mind that I’m a pretty tone-deaf, musically illiterate, out-of-touch, old white guy from the sticks.
- LL Cool J was a classy host. He displayed who he is without calling attention to himself. He was dressed for the occasion as a gentleman of style. He also led the nation in prayer for a lost member of the family of American popular music—Whitney Houston. The prayer, simple and personal (beginning with “Heavenly father”), in its way showed something about what unites our African-American and our Country popular music—the two sources of most of our soulful music excellence today.
- Adele! I have to admit I’ve been suffering from Adele illiteracy, despite hearing my students sing her praises. I don’t listen to a radio station that features today’s hits. But her soaring, singular, incredibly strong voice is a once-in-a-generation thing, and so are her songs—based on deeply felt personal emotion. She holds nothing back. Her performance was absolutely unadorned or ungimmicky. She does nothing to call attention to her physical appearance. She’s classy because she doesn’t identify herself with being working class (who can’t be charmed by her being so unpretentiously comfortable with her “common” accent?) but with experiences that transcend class and all that. She is (with all due respect) the sort of opposite of Lady Gaga (who’s all about making vaguely but insistently political STATEMENTS) and the opposite of Taylor Swift (I hate to be MEAN, but Taylor can’t really SING). Adele’s songs aren’t so clever lyrically, but the music and her performances are (to speak English English for a moment) authentically brilliant. The best commercial, I think, was the Target one featuring the African American kids singing the Adele song on the school bus—showing that her music, to make a corny but true point, overcomes the barriers of race and class and all that. It’s just a great bleepin’ (to sort of quote Adele) song.
- The Beach Boys singing “Good Vibrations.” There’s a lot mean that could be said here about mixing them up with the musically undistinguished Maroon 5. And the actual performance was a bit of mess, barely a shadow of one of the most memorable American recordings ever. Seeing and hearing the old Boys in their present condition was a bit sad. But a classic, one of our best pop recordings ever, was being honored, as was the troubled genius Brian Wilson. And the God, family, and deeply-felt romantic love orientation of the Beach Boys fit in perfectly for the evening.
- The only insistently political statement of the evening was the opening song by Bruce Springsteen. I don’t think it is one of Bruce’s better songs, and the lyrics didn’t really resonate with me, at least. But it’s still always a treat to see the band, even without Clarence.
- The tribute to Glen Campbell, who, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is in the midst of his last tour. His own performance was, in its way, tough without being defiant. The audience’s overwhelming reception of it was both an authentic and a classy appreciation of a famous but underrated (and path-breaking) performer. The Band Perry’s fine performance of Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” reminded me, of course, of that nothing these days touches Country at its best. It reminded me too of the old Glen Campbell show, which was itself a consistently classy, if short-lived, display of a moment in one of our country’s musical peaks—when the music of the Sixties sort of merged with Country (as in The Band and the later Johnny Cash).
- Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood. An African American and a Country product of “American Idol” turned out to be among our most intelligent and sensitive (not to mention hugely talented) popular singers. Hudson did justice to the Whitney Houston classic without quite the same voice through the simplicity of the arrangement. And who would have thought Carrie Underwood and Tony Bennett??
- Paul McCartney—with a ballad and a Beatles melody. It’s not that he’s as good as he used to be as a performer. We were reminded that he just has a very good nature or was born with class.