"Not Bad: The 2002 Grammy Awards"
National Review Online
February 28, 2002
by Robert A. George


It was easy to tell from the very beginning that this would be a very different Grammy Awards show. Following an exhilarating opening performance by U2 ("Walk On"), host Jon Stewart walked through an archway which immediately beeped. He was immediately told to walk back through by "security" (a gentleman who looked suspiciously like comedian Jimmy Kimmel of Comedy Central's inane The Man Show and Fox's NFL pre-game show). By the end of the skit, two burly football-sized "guards" had stripped Stewart to his boxers.

Stewart noted, "Remember the days when we only had to worry about security because Eminem and Elton John were singing together?"

That was, of course, just last year — and that had been the main controversy and "hook" for the telecast: Allegedly homophobic white rapper dueted with the flamboyant and openly gay '70s pop superstar on the song, "Stan" (no relation to recently famous siblings Afghani-, Uzbeki-, Paki-, or Turkmeni-).

A lot has changed in that year.

The Grammys showed the difference. In the main, this was a rather tasteful, restrained affair. A bit long (it went 30 minutes over its scheduled three hours). It nonetheless accomplished its mission — showing off the best in contemporary popular music, with several touching tributes to the 9/11.

While never as over-the-top offensive as its younger, hipper, and definitely more crass rival, MTV's Video Music Awards, the Grammys have suffered in recent years with an identity crisis. It always tried to juggle its role as the "official" arbiter of authentically good music while being so stodgy that it missed good music by contemporary artists. Famous Grammy miscues included the Beatles only winning three Grammy awards while they were an active band; Jethro Tull winning a Best Hard Rock Performance award and, of course, ersatz group Milli Vanilli winning a Best New Artist (an "honor" that has spelled career doom for more than one "winner").

And so it has gone.

Over the last couple of years, head of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) Michael Greene has worked to bring the show stylistically into the 21st century — with some success, as the "buzz" surrounding the aforementioned Eminem/Elton John duet demonstrated. The price of this, unfortunately, has been Greene's insisting that he insert himself into a prominent role each year — when the time would be better given to another performance or someone with actual talent.

(Who does he think he is? Spike Lee?)

This year was no different, but we'll get to that shortly.

This was a good, solid show. The producers just pushed the music. The awards almost seemed to be an afterthought to showing performers, thus it was almost a lengthy concert with an award presentation and acceptance slipped in here and there. Generally speaking, that worked.

As said, U2 was a solid opener. They were also the guys to beat with eight nominations, including the coveted record and album-of-the-year nods. Well, it turned out, the guys to beat were: Neo-soul rookie Alicia Keys beat them for total wins (five to four) and the out-of-nowhere O Brother, Where Art Thou bluegrass soundtrack pulled the biggest upset, nudging out "All That You Can't Leave Behind" for Album of the Year.

Every non-American sick of the U.S. military hegemony and near-clean up at the Olympics must have been even further disgusted as not even the Best Band in the World — God's gift from Ireland — could stop America's current hegemony from extending into the prime music-awards shoe.

Well, they (the anti-American crowd) will get over it. U2 has always had a true love for America — warts, right-wing politicians, and all.

That's why the Lefty-leaning band has fans right here at NRO. This particular writer is a big U2 and gave a favorable review to the current album (which can be found here. Yesterday, Terry Mattingly gave an honest exploration of the band's spirituality. Awards' show watchers should hope and pray that Bono — with or without his bandmates — will continue to make appearances. Whether a presenter or a recipient, U2's charismatic lead singer always manages to give an eloquent statement. He was somewhat subdued last night though, demonstrating thanks that his best friends had been his bandmates for 20 years. And Record of the Year for "Walk On" is a pretty cool consolation prize.

Owing to 9/11, that was the general tone of the entire show: Tasteful and displaying a gratitude that married the personal with the universal.

The music honored was, in a sense, timeless. The O Brother music was, of course, classic bluegrass. But a clear line could be drawn to Alicia Keys from Stevie Wonder. One of the biggest crowd-pleasers was the appearance of ultra-diva Patti LaBelle at the conclusion of the hip-hop remake of her classic "Lady Marmalade." Patti LaBelle, as usual, screamed as much as sung — and the crowd loved it. Only question was, why didn't she come out earlier. It would have been no great loss if Christina Aguilera, L'il Kim, Mya, or Pink had gotten less airtime. While Train's "Days of Jupiter" (Best Rock Song) may not be original, you can hear echoes of early U2 earnestness in the melody.

Of course, a major awards hazard is the pretentious — or just plan dumb — speech. This show was pretty much devoid of them. Except for the aforementioned Mr. Greene.

Greene felt the need to lecture the audience — including those at home — on how illegal downloading from the Internet is the biggest threat to the music industry. Greene earnestly stated how they had hired three college students just to download music over the few days before the show. He pointed to the hardworking kids: They downloaded 6,000 songs!!!! Outrageous.

Of course, Greene didn't say how much he paid the students for this exercise (did they get to keep the downloaded tunes?). Greene pays himself a shade under $2,000,000 for running NARAS plus a $1 million-home and Mercedes Benz that the association provides for him. The New York Post reported over the weekend that much of the industry is not exactly thrilled with size of Greene's compensation. So, his lamentations of industry poverty were amusing on their face.

Blame the shrinking profit margins on kids trading songs, right? Even though: CDs are incredibly inexpensive to produce — yet cost nearly $20 for a new disk; the companies have phased out the entry-level "singles" over the years and continue to pump out lengthy, banal product. Yet, Greene wonders why young people are trading songs with the technology available to them. (Maybe Greene got a hint with the scattering of boos that his speech received).

What is Greene's solution? "We need leadership from Washington." Oh, right that's going to solve everything. By "leadership," don't be surprised if Greene demands that anti-copying chips be placed in PCs, to make CD-burning as difficult as possible. The record companies have tried this before. In the'80s "home-taping" was allegedly "destroying" the industry. They ended up bullying Congress into adding extra taxes on blank cassettes that would be supposedly redirected to artists and songwriters. The war with Napster was only the beginning — and all of us may be paying the price for the music industry's bad business decisions.

But, enough, not even Greene could drag the show down. Country superstar Alan Jackson's "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" was a moving elegy to September 11. It also probably carries the distinction of being one of the few hit contemporary songs (outside of gang-banging rap) that contains a lyric about reaching for a gun.

The show ended with an all-star group of gospel singers — including the legendary Al Greene, who was honored during the show.

Not too much boorish behavior, a lot of good music, and only one insufferable speech: Why can't more awards shows be like this?


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