In past years, Grammy night has traditionally been among my wife's least favorite evenings. It's because I tend to grow cynical and bitter about certain contemporary performers and shout epithets filled with jealousy and rage at the television, except only Melody can hear them.
This year, however, the annual Grammy Awards show was downright entertaining and bordered on the spectacular. There was no Lady Gaga emerging from an egg, and everyone's favorite egomaniac, Kanye West, skipped the proceedings entirely. What there was in abundance, though, was great singing and dynamic performances, except for Taylor Swift's bizarre opening number, which appeared like a Fellini stage version of Alice in Wonderland if all the actors were insane. Her song, "We Are Never Getting Back Together," was yet another in a long line of hate-screeds about her latest former lover. It even included Swift kicking a hapless man around the stage, but I'm certain he was guilty of something. I'm just about over Swift's male-bashing song list and her repertoire of exes. If she ever had a successful romantic relationship, Taylor would have nothing to write about. What's the opposite of misogyny?
CBS, still smarting from Janet Jackson's Superbowl "wardrobe malfunction" a decade ago, wanted to take no chances this time around. The network sent an unintentionally hilarious memo around to the program's guest list saying, "Buttocks and female breasts must be adequately covered," leaving the exposure of the male buttocks as optional, I suppose. "Avoid exposing bare flesh under curves of the buttocks and the buttocks crack." I guess the show wasn't planning on having any plumbers in attendance. "Bare sides or under curvature of the breasts is also problematic. Be sure the genital region is covered so that there is no visible 'puffy' bare skin exposure."
Although the CBS memo read like the Ken Starr report on the sins of Bill Clinton, it was the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet to a bunch of rock stars who thrive on outrage. It's just a good thing that Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wasn't there. As it was, Rihanna showed forbidden nipple exposure and under-bosom tattoos, J-Lo showed an endless leg, and Alicia Keys showed pretty much everything. The undisputed champion of ignoring the network memo was Katy Perry, who single-handedly won for best performance by a duo.
On the red carpet pre-show, when asked who she was wearing, Perry replied, "Hugh Hefner."
Justin Timberlake once again did the home folks proud. His new, soul-tinged songs bring back memories of the glorious days before Auto-Tune, when singers had to actually sing, and there is still a little bit of Memphis in his compositions. Justin's big band may have been called the Tennessee Kids, but he is a mature artist in his prime. Even Beyoncé said, "We all love you, Justin," and it seemed to be true. Only, Justin better watch his ass, or buttocks in this case, because Bruno Mars is hot on his tail, so to speak. Mars is simply the most dynamic performer going, with a spectacular voice. Justin may be smoother, but Mars has got the whole James Brown thing down. I don't leave the house much, but I might just pay to see Bruno Mars in concert, depending on the seats. When Rihanna, Ziggy Marley, and Sting joined Mars in a tribute to Bob Marley, singing "Could You Be Loved," the ordinarily jaded music industry crowd was on its feet. I'll bet it smelled something like teen spirit in the room as giant images of the dreadlocked Rastaman were projected overhead.
A Memphis influence was a continual presence throughout the broadcast. A regeneration of soul music influenced by Stax Records is in vogue, as is a roots-based, Sun Sound, as represented by Mumford & Sons. The names and images of "Duck" Dunn and Andrew Love were featured in a tribute to artists we have lost this year, though not prominently enough for my taste, and the musical tribute to beloved Arkansan Levon Helm featuring the incomparable Mavis Staples again had the Hollywood audience dancing in the aisles. Kelly Clarkson sang a masterful version of "The Tennessee Waltz," in memory of Patti Page, and emcee LL Cool J mentioned Memphis in reference to Timberlake's hometown. We've got the heart. If we only had a brain.
If Ike Turner lost everything after his violent abuse of Tina was made public, why does Chris Brown still have a career? The horrifying photos of what he did to Rihanna were sufficient evidence that he should disappear from public life. Yet, there he was, on the front row, nominated for best something-or-other, in the same category as his rival, Frank Ocean. Brown, proving that he also punches men, was in a fistfight with Ocean last month over a parking space at a recording studio. According to police reports, Brown threatened to shoot Ocean. When Ocean won the award for "Best Urban Contemporary Album," the cameras captured Brown remaining in his seat while the audience stood. The capper came later when Brown and Rihanna were photographed reunited and smiling, abuser and enabler. Meanwhile, Frank Ocean's meandering version of "Forrest Gump," was bewildering, despite the nifty camera effects. A flock of monarch butterflies also flew off of Carrie Underwood's dress, and a concluding rap summit, featuring LL Cool J and Chuck D, was interrupted for CBS' rap, which, after all, is the name of the game. Oh, I forgot. They also gave out a bunch of awards — but who cares?
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.