Grammys 2018: Where the Revolutionary Meets the Irrelevant

Kendrick Lamar and Daddy Yankee were the low-lights of this year's telecast.

January 30, 2018 5:00 am
Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.  (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for NARAS)
Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for NARAS)

Jane Weaver, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Anna Von Hausswolf, Sunflower Bean. Oh and Cindy Freaking Wilson, who made one of the best albums of 2017.

They freaking matter.

So I can’t waste space arguing about whether Alessi Cara a really qualified for her category or not. That’s bloody screaming at the waiter on the Titanic because he gave you Perrier instead of Pellegrino.

I know of no other awards show that so misrepresents the broad beauty and power and diversity of the medium it’s supposed to represent than the Grammys.

The Grammys are the sad trombone to your life with music. It whispers in your ear, is that all there is? Is that all our culture has amounted to?

I would like to believe that music has the power to topple Presidents, but I am more realistic: I will settle for the idea that music can give light to a lonely life, give you a thrill in a groaning day, create an ecstatic dream of empathy and human potential, serve as a secret code to help you find your tribe.

For the most part, the 2018 Grammy broadcast was a parade of irrelevant, sometimes seductive noise. There was precious little that was holy or angry, gave hope to the lonely, or prepared us for war.

But there were a few moments when the Grammys rose, and I am honestly happy to say that the power of those moments was so strong, so remindful of the grace and gravity of pop, that it virtually redeemed the whole garish, grinning, horny enterprise.

The show began on a ridiculous note. Kendrick Lamar’s enormous production number was, actually, in the tradition of the Clash and the Sex Pistols: it affected meaning but stopped far short of anything that offered any genuine instruction or inspired actual action. It sure did look good, and it fooled a lot of people into thinking, “Boy, we just saw something meaningful!” But it actually didn’t mean a goddamn thing. Therefore, it was an atrocity, the worst kind of “big” gesture: Something that appears to be saying something, but actually says absolutely nothing, risks nothing, presents only a decal of hope.

The other Mariana Trench of this whole broadcast was Daddy Yankee’s minstrel show of redneck ideas of Hispanic sexuality. This was precisely what we did not need in 2018. Bizarrely, both The New York Times and the Washington Post raved about the Daddy Yankee twerk-a-thon, something they surely would not have done if it was Motley Crüe or Poison’s music accompanying ButtCheekExpo ’18. Seriously, man, imagine if KISS had used that kind of staging, then what would the Times be saying? Get freaking real.

Some other random impressions of the 2018 Grammys:

James Corden, the non-thinking man’s Graham Norton, did a very solid job, but isn’t it obvious Dave Chappelle will be hosting next year?

Can I note that the complete and utter absence of Dave Grohl was like waking up to find a toothache gone?

My god, the show had more commercials than the last six minutes of Jeopardy!

Ed Sheeran wasn’t in the room to accept his two awards, and that was deeply fortunate because it meant that we would not be subjected to this lucky, vaguely lovable fool who is the absolute culmination of the soft-bellied sterile likability that began 20 years ago with my own dear Hootie. Perhaps Sheeran is the bottom of this likability wave; maybe the spirit of Mark E Smith, spitting and drug-fueled and bitter and brilliant, will come back and fist the milquetoast right out of this generation of sighing guitar saddies.

Speaking of which, both Lady Gaga and Pink did a decent job of displaying The New Sincerity (i.e., what happens when a really famous singer gets a hold of an Elliot Smith record and/or decides that their latest costume should be no costume), and it worked very well for Pink – her simple and honest performance was one of the highlights of the night – and not so well for Gaga, who came across as a Xerox of a chalk outline of Carol King channeling Kate Bush. I honestly believe Gaga meant well, but can she just go do Evita on Broadway and be done with it?

Sting is an asinine turd, but his performance of “An Englishman in New York” was a genuinely impactful stab at social relevance in an evening that desperately needed more moments like this (honestly, it should have been all moments like this: we are at freaking war). However, this was almost eradicated by the fact that when he showed up a few minutes later as a presenter, he was wearing a freaking ascot (a freaking ascot), which reminded us that Sting truly is rock’n’roll’s equivalent of Uncle Phil in Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Although I generally like U2, I am awfully goddamn tired of them: This is because they have become the official Shabbos Goys of rock, trotted out to do a specific job, which is to remind people, “Ohhhh, there was thing called rock, your dad listened to it! And here’s U2 to with their Nostalgic Sound of Rock!” But you want to know something? The Grammys may have no idea, but rock’n’roll, brutal and beautiful and resonant and ringing and rude, is out there and healthier then ever (please listen to Gnod, the Idles, Sunflower Bean, Wire, RW, etcetera).

As for the U2 performance itself (which was a pre-tape, by the way), like Kendrick’s abomination, it was a decent piece of theater, but was one single person’s life or mind changed because of it? I think we know the answer to that. Man, do I hate meaningless shit dressed in the neon sackcloth of meaning.

Now, on to the nice stuff: The vast majority of awards were handed out before the live telecast went on the air, and these included three absolutely wonderful and even surprising victories: Kraftwerk won Best Dance/Electronic Album for their monumental 3-D The Catalogue, which may be one of the best albums of the decade; Leonard Cohen, peculiarly, won Best Rock Performance for his elegiac final album, You Want It Darker?, and his victory kept the Foo Fighters from winning one of the awards they were up for; and I was most delighted that the Best Regional Roots Music Album Grammy went to Kalenda by the Lost Bayou Ramblers. Kalenda is one of 2017’s finest LPs, a glorious and rollicking fat sheepskin blanket of a record that balances high-energy traditional Cajun music with original, almost Radiohead-ish experimentation.

There were some giant positives in the telecast itself:

Jon Batiste’s and Gary Clark Jr.’s tribute to Fats Domino and Chuck Berry was pure and engaging and reminded us that at the heart of this culture of smoke and mirrors were a few men in Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans who turned the rhythms of America’s unwilling immigrants into the poetry of desire.

Ben Platt’s “Somewhere” was a high point of this damp holler of a show, partially because he looks like someone who was actually beaten up in high school; so when those words came out of his mouth – “There’s a place for us” – it felt like he meant it. I can’t speak for you, I really can’t, but I still think of rock’n’roll as a way for the outsiders to find their kingdom, their princes, their Bowies, their Bernsteins, their Lance Louds, their Glenn Goulds; and Ben Platt reminded us of this.

Patti LuPone freaking killed it, her performance spoke to the eternal power of skill in the service of emotion and emotion as the foundation of skill. If there was one single performance I would carry away from this year’s Grammy’s, it would be LuPone; it was the definition of bringing down the house.

I also was given great hope by the extremely powerful speeches of Camila Cabello and Janelle Monáe, and I so very wish the whole night had been full of such moments. This was what this show needed more of, because there is darkness on the horizon, friends, and all the twerking in the world won’t make it go away. The capstone to all this was the powerful, unaffected, honest performance by Logic of “1800-273-8255.” It reminded us that music can, truly, send sparks out into the world and change people’s lives.

Do you remember when music saved your hour, saved your day, saved your life? That moment in the car, when you heard that one song and realized you could go on? That moment when you came home from school and heard that one song that made the whole days’ grim grind go away? Do you remember that face on a record sleeve that took you eight steps closer to knowing who you were and how you would live and love? Logic reminded us that music has that power. I believe music can make us see our neighbor differently. I believe it is a platform for awe. I believe it should give us a friend in the darkness of prejudice, loneliness, and rejection.

The Grammys achieved this in a few moments – Patti LuPone, Logic, and Janelle Monáe, especially. So I still have some hope.

So wake me when Darius Rucker decides that he needs to become Ché Guevara.

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