Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hammer: Life, death and the Grammys

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2012 at 11:30 AM

The Grammy Awards ended Sunday night with Sir Paul McCartney singing "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight," then delivering The Beatles' very last nugget of wisdom: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

Hanging over the shoulders of all the participants and viewers was the ghost of Whitney Houston, who died almost exactly 24 hours earlier. She knew how to steal a show in life and proved Sunday she knows how to do it in death, too.

The show is an interesting prism through which to view not only the status of the music industry, which seems to have survived a near-death experience itself in recent years but also pop culture in America. Even more so than the Super Bowl, the Grammys reflect the status of American culture, its decline, its excesses and its glimmers of hope.

Even more than the Oscars, the Grammys measure America's pulse. Few people go to movies every week compared to the number plugged into music on a daily basis. The earplugs worn by nearly every person you see walking around in public are playing some sort of music, whether it's a live stream from Pandora, an album purchased from iTunes or a CD downloaded for free from the Pirate Bay.

And so it's worth analyzing the state of the music industry every now and again to see how it's doing. The total destruction of the recorded-music business is now almost complete. Everyone who wants to know how to get music for free from the Internet has already learned how to do so.

A larger number of consumers don't know how and don't want to know. They comprise a greater percentage of consumers than just a few years ago. For many people, especially older people, stealing music from the Internet is too complicated and not worth the hassle.

They're the ones who go to Target and Wal-Mart and buy Adele's album on CD instead of downloading it. They represent the last few paying customers of recorded music and it's little surprise that the Grammys were tailored to them.

The Grammys have always been directed straight down the middle. Occasionally a maverick act like Kanye West or Lady Gaga will walk away with prizes but the Grammys prefer to play it safe by giving its most coveted prizes to acts who rack up the most sales while offending or alienating the fewest number of people.

It's no mistake that Lady Antebellum, an act beloved by grandmothers everywhere, were last year's big winners. Adele, this year's biggest winner, is extremely talented but very notably uncontroversial. The Grammys reward innocuous acts disproportionately to their presence in music.

Only the Foo Fighters provided any kind of rebel spark at the awards, possibly because they're as mainstream a rock band as is possible. Only the Grammys make them appear edgy and controversial.

A true representation of the state of the music business would have broadcast some Swedish death metal, the leading bands from the expanding children's music genre and at least a nod towards classical music. The Grammys aren't interested in that, though; they serve as an annual tribute to the most common denominators.

One thing the Grammys love is a dead superstar. They plan elaborate productions built around paying tribute to the deceased each year, which is why Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt paid tribute to Etta James early in the show.

But the death of Whitney Houston presented a special problem for the Grammys, coming so close to the event itself. The show had been set in stone for weeks and making even a slight adjustment requires an army of producers and technicians working overtime to make it happen.

That actually served to make the improvised tribute to Houston even more moving than it would have been. A single spotlight on Jennifer Hudson as she sang "I Will Always Love You" was a more effective and tasteful tribute than would have the 20-person army of mourners the Grammys would have assembled if there'd been time.

The full legacy of Whitney Houston is still being created. Her death is too fresh, too raw to completely absorb. In her own way, she represented the epitome of pop music and was adored by Grammy voters for years for being so popular and so uncontroversial.

When she started battling addiction issues, she became commercial poison and lost most of her allies, which is again typical of the mainstream music business. Then she died, redeeming herself with the Grammy executives and becoming yet another martyr in the name of substance abuse.

Like I said, the Grammys are a pretty accurate mirror of contemporary society, for good and for ill. May poor Ms. Houston rest in peace and her spirit find rest after a turbulent and abbreviated life.

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