mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.
In the first ten minutes of watching the 2015 Grammy Awards on February 8th, I remembered why I stopped watching the Grammys sometime in the late 1990s, but there I was. I entered the zeitgeist, attempted to do my part. Stands to reason that a music columnist would write about the Grammy Awards ceremony, one of music’s biggest nights. Still, the pace was plodding, painful. Twenty minutes into the telecast, only one award had been given (Best New Artist, to singer Sam Smith). But we’d had three boring and bewildering performances: the puzzling decision to open the show with relevant rock band AC/DC; a sweeping, tired ballad by Ariana Grande; a weird cross-generation duet between Tom Jones and Jessie J. Awkward, stilted jokes abounded from the host, LL Cool J.
One thing that made the Grammys tolerable was Twitter, where—despite the flat screen television behind me, tuned to CBS—I watched the show. The general consensus was one of boredom; the producers appeared to have lifted the geriatric appeal of the Oscars, and grafted them onto the Grammys with a palatable, pop flavor that seemed otherwise bland to me. Bland might not be the accurate word, despite its obvious applicability to anyone who watched the telecast. Perhaps culturally irrelevant, though admittedly that last accusation is only appropriate if you aren’t in the Grammy Awards’ key demographic of soccer moms and cool dads in bad denim.
In any event, it is this possible irrelevance that continues to gnaw at me, so to speak, three days after the show. Throughout the day, in thinking about what precisely I would write about the awards ceremony, I wondered if I would weigh in on Beyoncé losing Album of the Year to Beck, and Kanye West’s subsequent antics and comments. Or I could write about Iggy Azalea and her Grammy shutout (thank you Jesus), but given her one-woman-war against Papa John’s Pizza, I would only be piling on at this point.
I could always double back to new black Pharrell and his new rendition of “Happy”—complete with Wes Anderson aesthetic and short set—but honestly, I have nothing nice to say about him at this moment, and so I’ve elected to withhold the vitriol for a future piece. There’s little to say about Sam Smith, the darling of this year’s awards; personally, I don’t like his music, but he has four Grammys now. And who can forget Annie Lennox’s performance of “I Put a Spell on You”? Conflicted feelings abound, as her fantastic showing on stage belied her disturbing whitewashing of “Strange Fruit.”
Cultural relevancy—in this case, what an award means to the winner, to those who’ve bestowed the award, and to those in the audience—is a matter of popular opinion. A difficult litmus test to conduct these days, particularly in Twitter’s echo chambers. While many are happy with Beck’s Morning Phase winning Album of the Year (award presenter Prince did not appear to be one of these folks), others—certainly people in my timeline—teetered between shock and incredulity that Beyoncé would lose at all, let alone to Beck. In other words, to some, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences got it right with the Beck victory; to others, the Academy blew it. Me? I think Beyoncé should’ve been the winner, but I admit to bias. All of this, then, leaves me with only my opinion, the slippery slope toward “thinkpiece” territory. Fair enough.
It’s useless to argue whether a particular Grammy should’ve gone to this singer or that rapper. To a degree, it’s a matter of taste, and at some point one comes off as a sore loser. That said, the entire telecast was painful to watch: almost four hours of ballads, and ballads, and Madonna being manhandled by backup dancers, and ballads, and President Obama’s recorded remarks on sexual violence—poignant and needed words, but entirely shoehorned into a ceremony peppered with beloved celebrities who’ve committed gross, criminal acts against women—and more ballads.
And no rapping of any kind, minus a performance by Common (back to this in a minute). Even Kanye West, who hadn’t performed at the Grammy Awards since 2008, couldn’t save me as he stood in light shining from the floor, adorned in a velour sweatsuit, and warbled through his latest track “Only One,” then returned with Rihanna and Paul McCartney to perform the awful “Four Five Seconds.”
Which brings me to Beyoncé’s rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the penultimate performance of the night. The hymn appears on the Selma movie soundtrack, which was performed by singer Ledisi. The issue of Ledisi being swept to the side for Beyoncé, and why, is for another day (though I believe Ledisi would’ve given the song the power, the black-church-gravitas, the show’s producers were obviously going for in the first place).
The entire performance, its much-appreciated nod to Hands Up, Don’t Shoot notwithstanding, rang false to me. Mere window-dressing, another case of white cultural gatekeepers putting the onus on black performers to inject a show with some soul, to bring to life an otherwise dead evening full of necrotic numbers crooned and pantomimed.
Common, with assistance by John Legend, wrapped up the night with their track “Glory,” another single from Selma. The lone rap performance of the night, Common’s verse was slow, measured, more spoken word than hip-hop—a stylistic choice the once-ferocious Chicago emcee has made for a number of years now. Nothing about the show resonated or mattered to me. Nothing about it seemed relevant. A shame, then, to have to wait three and a half hours to see Beyoncé and Common and John Legend perform back-to-back as a feel-good moment (for whom?) constructed to ease racial tensions, I suppose.
Are the Grammy Awards irrelevant? Hard to say. Kanye is mad because Beyoncé didn’t win, and people are mad at Kanye (again), and I stayed up until midnight to watch the proverbial paint dry. Perhaps not so much irrelevant as just a gargantuan waste of people’s time, a separate issue altogether.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.