Art, Lies, Masks, and Grammy Awards: Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, and Cee-Lo Green
(February 14, 2011)
It’s too easy to bash the Grammy Awards. Sure, I could write about the dearth of really interesting or artistically successful records among this year’s nominees. I could catalog the long, long list of Grammy misfires: the returning of Milli Vanilli’s Grammy, the woefully inadequate sixties Grammys (when the Anita Kerr Singers (who?) repeatedly trounced the Beatles for major awards), the belated embrace of formerly-snubbed sixties and seventies artists (Santana and Steely Dan sweeping the awards in 2000 and 2001, and Jethro Tull, fifteen years past their prime beating Metallica square in the middle of theirs), but that’s all too easy. Honestly, most years I don’t even bother to watch the Grammy ceremonies. The last one I remember vividly was the year that O Brother, Where Art Thou? hit big, and the gathered music royalties, rockers, rappers, and big-haired country divas alike sat in open-mouthed reverence at septegenarian Ralph Stanley’s accapella “O Death”. Since that moment of genuine awe, I’ve mostly been content to look at the list of winners the next day or check out the performers later on youtube. But this year, the Grammy hype hooked me into watching by advertising one performance: that of Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan tv appearances, like his concerts, always offer the promise of the unexpected. Will he be reinventing an old standard in a way that gives it new meaning or re-contextualizing a line so that an entire song shifts focus? Or will he snarl unintelligibly, ignore the audience, and leave early? When he appeared on the Grammy Awards in 1998, promoting his return-to-form, Time Out of Mind, he and his band were placed in front of an audience of enthusiastic fans, one of whom, shirtless and emblazoned with the legend “Soy Bomb”, broke, like an ant separating itself from the herd, to weave his awkward way through Dylan and his band, only to be wriggled across the stage by security while Dylan smirked and continued his performance of “Love Sick.” I tuned in Sunday night, hoping for a replay of this sort of theatre: a blast of genuine emotion across a sea of mediocre choreography.
Before the Awards, I watched 60 Minutes, which featured Anderson Cooper interviewing Lady Gaga. The self-important Gaga has, for the most part, been beneath my aging radar, although we did spend some class time on Camille Paglia’s Sunday Times piece last semester. What struck me was that Gaga claimed that she has studied the “Sociology of Celebrity” and discovered that the key, roughly, to staying a successful celebrity is to avoid lying. With the Dylan performance ahead, I thought of Bobby’s many personae, and the multitude of lies, masks, poses that have attended it and revealed him and his audience. Performance, after all, is, strictly speaking, a lie, but it’s a lie that reveals some truth. At least, I think that’s what Robert Allen Zimmerman would tell us. Gaga, despite her assumed name and persona had, very earnestly, stressed to Anderson Cooper the importance of honesty between her and her fans and I wondered whether this was a pronouncement worth considering pre- Grammy Awards –when she seems to be the first true star of the post-physical product internet music industry.
|The redoubtable Bobby|
With the inevitable theorizing that accompanies me every time I watch tv (curse the blasted academy etc.), I duly watched the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards. The early segments were unimpressive: an Aretha Franklin tribute more evocative of American Idol than the Queen of Soul’s great moments, Justin Bieber, Martina McBride. Dylan appeared a little over an hour in, preceeded by indie folk darlings Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers. Both acts delivered inspired performances that will no doubt increase both their sales and their visibility; then came the payoff – both bands uniting to back Bobby in a completely ramshackle hootenanny version of “Maggie’s Farm”; no doubt it was a trainwreck, especially with the eleven onstage players all attempting to follow and sing along with Bob. Sure, it was technically awful, but it warmed my heart: those various Avetts and Mumfords, standing in the shoes of Levon Helm and George Harrison and Johnny Cash and everyone else who’d ever sang on stage with Bobby all looked, to steal an appropriate phrase, like they’d all gone to heaven in a little rowboat.
|Cee-Lo and Gwyneth, Muppets|
After Dylan’s performance, I was mostly interested in that of Cee-Lo Green, erstwhile singer of Gnarls Barkely, the one artist nominated for big ticket awards (“Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year”) that I remotely cared about. Also, given the combination of the tedious and the surreal that usually constitutes the Grammy Awards, I was curious how the song “Fuck You” would be presented as a nominee for those two awards. Well, I learned several things tonight: first of all, Cee-Lo Green is a genius. His performance of “Forget You” (yes, just like the censored expletive used for the tv version of Glengarry Glen Ross) nearly defies description. Performed in duet with Gwyneth Paltrow, accompanied by Muppets, yes Muppets, “Fuck You” was an extravaganza of excess. And Cee-Lo managed the triumph of the evening, even though “The Song Otherwise Known as Forget You” failed to win the big awards, by offering satire through excess, and extravagance, right down to his feathered Elton John-esque costume. In contrast, the much heralded Gaga emerged from a Spinal Tap-like egg in order to perform her hugely calculated new anthem “Born Like This”; I appreciate the sentiment, but it all sounds like warmed-over Madonna, minus the groundbreaking. Perhaps it’s the age or the Ivory Tower speaking, but listening to and watching “Born This Way” made me feel like Al Capp evaluating “Give Peace a Chance” – sure it’s going to become an anthem: how could something that calculated not become an anthem?
|Mick, in tribute to Solomon Burke|
I was surprised then to see a few things in the last hour of the Grammy telecast: the memorial segment, which usually misses a lot of important figures, included John Barry, legendary engineer Bill Porter (audiophiles: check out anything he engineered), and both Captain Beefheart and Alex Chilton. Well done. The extended tribute to Solomon Burke featured, of all things, Mick Jagger proving that he can still deliver if he has to: his energetic version of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (which he first sang on record in 1965) may have topped even Cee-Lo.
Some subjects for further consideration: I don’t get the Arcade Fire: they sound to me like a French-Canadian Sonic Youth cover band on a bad night. And I want to send all modern radio country artists (especially Lady Antebellum) to a desert island with the complete Victor recordings of the Carter Family until they’re fit for polite company. And Dre can still deliver, but Eminem sounds lost without the doubletracking. Finally, Barbara Streisand is not remotely my cup of meat but she seems to have held up pretty well through the years. Oh, and I suppose, that given the level of performances this year, that I’ll be watching the 54th Annual Grammy Awards next year, and I’ll probably still be trying to reconcile the idea of performance as lie.
Still Haven't Found What You're Looking For?
(January 22, 2011)
As the “wintry mix” spreads its way across the DC Metro area, I thought I would take the time to inaugurate a new blog feature: Music Chatter. If you’re a regular reader (I know you’re out there), you’ll notice a new link (“Music Chatter”, funnily enough) on the home page (under the gramophone). Music Chatter is the section of the blog to which I will be posting music-related musings that don’t conform to the blog’s existing structure: that is, things that I write about music that aren’t part of the larger “History”.
For this inaugural post, I’m going to steal a feature from Shakespeareteacher.com (a fine blog you should be reading). On a semi-regular basis, Shakespeareteacher comments on the many and various search terms that bring readers to his blog, some serious, some thought-provoking, some that simply defy description.
The fine folks at google and blogspot allow me to see plenty of stats concerning who is reading this blog and how they got here. This data tells me a great deal about all of you, especially those of you who find this blog through google searches. It seems, perhaps not surprisingly, that the most common searches that bring people here involve the illegal downloading of music. I can’t condone that behavior and you won’t find any downloads here, but I can condone some of the musical items people were searching for in the last month:
“bukka white the vintage recordings”
Nice choice. There’s a very wide variety of early Bukka White out there these days, especially given the easy availability of European grey-market CDs. My go-to disc for White’s acoustic blues is part of a, probably out-of-print, box set called Legends of Country Blues. It’s especially useful if you want to find the lyrical sources for, roughly, 93% of the Led Zeppelin catalogue.
“bud shank windmills of your mind”
Bud Shank is about to make an actual appearance on the History (Volume 10), lending his flute to a Ravi Shankar track in one of the first instances of what would later, regretfully, be labeled “world music.” I didn’t realize Shank covered “Windmills”, but the song (theme from the original, superior – Steve McQueen, not Pierce Brosnan, The Thomas Crown Affair), but he did spend a good deal of the late 60s recording quasi-lounge standards and soundtrack trifles; I’m sure I have some kicking around on vinyl.
Other searches for pirated music included Louis Armstrong (always a good choice) and Harry James (useful for students of popular culture and/or the trumpet). Someone also seems to have been searching for sheet music for “Ahmad Jamal” and “Stolen Moments.” Is there much trafficking in sheet music on the internets these days? Can someone enlighten me?
The more interesting searches, though, are the ones that prompt questions or comments. Someone searched for
“bachelor pad jazz”
Bachelor pad music (aka lounge aka space age bachelor pad music) isn’t often labeled as part of jazz, so perhaps my hope is being realized that it will be re-incorporated into the history of jazz (as a form of jazz that didn’t follow bop, but attempted to expand the precepts of swing). Unlikely, though; I suspect it’s just someone falling through the never-ending retooling of genre names. And probably looking for an illegal download rather than a critical essay, anyway. It’s there, though, if you want it (see Volume 8).
“Dorothy Kilgallen, Harold Arlen”
Dorothy Kilgallen makes an appearance, too, in the essay accompanying History Volume 8. If you’re too tired to click over there, she’s one of those mid-twentieth century figures who fascinates me: a Hearst (read ‘conservative’) columnist who became a celebrity as a panelist on What’s My Line? She was also known for her investigative journalism and, among conspiracy theorists, as one of the many people who may have been eliminated by whoever killed JFK (she also may have just overdosed on booze and pills). A quick perusal of Lee Israel’s Kilgallen bio reveals no connection to Harold Arlen (composer of “Over the Rainbow” and many other songs); five Arlen compositions appear on the History. I’d suggest to the original visitor that the best place to find an Arlen-Kilgallen connection would be to peruse her Voice of Broadway columns in newspaper archives. I suspect, though, that most Hearst-distributed newspapers have yet to be archived on google news; perhaps your local library or university library could provide the Kilgallen-Arlen connection.
“viking inspired clothing”
Okay, this one’s my favorite. The jazz eccentric Louis “Moondog” Hardin, who is a favorite around here for his complex, percussive pieces, frequently appeared, on
streets, dressed in homemade Viking attire. I assume the person who googled “Viking inspired clothing” wasn’t looking for links to Moondog. New York City Alas.
“20 best rhymes in pop music history”
I’m not sure what would prompt someone to search for this particular phrase: school assignment, perhaps? Maybe it was prompted by a specific article like those that appear in Pitchfork, Q, Mojo (“Top 100 Beatles Songs”, “Top 100 British Albums” etc.) I’m also not sure what I would say are the 20 best rhymes in pop music history; the first ones I thought of are those that make me chuckle with their awfulness (“help” and “kelp” from Bob Dylan’s “Sara”, and the immortal rhyming of “masses” with, er, “masses” in Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”.) I invite, you, then, the history’s reader to submit your choices for best rhymes in pop music history. If I get enough replies, I’ll post comments on the list, or let people vote on them, or somesuch; also feel free to offer your tips for “Viking inspired clothing” in case that internet searcher ever comes back.