The coolest thing I learned last night in the media room at the 50th-anniversary Grammy celebration had to do with a Woody Guthrie performance. The original recording that spawned The Live Wire — Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949, which snagged the Best Historical Album award, was found in a Florida closet. It was a recording stored, literally, on a spool of copper wire, explained producer Steve Rosenthal after the win. To transfer the music from brittle copper thread — a mile and a half of it, a mere one-three-thousandth of an inch thick — to computer required the patience and precision of a watchmaker; the engineers had to move through the spool second by millisecond and even out the sonic warbles, wows and flutters due to bends in the wire. But it was worth it. They resurrected the sound of one of America's most articulate voices. That was a nice moment, listening to Rosenthal explain the process.
Not that you'd ever in a billion years see that on the Grammys broadcast. Here's what the 2008 Grammys told us about the year in music: People want exploding shit with their tunes. Music fans like fire and flashing lights, like to see as much skin and sex as possible, even if it means enduring Kid Rock and Keely Smith as they give each other fuck-me looks (no, really — we all saw it, while Dave Koz looked on). The old and young coming together, while flames burn on the screens behind them. What a wonderful world! Who needs generational tension?
It's becoming apparent that people really, really love the Beatles. Did you know that? Forty-four years after the band, who were from Liverpool, England, first hit, they still warrant three songs during a 2008 broadcast? And what did we get? Choreography for “A Day in the Life” in which a sexy woman prances over and hands a guitar to a little boy, then kisses him on the forehead precisely as John Lennon sings, “He blew his mind out in a car.”
But it makes sense that the industry would deliver that message — old and young as one, and maybe somebody will blow up — because this gala's organizers remain composed of the baby boomers who have presided over the industry for the past three decades. The demographic they pine after are now their grandchildren's age, and that generation doesn't even know what the Grammys are, let alone give a toss who wins what. Desperate to draw these elusive viewers, we end up with a young black boy singing “Let It Be” because producers don't see the need to book a young black boy singing “Crank That” — even though at least 31,820,416 people (nearly twice as many as tuned into this telecast) apparently kinda liked seeing him on YouTube last year. But that kind of music doesn't make sense to the organizers, so they award those Grammys during the day without realizing that with one message on his MySpace page, Soulja Boy Tell 'Em could deliver millions of viewers. But who knows what he'd do up on that stage? He might do that dance! Which is why they don't put him up on that stage — and why we don't watch.
Another nice thing that happened in the press room, which held about 50 print reporters and had no view of the ceremony itself save a half-dozen little TV monitors, was when Zachary Nipper, a 30-something hipster from Omaha, stood in front of the collected press as designer for Saddle Creek Records. He had just won the Best Recording Package for his work Bright Eyes' Casadega, and he told the reporters clicking away on laptops that this was his first time in Los Angeles, and the first Grammy for the long-running indie label. The look of pride and wonder on his face as he faced the reporters and answered questions about his package design was perfect, and worth a million cocky Kanye moments.
Not that it felt particularly “special” in the press room. We all sat at our computers, lined in rows like citizens at a council meeting (or worshipers at a church?), watched monitors and every so often looked away to interview a winner. None of us is very rock & roll. There wasn't much conversation in the room. No music, no sense that what was happening here had anything at all to do with that secret place in your head where melody demolishes thought in a rush of jiggling neurons. In fact, this was perhaps the least musical place in Los Angeles at that moment. That all changed when Morris Day walked in.
Day was wearing a gold tuxedo and stood next to hit maker Jimmy Jam, a long-ago member of the Time. While the Time spent the 1990s playing the fair circuit, Jam was making hits for Janet Jackson. A few moments earlier, Jam had reunited with his former bandmates by strapping on his keytar and banging through “Jungle Love” and “Umbrella,” with Rihanna in tow. She looked totally hot, and I could watch her dance all night. But it was Day, of course, who consumed the stage. Looking fit, nipped and tucked, the Man in Charge explained his regimen. “The reason I'm still healthy is a good healthy sex life. We think young,” he said proudly. At least somebody does.