So, our Grammy credentials were fairly limited last night. In fact, we were trapped in a room for eight hours, with journalists from all over the world sitting at long black tables staring at screens. Official handlers begged us to ask questions to folks nominated for categories like Best Surround Sound Album, Best Recording Package and Best Album Notes.
The pre-telecast ceremony started at 1 pm, with all the poor bastards who weren't considered worthy of being on screen. The Larry Batiste Orchestra led the way with a jazzy joyful number that would have delighted grannies everywhere. Everyone was very dapper despite the fact that the only ones who would see this are their moms and us; even the hosts compared this part of the program to speed dating. Winners had a couple of minutes to run up to the stage and give a speech before being whisked away. “You should try listening to my record,” said the poor man who won the Surround Sound Grammy for Eric Clapton's “Layla.” “It's pretty great.”
But the best part was getting to ask people about their music; it humanized an otherwise completely mechanical process. Adam Machado won Best Album Notes for Hear Me Howling! Blues Ballads and Beyond As Recorded by The San Francisco Bay by Chris Strachwitz in the 1960s. He told a story about a man named Stanley Willis, who was considered the Thelonious Monk of the piano in the Fillmore district in the 1960s. He would lay a cloth over his hands as he played so no one knew what he was doing. He then sold wrote an album called Wild Man Blues before disappearing into the wilds of Alaska selling magic carpet cleaners.
Contemporary Christian Music Song winner Laura Story won for her song “Blessings,” about coming to grips with her husband's brain tumor and struggling with her faith. One of the producers of Adele's smash album, Ryan Tedder, said he really wants to work with Azealia Banks and Lana Del Rey because it scares him. A presenter's music teacher from Nashville who nominated him for the Grammy Youth Jazz Choir when he was 15 talked about the importance of music education in schools.
What this is all about is how music touches people, after all — not the award ceremony itself. The Grammys are just a tool to sell records. They're about who did well this year, who sold well and how can we push them to sell more. No, the only really interesting part of the Grammys is watching the artists become human before our eyes. Whether it's Taylor Swift explaining that there's nothing like writing a song about someone who's mean to you or Dave Grohl talking about making the latest record in his garage with permission from his wife or John Paul White of the Civil Wars talking about leaving his four kids to go on the road.
We want people's raw bleeding hearts. Even if it's awful. Even if it's watching Amy Winehouse's parents accept a Grammy on behalf of their late daughter. “Amy will go on longer than we will and that is our blessing,” her mother said, bravely. That award Best Pop Duo is not really about Amy Winehouse's performance with Tony Bennett. It's about the legacy she left behind.
No legend loomed larger than Whitney Houston last night, of course, from LL Cool J's moment of prayer to Jennifer Hudson's performance of “I Will Always Love You.” Backstage Melanie Fiona, who won best R&B song, reminisced about singing Houston's songs as a small child.
After her performance of, with Alicia Keys, of Etta James' “Sunday Kind of Love,” Bonnie Rait praised the late legend. “She was so vital, raunchy, and tender. She and Aretha had more impact on me than any other singer.”
That's what we love; wow music touched our lives. Certainly not the spectacle. Sure, people want to see Bruce Springsteen rock out, or Adele croon, but no one wants to see the forced “Grammy moment” partnerships of Foster the People, Maroon 5 and the Beach Boys struggling through a song. Or Rhianna and Coldplay singing together.
Nothing felt spontaneous or heartfelt. All the gold suits, the brilliant lights, the glow in the dark graffiti, even Bruno Mars yelling, “Get off your rich asses and have some fun,” had a perfectly manicured sheen. You could practically hear the Academy screaming in increasingly shrill voices “We're relevant, we're cool. We swear. Look! We've got Skrillex. You kids like him, right? What about Nicki Minaj? Boy, is she edgy. Watch her dance with sexy monks. That's never been done before.” They even let girlfriend beater Chris Brown back on the stage — flanked by flying squirrel dancers — because he's too popular not to.
No, the Grammys should pay attention to Dave Grohl when he said, “The human element of making music is what's most important.” We don't watch in case our heroes win a trophy. We don't care if Adele has a gold gramophone on her mantelpiece. We already know she's a legend. We do, however, want to watch her cry on national television.