By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009
Was Bono talking about the music business at the outset of the 51st annual Grammy Awards last night? "The future needs a big kiss!" he declared.
The line was actually a lyric from U2's new single, "Get On Your Boots," a slashing, fuzzed-out rocker from an album that hasn't yet been released. The song wasn't eligible for a Grammy, but U2 played it anyway, by request: The Recording Academy was pushing performances over prizewinners in an effort to give both the show and the flagging industry itself a boost, and Bono is one of the last of the mass-appeal rock stars.
So of course his band would be invited to what amounted to the industry's own stimulus concert.
They handed out a whole bunch of gilded gramophone trophies last night in Los Angeles -- more than 100 in all, with Britpop band Coldplay, rapper Lil Wayne and the unlikely duo of rock icon Robert Plant and bluegrass goddess Alison Krauss among the big winners at the Staples Center. Plant and Krauss led with five awards, including album of the year for their Americana project, "Raising Sand."
But the headline was the high-wattage lineup for what seemed like a cross between an all-star hootenanny and a desperate Hail Mary as Grammy producers packed the show with surprises and stars: Kid Rock, Kanye West, Carrie Underwood, Justin Timberlake and just about anybody else who can still sell a million albums. (There were also surprising stars, such as Katy Perry, she of the inexplicably successful, Grammy-nominated, bi-curious, No. 1 hit "I Kissed a Girl," which was a train wreck during the live broadcast. This is one of the biggest new names in pop music?)
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl pummeled the drums behind Paul McCartney on "I Saw Her Standing There." Stevie Wonder joined the Jonas Brothers on their song "Burning Up," and was kind enough not to kick the teen trio offstage while he performed his classic "Superstition." (Did the JoBros really exhort Wonder to show them what he's got? Crazy kids.)
Rapper Jay-Z joined Coldplay for the quiet piano ballad "Lost," then exited as Coldplay reached for the rafters with sorta-soaring arena-rocker "Viva La Vida," which won multiple awards. Among them was song of the year, the top writing award. Coldplay also won for best rock album, prompting self-deprecating singer Chris Martin to note: "We're not the heaviest kind of rock. . . . We're more of a limestone kind of rock."
The band's drummer, Will Champion, was in a joking mood himself, apologizing to McCartney "for so blatantly ripping off the Sergeant Pepper's outfits." (There were no onstage apologies, however, to Joe Satriani, who has argued that Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" rips off his 2004 song "If I Could Fly.")
"I told myself I was going to be cool because Paul McCartney and Coldplay are here," Jennifer Nettles said as her group, Sugarland, accepted the award for best country performance by a duo/group with vocals, for "Stay." Nettles also won the country writing award for the song and joined best new artist winner Adele to perform the brassy-voiced British singer's "Chasing Pavements."
Plant and Krauss were chasing trophies with "Raising Sand," which is filled with heavenly harmonies and a whole lot of country, folk and rockabilly songs. "Please Read the Letter" was the surprise winner for record (single) of the year, despite receiving scant commercial airplay. "Rich Woman" won best pop collaboration with vocals, an award that went last year to another Plant-Krauss recording, "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)." "Killing Blues" won country collaboration with vocals. "Raising Sand" also won for best contemporary folk/Americana album.
"I'd like to say: I'm bewildered," said Plant, who never won a Grammy with Led Zeppelin. "In the old days, we would have called this selling out. But I think it's a good way to spend a Sunday."
New Orleans rap star Lil Wayne performed a post-Katrina lament, "Tie My Hands," with blue-eyed soul singer Robin Thicke, then turned the stage into something like a Mardi Gras ad featuring Crescent City artists: pianist Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Wayne had a bit of a party himself, winning four awards, including best rap album for "Tha Carter III," the top-selling album of 2008 in any genre. (The unpredictable Wayne did not deliver the night's best acceptance speech, though, as he was on his best behavior.)
Even Radiohead, which has always shied away from the Grammys, showed up. The group, one of the most beloved in contemporary rock, performed a show-stopping version of "15 Step" with the University of Southern California marching band. Radiohead made headlines in 2007 by releasing its arty album, "In Rainbows," exclusively online, with a name-your-own-price scheme. Last night the recording was up for album of the year; its inclusion in the highest profile of Grammy categories served as a reminder that the industry's business model is badly broken, with album sales continuing their downward spiral. They were off by 14 percent last year, according to Nielsen Soundscan, and have fallen by 45 percent since 2000.
The Grammy ratings haven't fared much better. Last year's 50th anniversary telecast generated one of the smallest audiences in Grammy history, with just 17.5 million people tuning in as Herbie Hancock won album of the year for a Joni Mitchell jazz tribute. (Seemed like many more people joined in the Grammys-are-out-of-touch-and-irrelevant chorus afterward.)
Thus, the cavalcade of stars.
Jay-Z, T.I., Lil Wayne and Kanye West -- billed as the Rap Pack, and accordingly decked out in matching tuxedoes -- performed their monstrous anthem, "Swagga Like Us," with Maya "M.I.A." Arulpragasam, the electro-rap firebrand whose "Paper Planes" is sampled in the song. It's a wonder that M.I.A. wasn't, you know . . . MIA: She's nine months pregnant, and her due date happened to be yesterday.
Teen idols Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus teamed up on Swift's "Fifteen," though with their thin voices struggling to keep the song afloat, they probably could've used some company onstage. Perhaps somebody like Jennifer Hudson, whose emotional, powerhouse vocal on the gospelly "You Pulled Me Through" rightfully earned a standing ovation. Hudson, whose mother, brother and nephew were murdered last fall, also won an award, for best R&B album. "I would like to thank my family in Heaven, and those who are here today," she said.
Ne-Yo, a contemporary R&B classicist and multiple award winner last night (male R&B vocal and R&B song, both for "Miss Independent"), joined Smokey Robinson, Jamie Foxx and the last of the surviving Four Tops, Duke Fakir, for a medley of the old Motown group's music.
There were so many stars on the guest list, in fact, that Boyz II Men -- the best-selling male R&B group of all time -- was relegated to backing vocal duties on soul legend Al Green's duet with Justin Timberlake on "Let's Stay Together." (And yes, that was country star Keith Urban adding blues licks on his guitar during the '70s soul classic.)
Green, who won two R&B trophies, also presented an award. But first he sang: A bit of "Moon River" a cappella and alone, then part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with the blond British soul singer Duffy. It was sublime. Can't recall who received the subsequent award, but maybe that's the point. It's not about the trophies. It's the music, stupid.
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A partial list of winners at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards. For complete results, see http://washingtonpost.com.
Album of the Year: "Raising Sand," Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Male Pop Vocal Performance: "Say," John Mayer; track from "Continuum"
Record of the Year: "Please Read the Letter," Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; T Bone Burnett, producer; Mike Piersante, engineer/mixer; track from "Raising Sand"
New Artist: Adele
Rock Album: "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends," Coldplay
Pop Collaboration With Vocals: "Rich Woman," Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, track from "Raising Sand"
Song of the Year: "Viva La Vida," Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion and Chris Martin, songwriters (Coldplay), track from "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends"
Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals: "Stay," Sugarland, track from "Enjoy the Ride"
R&B Album: "Jennifer Hudson," Jennifer Hudson
Female Pop Vocal Performance: "Chasing Pavements," Adele, track from "19"
Traditional Pop Vocal Album: "Still Unforgettable," Natalie Cole
Pop Vocal Album: "Rockferry," Duffy
Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals: "Viva La Vida," Coldplay, track from "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends"
Alternative Music Album: "In Rainbows," Radiohead
Solo Rock Vocal Performance: "Gravity," John Mayer, track from "Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles"
Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals: "Sex on Fire," Kings of Leon
Hard Rock Performance: "Wax Simulacra," the Mars Volta
Metal Performance: "My Apocalypse," Metallica, track from "Death Magnetic"
Rock Song: "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," Bruce Springsteen, songwriter (Bruce Springsteen), track from "Magic"
Rap Solo Performance: "A Milli," Lil Wayne, track from "Tha Carter III"
Rap Performance by a Duo or Group: "Swagga Like Us," Jay-Z and T.I. featuring Kanye West and Lil Wayne
Rap/Sung Collaboration: "American Boy," Estelle featuring Kanye West, track from "Shine"
Rap Song: "Lollipop," Dwayne Carter, Darius Harrison, James Scheffer, Stephen Garrett and Rex Zamor, songwriters (Lil Wayne featuring Static Major), track from "Tha Carter III"
Country Song: "Stay," Jennifer Nettles, songwriter, track from "Enjoy the Ride"
Country Album: "Troubadour," George Strait
Female Country Vocal Performance: "Last Name," Carrie Underwood, track from "Carnival Ride"
Male Country Vocal Performance: "Letter to Me," Brad Paisley, track from "5th Gear"
Country Collaboration With Vocals: "Killing the Blues," Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, track from "Raising Sand"
R&B Song: "Miss Independent," Mikkel S. Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen and Shaffer Smith, songwriters (Ne-Yo), track from "Year of the Gentleman"
Contemporary R&B Album: "Growing Pains," Mary J. Blige
Female R&B Vocal Solo: "Superwoman," Alicia Keys, track from "As I Am"
Male R&B Vocal Solo: "Miss Independent," Ne-Yo, track from "Year of the Gentleman"
R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals: "Stay With Me (By the Sea)," Al Green featuring John Legend, track from "Lay It Down"
Traditional R&B Vocal Performance: "You've Got the Love I Need," Al Green featuring Anthony Hamilton, track from "Lay It Down"