This year's Grammy Awards have come and gone, and while another awards show is always just a sneeze away, the Grammys have set a low point others will have to wallow to equal. As a piece of mechanical television, it functioned rather well, but even in television, content sometimes matters. Here was a lavish, elaborate, celebratory extravaganza commemorating the death of standards, the triumph of emptiness.
It was a perfect collaboration: the decadent phoniness of prime-time television plus the decadent tackiness of the music industry. And therefore it was sort of fun to watch.
You did get the feeling that anybody in the business with real class would have not shown up for the Grammys, but class isn't a viable value in this arena. Attendant hype has given the Grammys the television equivalent of prestige, which is, essentially, vulgarity so overstated it can no longer be ignored.
Rock music was invented so that people without a lot of talent could still become stars. And stars love nothing so much as handing each other trophies and plaques; it's a communal rite of desperately transparent legitimization, a way of convincing themselves they are as good as their more illustrious forebears. Obviously there are lots of people in pop music who do have talent, scads of it, gallons of it, but they're in a field that rewards sleazy gimmicks and genuine ability with equally vocal ardor.
This year at the Grammy Awards, it took 3 1/2 hours to do that. The dominant figure, even though he didn't win many awards, was Prince, the new prancing thug of rockdom who refers to himself as a "love god" and tells audiences he would "die" for them but doesn't let these Messianic ambitions interfere with onanistic gestures during performances. Prince travels around in the company of bodyguards who have been known to rough up photographers.
A young woman who won a Grammy for contributing to the Prince oeuvre said, "First of all, I want to thank the Lord for this." How about that for shifting blame?
Prince is an unsavory role model for kids. But then he tries to be. On "The 700 Club," a religious talk show, the morning after the Grammys, two teen-age boys interviewed outside the hall said of Prince, "God and music correlates with him" and, "When I grow up I'd like to be him." Rock stars hold out the promise for kids that they can "grow up" to be overgrown kids.
Of course one who grew up in the '60s and went to college during the rise of the four-letter word feels a kind of guilt now, and a certain fogeyness, responding positively to the moralist umbrage of "The 700 Club," which last week again went through the predictable litany about rock music being a corrupter of souls and an emissary of the devil. Some of us once got big charges out of trundling through the East Village to get to a grubby club where The Fugs were disgorging epithets and literally spitting on the stage. It was all so affirmatively rebellious then. But today's rock stars have, or manage to find, nothing to rebel against; they only adopt the shallow poses of rebels and outlaws. They stay in hotel suites and earn their reputations from the demands they make of room service.
Supposedly political videos like Culture Club's "War Song" or Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes" are really about as political as Vogue fashion spreads. Yet rebellion seems to be an essential pose for teen-stroking rock music. The taint is now entirely off going commercial. Madonna sings that she is a material girl living in a material world, and so are they all. The lowliest band in the smallest garage in Nebraska would sell its soul for a chance to have its video played on MTV.
It's really kind of sad to see the rock "stars" duded up in what they imagine to be finery -- costly garb with pretentions of looking shabby, hair carefully coiffed to appear festeringly unclean -- gathered to cheer themselves. In what other business do people need such frequent doses of massive self-congratulation? Well, actually, the show-biz ethic has become so dominant in American life that it is spreading into other fields, if not indeed all other fields. A firm that makes a line of beauty and health products called Herbal Life sponsors hour-long commercials on cable TV which are staged as awards shows. People come up and say they lost 40 pounds and get big ovations.
They also say they made a lot of money selling Herbal Life and get big ovations.
That should be the theme song of the Grammys: "In It for the Money." For all the talk about blazing trails and artistic integrity and the love of musical expression, the bucks are where the bang is. One of the big winners on this year's Grammy show, Lionel Richie, the singer who looks like a horse with a mustache, also appeared on the program in an outlandishly overproduced, new Pepsi-Cola commercial.
Richie's ad premiered on the show, in fact. It was a three-minute mega-production that video ace Bob Giraldi was called in to direct (the filming of the commercial was covered as a cultural event by "Entertainment Tonight," but then, what isn't?). And it had a cast as big as an old MGM musical. Maybe as big as "Ben-Hur." There were concert segments, with Richie leading huge mobs through the streets, and dramatic segments, with Richie hugging a fervently adoring little girl and traveling hundreds of miles to visit his grandmother.
This was selling out on an epic scale, boy. Lionel Richie wasn't just selling Pepsi; he was also selling Lionel Richie. And for all that money and all of Richie's sickening saccharine posturing, it was still a lousy commercial. It was like the Duran Duran "Wild Boys" video: mawkishly humorless excess. Richie has replaced Barry Manilow as America's chief source of cloyingly syrupy quasi-musical pap, an ever-dependable reference point for presumptuous bad taste.
Stevie Wonder "always" breaks new ground with every song, host Denver was required to say as part of his night-long ultraspiel. "Whoooo! Oh, she's so wonderful!" he exclaimed of Turner (she's unassailable for the moment). "The gospel thing is just really incredible," he remarked prior to a rowdy round of hysterical gospelizing by women in purple eyeshadow and tight evening gowns. And to polish up the illusion of respectability for themselves, the Grammykins included a lengthy and dutifully ponderous salute to Leonard Bernstein, who almost threw his back out of joint in the desire to appear hip. Somehow, the sight of Bernstein joining in the two or three standing ovations for Turner was not an inspiring one.
David Letterman, who has the right perspective, amazingly enough, on everything, speculated on his "Late Night" program that the ubiquitous Dick Clark had gotten the jump on the Grammys "with his American Weenie Awards, or whatever they are." Actually they were called the American Music Awards -- that was the show where host Richie was also the principal winner of prizes, an embarrassing ego jag all around. Letterman asked his elfin musical director Paul Shaffer, "Do we care about the Grammys?" Answering his own question, he crumpled up a page of notes about the awards show and threw it through one of his prop windows. There was the familiar sound of a fake glass crash, highly appropriate under the circumstances.
Tearing into an envelope near the top of the Grammycast, Dee Snider, lead singer of the aspiringly tawdry group Twisted Sister, remarked, "First time a dirt bag ever opened one of these." Calling himself "a dirt bag" was just good clean self-promotion. Denver, meanwhile, referred to the decade in which we are now living as "the electric '80s." The Grammys made you want to pull the plug.