Nobody watches the Grammys for the actual Grammys anymore. So what are we tuning in for? Over the past decade, the music industry’s biggest awards show has mutated into a Frankenstein-ish pop concert clogged with duets that feel as desperate and illogical as speed dating.
Sunday’s 56th Annual Grammy Awards telecast is promising plenty of them, going light on trophies and heavy on performances that pair artists of different genres and generations. As random as many of these collaborations may seem, the show’s producers enthusiastically refer to them by their brand name: “Grammy moments.”
So on Sunday, dance duo Daft Punk will celebrate its tremendous year by jamming with Stevie Wonder, a pop legend who had a completely unremarkable year. Ditto for album of the year nominee Sara Bareilles and the great Carole King. Robin Thicke is expected to croon “Blurred Lines” with rock pensioners Chicago. Kendrick Lamar will rap alongside motivational rock bros and fellow nominees Imagine Dragons. If the past few years are any indication, roughly half of Sunday night’s performances will offer collaborations like these.
Call them “Grammy moments” if you must — they feel more like branding partnerships designed to bridge diverging demographics. The veterans lend the rookies some gravitas. The kiddos Febreze their heroes with relevance. Time goes blurry as today’s acts are forced to present their art within the context of yesterday, creating a familiar warmth but very few sparks.
Wonder is no stranger to this stuff. He last performed a Grammy-night duet with the Jonas Brothers in 2009. Paul McCartney — scheduled to perform on Sunday’s program with Ringo Starr — took part in two collaborative Grammy performances in 2012; he dueted with Dave Grohl in 2009; and he sang alongside Linkin Park and Jay Z in 2006. Elton John and Lionel Richie are legendary Grammy loiterers, too. They haven’t been announced as a part of Sunday’s lineup, but who knows when the next Grammy moment might strike?
As long as ratings rule, we’re stuck with them. By reducing the on-air trophy presentations in favor of live performances over the past five years — ta-da — the telecast’s viewership has grown by roughly 10 million.
This year, producers are also touting appearances from Lorde, Taylor Swift and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis — each presumably performing on their own — but it’s the collaborations that lure viewers to their TV screens. Producer Ken Ehrlich recently told Rolling Stone, “There’s no question the Grammys have become a performance show.”
Which means an awards system that has spent decades struggling to establish the prestige of, say, the Oscars is facing a new conundrum. Instead of celebrating today’s music by allowing great, new artists to rally viewers with great, new art, the Grammys are addicted to a telecast formula that sells a mirage of consensus and timelessness.
That illusion should feel creepily familiar to fans of new pop music. Cosmetic collaborations are a pox on the radio. Check out last week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart. Four of the top five songs were duets that feel as if they were hatched in a focus group: Pitbull and Ke$ha’s “Timber”; Eminem and Rihanna’s “The Monster”; Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse”; and Christina Aguilera and A Great Big World’s “Say Something.”
So in their own unfortunate way, the Grammys are capturing the zeitgeist, right? Not really. The central problem is that these excessive Grammy moments smudge the actual moment. By being shoehorned into performances with their elders, too many of today’s rising artists are denied their own moment.
It’s rare, but sometimes the righteous refuse to play ball. Two Grammys ago, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver was nominated for four awards, including best new artist, making the helium-voiced rock singer an ideal candidate for a telecast performance. But he declined.
“We wanted to play our music, but were told that we couldn’t play,” Vernon told Billboard at the time. “We had to do a collaboration with someone else.”
Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age is another rock-and-roll frontman of staunch principles, but on Sunday he’ll be joined at the telecast finale by Nine Inch Nails, his buddy Dave Grohl and . . . [insert sound of name being plucked from hat] . . . Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. (Yes, Grohl, Homme and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor played a role in “Sound City,” last year’s Grohl-directed documentary about the recording studio where Fleetwood Mac once recorded. The generation-bridging performances that filled the soundtrack felt as superficial as any Grammy moment.)
It seems tricky to go it alone on national television these days, even if you want to. Take Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, two acts scheduled to merge next weekend in what should go down as the Taco Bell Doritos Locos Taco Supreme of Super Bowl halftime shows.
Initially, Mars was booked as the lone performer. But the NFL later announced that the 28-year-old pop phenom had “invited” a 31-year-old rock band to join him. Huh.
Music enthusiasts might find it a waste of breath to bemoan something as ridiculous as a halftime show, but consider this: If this year’s Super Bowl enjoys any kind of ratings bump, Mars and the Chili Peppers could be staging the most widely viewed musical performance in human history.
And that’s frustrating. Mars’s radio singles may not do justice to his fantastic live show, but he was certainly up to the halftime task on his own. This guy might be the most dynamic R&B concert performer since Prince. Doesn’t he deserve the chance to make his mark without having to sing “Give It Away”?
How did pop collaboration become so habitual? Rappers get unfairly blamed for far too many things in America, but this one kind of falls on them. In the 1990s, hip-hop albums became bloated with cameo appearances — a sort of strength-in-numbers approach from an underclass pop bloc fighting for mainstream recognition.
The summer of 1999 brought another trajectory-twist in the form of Santana’s “Supernatural,” an album of genre-blind duets that swiftly went multi-platinum and won a staggering nine Grammy awards. At the 2000 Grammys ceremony, Carlos Santana played “Smooth,” the album’s flagship mega-hit, with Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty. During that same telecast, Elton John appeared with the Backstreet Boys. The Grammy moments were underway.
In the 14 years since, cosmetic collaboration has become pop music’s most noxious reflex — on the radio, on the Grammys and everywhere else. Young artists have been raised in a world where creative partnerships are seen as inherently valuable, regardless of chemistry, regardless of the results.
On a night dedicated to celebrating the strongest aspects of contemporary music, we’ll spend three hours watching our biggest pop stars indulging in one of the worst.
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect collaborations from the film “Sound City.”
(three hours) air Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBS.