Stuck in a moment

U2 jilts Alicia Keys, winning four Grammys during a program that neither God nor Jimmy Iovine should have let go on so long.

Topics: Music, Grammys,

It’s hard to worry about the mirror ball when the party guests are rioting on the dance floor. The music industry today finds itself under assault from all sides, with artists openly demanding better contracts, while consumers, busy download and burning music for free, are buying even fewer CDs. But the business did its best Wednesday night to celebrate itself and honor its top performers during the 44th annual Grammy Awards.

Without the manufactured hype of last year’s Eminem-Elton John duet, this year’s affair was painfully short on drama. In the end, the show came down to a dance-off between a 20-year-old soul singer and a 20-year-old rock band. Here’s a look at how the show went down. And down.

8:00 U2 opens with “Walk On.” The band of course can’t replicate the spectacle of its Super Bowl performance of just a few weeks back — a piece of pop history that will make a fantastic clip 30 years from now on VH1′s “Best Moments in Rock Television.” But U2 figures out how to accelerate from zero to 70 in about three minutes: Bono slings a guitar over his shoulder, a chorus of “Hallelujah” sweeps the Staples Center in Los Angeles and every other performer waiting his or her turn breaks a bead of sweat.

8:10 Host Jon Stewart, doing a bit on airline security, is quickly stripped to his boxers. “Stop dressing me with your eyes,” he jokes. How’d he know?

8:11 Britney Spears, locked out of any nominations this year, doesn’t hold a grudge. She presents, and opts for a glamorous red gown.

8:12 U2 returns to the stage to pick up honors for best pop performance by duo or group. The band saves its thank yous for later. There will plenty of chances.

8:13 Sixteen live performances are promised. Whoever convinced CBS to extend the Grammys by 30 minutes this year — no doubt in order to sell more pricey 30-second commercials — should stand up and apologize to the viewers. No award show needs to run 210 minutes.

8:15 Destiny’s Child Beyoncé Knowles pitches Loreal.



8:20 The women of “Moulin Rouge” (Pink, Mya, Lil’ Kim, Christina Aguilera) don boots, bras and panties to recreate their “Lady Marmalade” video. Or as Stewart jokes, to take us “back to the days when the whorehouse was about the music.” Patti LaBelle, who scored the original hit, appears fully dressed in a cameo. The all-star performance concludes with a shrieking contest. And girls, Ms. LaBelle always wins those.

8:25 The Backstreet Boys present an award, answering the question of whatever happened to the Backstreet Boys.

8:27 “Lady Marmalade” wins for best pop collaboration with vocals. Lil’ Kim thanks God. Mya thanks Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine, who in the music business often doubles as God.

8:35 Train, the little guitar pop band that could, does wonders with its performance of “Drops of Jupiter.” So what if it took five guys to write the song? Train then upsets U2 for best rock song honors. Lead singer thanks his mom and points to heaven. Watch next week as the band’s year-old, double-platinum album jumps 50 spots on Billboard’s album charts.

8:40 Don Henley presents best rock song and tells co-presenter Trisha Yearwood, “Somehow I don’t feel like the most popular guy in the room right now.” It’s an inside joke. Henley’s been shepherding an aggressive new campaign among artists to demand better treatment from record companies and has taken his fight to Congress and the courts. The darts Henley feels are imaginary. For now.

9:00 Billy Joel and Tony Bennett sing “New York State of Mind.” The small irony is that the Grammys have been in L.A. for several years now because Grammy chief Michael Greene once got in a pissing match with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. As for the performance, the song’s arrangement and pace — changed to the same slow jazz crawl that appeared on Bennett’s recent album — does not suit Joel’s style. At all. But he soldiers on.

9:05 Boy group ‘N Sync team up with St. Louis rapper Nelly on the group’s single “Girlfriend.” Too much ‘N Sync, not enough Nelly. Does anyone else find it amazing that ‘N Sync’s members basically dance for a living but still to this day — minus perhaps Justin Timberlake — cannot shake the appearance that they’re all counting off steps in their head?

9:15 George Thorogood pitches for UPS.

9:19 Time for the bluegrass medley from the multi-platinum soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Song birds Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss create the kind of sublime three-part harmonies Destiny’s Child dream about. Then 75-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley pleads to the Grim Reaper, singing, “Oh death, won’t you spare me over ’til another year.”

9:35 Alicia Keys performs “Fallin’,” and also does the tango. Only 20, she’s already displaying her tendency to go for the grandiose.

9:42 Keys wins best new artist.

9:44 Rapper Missy Elliott pitches for Reebok in a killer 60-second spot.

9:46 ‘N Sync pitches for Chili’s. Spot not so killer.

9:50 The Dave Matthews Band performs “The Space Between.” The delivery is low key, simple. Or, alternatively, boring.

9:55 Kid Rock pays respects to “the late great Waylon Jennings.” Then U2′s back on stage, taking honors for best rock performance, thanks to “Elevation.” Bono pays homage to the wonders of a “rock ‘n’ roll band in full flight,” and talks about how the band survived “lousy haircuts and the ’80s.” So, anyone else wonder what Michael Stipe thought about U2′s triumphant 2001 victory lap across America? Ten years ago U2 and R.E.M. were vying to be the best — and most important — rock band on the planet, busy taking musical chances, churning out rock cornerstones and sending sales sky high. As the ’90s ended, both bands found themselves adrift, trying to figure out their place in a teenager’s business. R.E.M. quietly faded — its 2001 CD “Reveal” sold just a few hundred-thousand copies — while U2 regrouped and started all over again.

10:07 Bob Dylan demonstrates why his latest album, “Love and Theft,” despite the hosannas from the critics, never caught on commercially, even a little bit, like the cherished “Time Out of Mind” of 1997. “Love and Theft” was for people who live and breathe Dylan — people who can’t wait for his latest interpretation of the American landscape, melody be damned. Soy Bomb where were you when we needed you?

10:07 Janet Jackson’s freakishly flat stomach presents album of the year to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” A crowd of singers and producers flood the stage to accept the award. Fans wonder, where’s George Clooney? Watch next week as the four-time platinum album, currently No. 13 on Billboard’s chart, breaks the Top 10 for the first time and climbs all the way to No. 5.

10:18 R&B queen Mary J. Blige delivers one of the night’s only truly emotional performances, belting out “No More Drama,” singing, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

10:22 Songwriting award goes to Alicia Keys for “Fallin’.” “Thank you for loving the song as much as I do,” she says from the stage. Even after 100 listens, there’s something that still lures you in, which is why it’s song of the year.

10:30 Grammy chief Michael Greene, who took home $2 million last year running the nonprofit organization, reads riot act to computer users. Telling viewers that illegal file sharing is “out of control,” “criminal” and a “life-and-death issue,” he warns that today’s acts are in “danger of being marginalized out of our business” by a “World Wide Web of theft and indifference.” He presumably has to say stuff like that so he’s not marginalized out of a pretty decent salary.

10:45 Rap act Outkast performs “Ms. Jackson”: “I’m sorry Ms. Jackson/ I am for real/ Never meant to make your daughter cry/ I apologize a trillion times.”

11:00 National treasure Alan Jackson, who’s not actually nominated for anything this year, performs his Sept. 11 anthem, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” The accompanying string section does Jackson no favors. If ever there was a song that doesn’t need any extra oomph, it’s this reflective hymn that Americans will be listening to well into the second half of this century. The line “But I know Jesus and I talk to God” ranks alongside Linus’ soliloquy from “Charlie Brown Christmas” as one of pop culture’s great, true expressions of faith.

11:10 Poor India.Arie, the forgotten Grammy girl. Up for seven awards, the appealing R&B singer makes her first appearance three hours into the telecast to sing, “I’m not your average girl from the video and I’m not built like a supermodel.” Unfortunately, a nation of young, impressionable girls is already in bed. Give someone in India.Arie’s camp credit, though. Just two weeks ago Grammy producers had planned to shun the singer to the closing medley performance. With a fistful of nominations she deserved her own spot up on stage, and got one in the end.

11:15 Record of the year honors. If U2 wins, it’s U2′s night. If Keys wins it’s hers: She’ll walk with six Grammys and the record for the most won by a female performer. So who gets the headlines in Thursday’s papers? U2. Bono, paraphrasing Quincy Jones, says, “God has walked through the room on our record and I want to give thanks. Amen.”

11:23 Gospel closing number. Brian McKnight, Al Green (dressed head to toe in gold), Hezekiah Walker and two choirs. (No Kirk Franklin?) Looked good on paper, but too many preachers in the chapel.

Then again, it’s only February and the music industry sure could use a lot of prayers this year.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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