Just pretend it will all go away

Flagging sales? War in Iraq? Dead concertgoers? "Whatever," says a flaggng music industry hiding behind Norah Jones and Eminem at the big Grammys telecast.


Eric Boehlert
February 24, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

During Sunday night's Grammy telecast from Madison Square Garden, Grammy chief Neil Portnow assured the audience that "the music industry is very much alive." He seemed to think that if he said it enough times someone would believe him.

Clearly the American music industry is dying before our eyes. Mostly it's the victim of online piracy, which means that its product is now free, and -- let's face it -- that model would kill almost any business. More troubling, though, are the signs that the industry has become increasingly remote to the world in which it lives.

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The pre-Grammy buzz centered on whether well-known Bush critics like Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen and Robin Williams would turn the prime-time awards show into an antiwar rally. The answer was no. During the surprisingly subdued telecast, in which the ivory-tickling 23-year-old singer Norah Jones stole the honors, one dopey hard rocker did take a shot at a political statement, and Sheryl Crow's guitar strap pronounced "No War." But in the end there were no shouts of protest, let alone a Bette Midler moment, like the one at the Grammys during the Gulf War. Remember? The audience leapt in applause to her live rendition of the song "From a Distance," and in particular the line, "From a distance we all have enough/ And no one is in need/ And there are no guns, no bombs and no disease."

I suppose artists could be forgiven for not wanting to cause a stir about Iraq. After all, it's hard enough to sell records these days without pissing off consumers with political preaching. A far graver sin was the deafening Grammy silence surrounding last week's club deaths in Chicago and Warwick, R.I., where nearly 120 music fans, out for a night of fun, were crushed or burned to death. In an unconscionable omission, not a single person connected with the Grammys -- not one navel-gazing performer, presenter, winner or television producer -- thought enough to take 10 seconds of TV time to remember the dead in Rhode Island and Chicago, to offer a kind word or prayer, or to send out a simple condolence. It was an unthinkable display of disregard for music fans everywhere, and one that will take years for the Grammys to live down.

Because what happened in Chicago, and even more specifically in Rhode Island, where patrons paid money to see a live band, was a music community tragedy and should have been felt and absorbed at the highest level. In Rhode Island alone, 96 rock fans are dead, a Great White guitar player is dead, a local Providence rock DJ, who worked the overnight shift for nearly 20 years, is dead, and the band's sound man was nearly burned alive. Meanwhile, the music industry pretends nothing happened, and hands out prizes without an ounce of public sympathy? The blunder only highlights how vast the canyon has become between the industry and its consumers, who apparently have become an afterthought. What follows is a timeline of the rest of the night's events, from the gloomily blockbuster opening, to the big ending, three and a half hours later.

8:00: Dustin Hoffman meanders out to center stage and introduces lifetime achievement award honorees Simon & Garfunkel. Rumor has it the duo is contemplating a reunion tour this summer. Will this performance help advance ticket sales? Fifty-fifty. Simon appears without his usual baseball cap. Boy, is he old. Same goes for Garfunkel. But their voices playing off each other are still a wonder. I'm not sure their song selection does the Grammys any favor, though: "Sounds of Silence" may be one of the most somber pop hits in modern times, and strikes a peculiar opening note to what's supposed to be a raucous annual affair.

8:07: Hoffman, seeming dazed (let's hear it for "Bruce Springstreet!"), announces that for the first time the Grammys will proceed with no host, and therefore, no laughs.

8:10: California ska rockers No Doubt perform while extras dangle upside down from ropes above them. The band refuses to play its hit "Rock Steady" (y'know, "Hey baby, hey baby, hey!") and opts for a middling medley of "Underneath It All" and "Hella Good," a number that even fatigue-clad dancers can't save. It's a musical mess, and an audience reaction shot lets us know Aretha Franklin is unimpressed.

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8:22: While candles flicker, the impossibly young and talented Norah Jones croons the sweet, smoky sounds of "Don't Know Why," the song that's soothed us to sleep for months now.

8:28: It appears that something has gone very wrong with Faith Hill's career. The once-endearing country singer crossed over to pop and seems to have been clipped in the process. Tonight she's dressed like a high-class whore and singing what's now become her signature: schlocky ballads. Depressing.

8:38: Ad for new Chris Rock flick "Head of State," a movie about goofy white people in the White House acting black. Opening March 23.

8:41: Dressed as if he's busking on the subway, John Mayer sings his acoustic make-out ditty "Your Body Is a Wonderland." TeenPeople readers nationwide swoon.

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8:43: Singer-songwriter Mayer introduces "the blueprint," James Taylor, who, accompanied by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, sings "Sweet Baby James." I'm guessing that over the last 30 years J.T.'s plucked this number between 840 and 950 times in front of a live audience. Still, it's an American wonder -- if not a wonderland -- that creates an immediate intimacy that other classics, like Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," for instance, never seem to achieve. Standing O for Taylor.

8:50: Viewers are spared yet another Monday night rant by Bill O'Reilly when his whipping boy Ludacris loses best rap record to Eminem, aka the last man in the music industry who still sells millions of records.

8:57: What are the Dixie Chicks thinking (not to mention wearing)? Instead of performing "Long Time Gone," one of 2002's pure rollicking radio gems, or their current country ballad "Travelin' Soldier," which in coming weeks will take on added significance, the Chicks opt for their merely passable reworking of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." What a waste of three minutes.

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9:10: How much do you figure eBay paid for the rights to rework the Sinatra classic "My way" ("I did it my way"), into "You can do it eBay"? Then again, eBay can probably afford to rework Sinatra's entire catalog and still have plenty left over.

9:15: Jamming with the New York Philharmonic on "Politik" ("Give me real, don't give me fake"), Coldplay proves why they're the best rock band on the planet today. Me, I wish they'd played their current world-stopping single "Clocks."

9:27: Is it me or is it white in here? Nearly 90 minutes into the Grammys, not a single performance or award reception by an African-American.

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9:30: The Grammys are practically begging for political commentary when, for the first time in years, it televises best comedy album in prime time. Winner Robin Williams takes a pass on Iraq, though.

9:43: Finally some funk. A double shot of Nelly, America's in-house party MC. He's Hammer without the entourage. Problem is, he splits his time between the runaway "Hot in Herre" ("so take off all your clothes"), and the silly duet ballad "Dilemma" with Destiny's Child's Kelly Rowland. She should've stayed home and let Nelly cook "Hot in Herre" for the full four minutes.

9:48: Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst says, "I hope we are all in agreeance [sic] that this war should go away as soon as possible." The statement is met with tepid applause. The war reference seems awkward, forced and intruding. Perhaps it's the messenger, all decked out in baseball cap, T-shirt and malapropism.

9:52: Incredibly, not even Foo Fighter frontman (and former Nirvana drummer) Dave Grohl -- who has probably played in more rundown, 10-foot-ceiling rock clubs than anyone else on the show (except Springsteen) -- mentions Rhode Island while accepting best hard rock award. Instead, he thanks managers, producers, lovers and sisters.

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9:57: Out to introduce Springsteen, Williams passes again on making any war cracks.

9:58: Springsteen plays Madison Square Garden like it's his living room. He delivers a sturdy run-through of "The Rising," much like the ones we saw on last year's MTV Music Video Awards, on Letterman and on "SNL." If you want, you can see it again Friday night during CBS's Springsteen concert special.

Springsteen never gets a turn at the mike as a presenter or an accepter (he won three awards off-camera), so we'll never know what he would have said at the podium about the impending war. But here's what he tells Entertainment Weekly in the current issue: "I think the administration is just set on it. I think the administration took Sept. 11 and used it as a blank check. And like most Americans, I'm not sure the case has been made to put our sons and our daughters and innocent citizens at risk at this particular moment. But I don't think that's gonna matter, unfortunately ... The actual war against terrorism is extremely complicated. You try not to be cynical, but without the distraction of Iraq, [people would notice] that the economy is doing poorly, and the old-fashioned Republican tax cuts for the folks that are doing well will seriously curtail services for people who are struggling out there. I don't think that's the kind of country that Americans really want. All the cutbacks in the environment restrictions -- it's just a game of shadows and mirrors at the moment."

10:06: In a shocker, Jesse "Don't Know Why" Harris wins for best songwriting award over Springsteen's "The Rising." Guess the 9/11 appeal is fading.

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10:12: OK, who owns the publishing on "My Way"? Because here's the song again, this time in an AXA Financial commercial. I like the goofy eBay spot featuring the song-and-dance office dork better.

10:19: Bring back the original black 7-Up guy in green sweater. This new guy's just throwed off.

10:23: Ad for new Steve Martin movie featuring Queen Latifah in which a goofy white guy begins to act black. Opening March 28.

10:27: 'N Sync sleepwalks through a Bee Gees medley until Justin Timberlake, who like it or not will completely rule America in three years' time, turns on his human beat box for "Stayin' Alive."

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10:30: Eyes swell when Maurice Gibbs' son Adam accepts an award for his late Bee Gee dad.

10:39 It's Eminem "like you've never seen him." Well, that's what the Grammy promo promised. He's backed by the Roots, rap's best live band who prove why for the umpteenth time during "Lose Yourself." The performance is strong but nothing we haven't seen Eminem do many times before, and it can't compare to Eminem's wildly hyped Grammy duet two years ago with Elton John, back when Em used to dis gays and rap about killing women on record. Eminem sports a "Free Yayo" T-shirt and kids across America dash to Google.com in search of "Yayo." He ends with a shout-out to his idol, the late Jam Master Jay, "Live in peace."

10:46: Norah Jones picks up record of the year and it's obvious the rout is on. In the end Jones and her album walk away with eight awards.

10:55: I guess if you're Pamela Anderson you don't really worry about your men wandering too far from home, but is it me or has Kid Rock been spending a lot of time with rumored former flame Sheryl Crow lately? They team up on the Grammys for a hot run-through of Crow's "You're an Original Baby." This after they recently filmed a video for their sweet acoustic duet "Picture," in which they make lots and lots of eye contact. Hmm. Anyway, Crow leaves home her "War Is not the Answer" T-shirt, the one she donned last month during the American Music Awards, in favor of a "No War" guitar strap.

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10:59: Norah Jones joins that long Grammy-loves-smart-women tradition of Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Colvin, Lauryn Hill by grabbing secord of the year honors.

11:12: In memory of the late Clash frontman Joe Strummer, Springsteen, Stevie Van Zandt, Elvis Costello and the Foo's Grohl rev up the Clash's calling card, "London Calling." "London is drowning and I live by the river." The song fits somewhere alongside Springsteen's "Born to Run," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Costello's rendition of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" as pitch-perfect rock anthems of their time. Wonder who won best album the year the Clash's angry and articulate masterpiece was released? That's right, Christopher Cross' self-titled debut. All together: "Sailing, takes me away to where I want to be."

11:25: Jones wins the big one, album of the year. That means she's taken every category in which she was nominated. Now the question is, will she mature into Rickie Lee Jones, or fade away like piano wonder Fiona Apple. Either way, if you haven't already, you're gonna download Jones' album for free during lunch, right?


Eric Boehlert

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

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