The Grammys have become a near-ideal made-for-TV vehicle — a musical show with very, very few actual awards, the better to squeeze as many performances as possible into its 3 ½ hours. For all that, the late Michael Jackson remained this year’s centerpiece, featured in a 3-D tribute that mostly demonstrated the need to advance beyond those cheap old blue-red glasses to foster demand for this much-ballyhooed technology. While one can understand the industry’s desire to send a legendary artist off in style, let’s hope the rather morbid cottage industry devoted to Jackson farewells is finally abating.
Not surprisingly, the 3-D gimmick didn’t add much to an otherwise heartfelt tribute that showcased multiple singers, other than casting an eerie glow over Celine Dion. Yes, the tree leaves stood out in footage from Jackson’s “This is It,” but however it played in the arena, little about the presentation popped on TV, literally or figuratively.
Actually, the best way to watch the Grammys is to turn the telecast into a drinking game. Take a shot every time a CBS star gratuitously turns up, or whenever something happens that will make the Parents Television Council begin drafting strongly-worded protest letters to the FCC. Think Beyonce’s crotch grab and Pink’s aerial water show, though in truth, border-pushing antics were relatively rare. Fortunately for CBS, Eminem’s rap act — which contained perhaps the single-longest series of bleeps I’ve ever heard — aired after 11 p.m.
The show certainly didn’t waste any time getting started, firing off its big guns right off the bat. The broadcast opened with a Lady Gaga-Elton John duet (the former wearing an outfit that resembled an evil Tinkerbell), a raucous Green Day performance from “American Idiot” and a show-stopping number by Beyonce, all within the first 35 minutes.
As if sensing that viewers need hooks to sustain interest through such a lengthy exercise, each commercial break advised viewers how long the specific wait would be until key artists appeared. Anticipation to see the Black Eyed Peas was thus stoked in the same way Fox Sports teases basketball highlights.
Other musical pairings — some of the then-now variety, others notable for their incongruity — came later, such as Taylor Swift tackling “Rhiannon” with Stevie Nicks. Few of these combinations approached the majesty of Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige belting out “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to benefit those suffering in Haiti.
In the case of several elaborate production numbers, less would have surely been more. Jamie Foxx dressed like a pirate, and it felt as if everyone in the Staples Center joined him on stage before he was finished.
Then again, with so many music showcases competing for attention — the AMAs, MTV Awards, etc. — conventional wisdom has become to err on the side of excess, leaving subtlety by the wayside. Indeed, the Grammys pushed iTunes downloads from the show early and often, while reminding the TV audience that nothing expresses love for favorite acts like buying their work.
Given the dearth of awards presented, the evening’s most irritating aspect might have been how ruthlessly producers hurried off early winners. Even Stephen Colbert — an honoree for best comedy album — heard the music swell before completing his thank-yous.
Then again, the Grammys are hardly shy about their formula. And once you’ve committed to the notion that singing pays the bills, talk is cheap.