Monday, February 14, 2011

Paradigm shift at the Grammys: feel the white heat of the Arcade Fire!

Win Butler and his Montreal alternative rock band, Arcade Fire, accepting their Album of the Year Award last night at the Grammy Awards.

Are you kidding me? When did the Grammy Awards get so cool?

Long lambasted for being irrelevant and out of touch with people who are music nerds, last night's Grammy Award ceremony in Los Angeles was an aberation of the highest order: a night that, for once, rewarded not just the year's hit makers and biggest pop stars but music's new visionaries as well.

Against all odds, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) awarded its most prestigious honor (the Album of the Year) to Montreal's Arcade Fire for The Suburbs, its blistering sonic assault and provocative commentary on American moral values. The ceremony's biggest surprise came just minutes after Arcade Fire performed a white hot version of the CD's most rambunctious song, "The Month of May," and caused the band's front man and primary songwriter, Win Butler, to hold the small golden trophy above his head and exclaim in disbelief, "What the hell?.....we're so happy we're gonna go play another song!"

Arcade Fire's surprise pick was met with raucous enthusiasm among the music mavens in Los Angeles. It's hard to understand why. Maybe they were cheering at the sheer unexpectedness of the moment. The band was nominated in the same catagory as Eminem, Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum and Katy Perry and to call them "underdogs" is a rank insult to canines the world over.

It's possible that the alternative rockers won simply because the more popular artists sharing the catagory split the academy's vote. It's hard to believe the album won on its own merits or that the academy recognized the sheer brilliance of The Suburbs, as it did back in 1970, when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band won the same catagory, the Beatles' only win for Album of the Year.

Traditionally, Album of the Year is the academy's defining moment and the academy, more often than not, gets this award right. It seems to recognize visionary moments from artists in their prime. In years past, such seminal albums as Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life won the award (1974 and 1977 respectively); Carol King's Tapestry won it in 1972; Simon and Garfunkle's Bridge Over Trouble Waters (1971); Simon's solo recording Graceland (1987;) U2's The Joshua Tree(1988); and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind (1998) were all strong picks.

More recently, however, the academy's Album of the Year awards have misfired. Back on the Block by Quincy Jones (1991); Unforgettable...with Love by Natalie Cole (1992) Unplugged by Eric Clapton (1993); The Bodyguard Soundtrack (1994); MTV Unplugged by Tony Bennett (1995); Carlos Santana's Supernatural (2000) and Two Against Nature by Steely Dan (2001) are not among the career-defining moments of the artists who recorded them. All of those recordings long ago were relegated to the cut-out bins of music history.

If that is the case, last night's show represented a major paradigm shift in the academy's sensibilities. Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum and Eminem were all recognized for their collective grasp on the Billboard charts. But this year the academy seemed to find a way to recognize musicians who were breaking new ground.

A virtually unknown bass player, Esperanza Spalding, won the Best New Artist award and seemed as nonplussed and deeply honored as Win Butler was in receiving the Album of the Year award. She promised the academy she would do her best to honor the award and make a career of music that would justify its faith in her. Her moment in the spotlight was one of the evening's high points.

Other great moments in last night's broadcast included Mick Jagger's rooster-strutting tribute to departed Philadelphia soul shouter, Solomon Burke (complete with Mick's disrobing of a kingly cape!!); Cee-Lo Green's hilarious performance of "Forget You" (the song's real title is too profane to be broadcast in primetime; its lyrics are a ribald roller coaster ride)with a collection of Muppets; the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons accompanying a croaky Bob Dylan on "Maggie's Farm"; Janelle Monae singing a blistering rendition of her hit, "Cold War" and a rousing tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, by five female sirens including Christine Aquilera and Jennifer Hudson.

It was the best Grammy Awards show in recent memory...and just maybe an indication that academy voters are becoming more in tune with hipster America.

Who'd have thunk it!


  1. Chuck,

    Those were my feelings exactly about the award show last night. Normally, I wouldn't even bother watching it. I tuned in to see Dylan, but I was impressed by how uncharacteristically cool the Grammies were this year. Just to illustrate how lame the Grammies usually are: did you know that Mick Jagger's performance last night was the FIRST time he ever performed on the Grammy stage? What the hell? Seriously? How many Grammies does Celine Dion have now?

    Luke S.

  2. I loved the 5 female singers at the beginning. Honestly I can't say I've ever heard that many female vocalists sing with such heart and soul.
    Terrific show for sure.