Everything’s coming up Rosie

If one incident summarized the 42nd annual Grammy awards ceremony, it was the overshadowing of the Dixie Chicks’ live performance. The band’s video was intrusively broadcast behind the trio, and the camera often cut away from the performance, focusing the full screen on a video that viewers could catch at any given time on Country Music Television. Meanwhile, the musicians on stage fiddled away, visible only to those at the show. This scenario epitomized how, even when substance rears its head, it usually is sacrificed for the sake of image and aesthetics.

The evening certainly was television-driven, thanks to the efforts of a network whose name, when read aloud, tellingly becomes “See b.s.” The tie-in between Elton John’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the incessant commercials for his score to the upcoming animated film The Road to El Dorado — as well as the striking manner in which CBS plugged the Latin Grammy Awards, which will appear on the network, by pointing the camera at Andy Garcia or Gloria Estefan during any spare second between awards and performances — made it hard to tell where the programming ended and the advertising began. Not even Kansas native Martina McBride escaped CBS’ omnipresent eye; when she presented an award, she was sandwiched between network sitcom stars Kevin James and Ray Romano.

The evening opened with a performance by pop-hop star Will Smith, who further distanced himself from the real rap world by choosing a Janet Jackson-style headset over a handheld mic. Having his hands free inspired Smith to do his Hammer impression, which resulted in a noticeably winded recitation of his lines toward the end of the song.

While Smith gasped for breath, host Rosie O’Donnell produced a lot of hot air during her opening monologue. She ambushed celebrities as if they had come to the event to promote their new projects, taking Selleck-style shots at Cher, Puff Daddy, and Diana Ross. Chris Rock can get away with such acerbic commentary because he has established himself as brash and outrageous, but the erstwhile “Queen of Nice” looked uncomfortable as she delivered her lukewarm zingers.

One of O’Donnell’s targets was Whitney Houston, whom the host baited about being caught with marijuana at a Hawaii airport. After winning an award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Houston prompted rumors that she might still be using mind-altering substances by proclaiming her husband Bobby Brown as “the original King of R&B.”

The reigning queens of R&B, at least in the eyes of Grammy voters, are the members of TLC, who made off with three more trophies. The trio also trotted out its award-show set, which involves taking the stage in cumbersome outfits, stripping down to formfitting fashions for the dance portion of the performance, then frolicking around the stage to closing music that is not their own.

Twisting up a storm to his own tunes was Ricky Martin, whose circus-style set followed an impressive number by Marc Anthony and an enjoyable number by the Buena Vista Social Club. The camera crews duly noted Andy Garcia’s and Gloria Estefan’s reactions to these performances.

Although Christina Aguilera’s role in the Latin showcase was limited to the careful introduction of lengthy names, she wrestled the Best New Artist award from bigger-selling teen queen Britney Spears. Granted, Spears might be the better for not walking away with this dubious trophy, which seemed to provide the kiss of death to acts from Jody Watley to Milli Vanilli to Arrested Development, but it wasn’t her lucky night. First, after Shirley Manson from Garbage stole Spears’ naughty schoolgirl look and Jennifer Lopez pilfered her gown-as-parallel-lines motif, poor Britney apparently had to resort to an outfit that flattered neither her figure nor her bright-orange skin. And after growling her way through “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart,” she paid only lip service to “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” a fact that became obvious midway through the tune, when the vocals faded in symmetry with the backing track. From its opening skit, in which a girl portraying Spears at age 8 fantasized about following in Tina Turner’s and Janet Jackson’s footsteps, to its subsequent lunacy, which included an array of marching puppets and dancers in peacock costumes, Spears’ set was the performance most likely to be mistaken for a Super Bowl halftime show.

Also blanked despite numerous nominations were the Backstreet Boys, who performed a deadly medley featuring songs by the Bee Gees, The Temptations, and Boyz II Men. Should the Boys record these tunes, it would bode well for their chances in the future; wins by Lenny Kravitz for “American Woman” and Sheryl Crow for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” indicate that nothing inspires Grammy voters like a forgettable cover tune.

Despite all the flashy but hollow performances by pop icons, the evening offered a few musicians who made up in class what they lacked in costumes and choreography. Jazz vocalist Diana Krall, who took home a pair of Grammys, lent her piano-playing skills and breathy voice to a collaboration with Erykah Badu, who assisted The Roots on their deserving Grammy-winning single, “You Got Me,” and the always excellent George Benson. Another esteemed jazz ensemble featured Kansas City’s Eldar Djangirov, the 13-year-old pianist-composer who dazzled last year’s Klammies crowd, again displaying his amazing skills, this time alongside a handful of similarly talented prodigies.

Seeing Djangirov perform was a welcome glimpse at what the Grammys should be: a forum for music’s best and brightest talent, not just its biggest-selling stars. The performances by the evening’s lesser draws, in fact, far outshone the platinum club’s glitzy displays so much that even thick-headed record-label executives and network decision-makers might see the value in ensuring that actual quality remains a part of the night’s program. The powers that be might even see fit to let a few more nominees in the “minor” categories — who already suffer the indignity of having their achievements flashed on the screen so quickly that one squint-eye grimace at any of the night’s various inanities might cause a viewer to miss their names — perform in front of a nationwide audience, giving them a chance to reach millions of new listeners and perhaps even achieve crossover success. In the meantime, here are a couple of final requests: No more Rosie O’Donnell, and please leave the showing of music video footage to the MTV Music Awards.

Contact Andrew Miller at 816-218-6781 or andrew.miller@pitch.com.

Categories: Music