At the Grammys, the security guards are your enemy. Under no circumstances, should you make eye contact with any of them. It’s a sign that you are an interloper and belong with the sad-sack 17-year-old groupies surrounding the Staples Center perimeter on Sunday night.
If you’re going to successfully sneak inside, it’s imperative to pretend like you belong. Stare intently at your cell phone. Strut with serene confidence. Never stop moving. If a guard grunts in your direction, ignore them. Provided you are wearing a lanyard, any lanyard, they will not grab you. It’s too risky. What if you’re someone famous? And should anyone ask who I am tonight, I will solemnly answer: “Argyle Frampton, the bassist in Bon Iver.” I haven’t shaved in four days and I am wearing plaid. My alibi is airtight.
A more valid question: Why would I want to sneak into the Grammys? As far as marquee awards shows go, they’re the dad with an earring, bald spot, and ponytail, desperately trying to prove to their kids that they’re still hip and relevant. The Oscars thrive on history, glamor, and a willingness to reward button-pushing indie films. The Emmys have enjoyed a renaissance thanks to cable television’s ability to expand the borders of complex narration. But the Grammys are a 54-year old institution forever maligned for being old and out of touch. Each year, they slap together a bill studded with odd-couple combinations so contrived and wince-inducing as to be the awards-show equivalent of a middle-aged Michael Jordan in Ed Hardy and torn jeans.
I’m mainly sneaking into the Grammys to see if I can. SPIN has procured me a print media credential, but I’m aware of what that entails. The print media are herded into a concentration camp buried in the bowels of the Staples Center. Sure, there’s a nominal glamor to the idea of covering the Grammys, but the reality is more unsettling. Welcome to the next three hours of being surrounded by sober laptop geeks babbling about Justin Vernon’s beard. The chief perk is free coffee and the occasional roast beef sandwich that tastes like a tote bag. Fuck that.
So, I am trying to step into the arena through the front door, incognito alongside with the largely obscure musicians, bean counters, and Lyor Cohens clotting the red carpet. Remember, this is not the Academy Awards. Unless you stumble across Rihanna, Katy Perry, Skrillex’s haircut, or the Beekeeper formerly known as Lady Gaga, you will likely not recognize any of the nominees. Nor can anyone other than Newt Gingrich pick the members of Lady Antebellum out of a lineup. Besides, I am Argyle Frampton, the fleet-fingered virtuoso who provided a beefy backbeat to Justin Vernon’s sotto voce saturninity. I belong.
Upon ingress to the Grammy red carpet, I immediately spot Ice T and his balloon-animal wife, Coco, on the red carpet. Their romantic conversation is instantly audible: “Where are the E! cameras?” Of course, the E! cameras are everywhere. Sometime in the last decade, E!, Extra, and Access Hollywood cornered the market on powder-puff entertainment journalism. Behind metal barriers, hordes of unwashed print media and low-rent video outlets shout out questions to every artist with a publicist. But it’s clear that the Seacrest S.W.A.T. team have full control of the carpet. Suddenly, one of these crews pushes me out the way in favor of an unseen celebrity. Disoriented, I find myself drifting into a large tunnel towards the Staples Center.
Behind me, a tuxedo-clad one percenter whispers to his wife: “I like this so much better than the Emmys. Music people are so much more loose than TV executives.” As if to prove a point, I look up and see a man dressed in a king’s outfit: crown, robe, and scepter. Alas, it is not T.I. To my left, there is something called “The Glam Cam 360,” a Freon-blue panopticon, where I am convinced that everyone looks like Ryan Seacrest. This is the other thing that’s so terrifying about the Grammys: Ryan Seacrest is inescapable and never stops smiling.
My fatal mistake comes shortly after entering the Staples Center. Out of curiosity, I violate my own first axiom and brazenly ask a security guard where the media room is. He tells me that I entered the wrong way, which leads to an Abbott and Costello routine’s worth of wrong directions. When I finally locate the vortex where the fourth estate have been banished, things are even grimmer than imagined. Four 40-inch screens flank the front of the room. The print press are planted across four wide rows, a waxen and pale-faced tribe chained to their computers and frantically typing throughout the entire ceremony. There is no booze and no banter. The mood is somewhere between Mitt Romney-sponsored Happy Hour and ComicCon Q&A.
The idea is that throughout the ceremony, winners will be paraded in front of the press, who can pepper them with permutations of the phrase, “how does it feel to win a Grammy.” As though there was any answer other than “fucking awesome.” Except that none of the actual stars at the event had much of an inclination to talk to the media, arguably the only industry more imperiled than the music biz.
How bizarre was it in this closed-circuit nether-zone? During the course of the ceremony itself, a grand total of three artists came backstage to answer six questions each: Bonnie Raitt, the ghosts of the Beach Boys, and Lady Antebellum. Raitt, ever gracious, prayed for the print media to “make it another 20 years.” While one of the Antebellumites instructed us to “get some sleep.” One of the Beach Boys tried to tell us that their new album rivals the brilliance of Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson’s eyes looked as glazed and dried-out as a deli salami.
During the ceremony, I am immured between over-blogged and under-paid scribes asking questions about Valentine’s Day and whether or not Lady Gaga’s veil was actually made from the webs of baby spiders imported from Egypt. Since drinking was forbidden and my attempts to lead a press-room rebellion were quelled by self-appointed “shushing” monitors, the only option was to settle in and watch the show.
Oh, the Grammys. Fifty-four years of alternately closing their eyes and then playing catch-up. The first artist that we saw onstage was Bruce Springsteen, an actual-in-the-flesh legend, a 62-year old non-pirate who insists on wearing hoop earrings. The show was shut down by a guitar crescendo of Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, and Springsteen (collective age: 195 years young). The night’s big winner was the supremely talented and soporific Adele, 23 years old but anachronistic enough to qualify for a senior discount at the movies. Should she have lost, this morning we would have witnessed the great soccer mom riots of 2012.
The obvious move would be for me to add to the never-ending chorus of calls for the Grammys to step up their game. But if Burial, Danny Brown, and Fucked Up cleaned house at the Grammy’s, the show would draw a 1.2 rating and Tony Bennett might suffer a seizure at the sight of a shirtless Pink Eye. The Grammys largely celebrate commercial achievement over artistic merit. Even the big indie winners (last year, Arcade Fire; this year, Bon Iver) shift hundreds of thousands of copies and are within permanent striking distance of Starbucks. The Grammys are only capable of doing one thing inordinately well: pissing off every last music lover in America. Our displeasure with them may well be the last lingering remnant of the monoculture.
Even when the producers have noble instincts (honor the Beach Boys, pay tribute to late Soul Train host, Don Cornelius), the execution is ham-fisted. Rather than Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio riffing on “Good Vibrations” and “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” it’s Maroon 5 and one-hit wonders Foster the People. Rather than Raphael Saadiq, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, and Booker T playing tribute to Soul Train, we get a seizure-inducing mash-up of David Guetta, Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, Dave Grohl, and Deadmau5. Not to mention the fact that creepy Chris Brown was even allowed onstage in the first place (let alone winning awards).
The fractured narrative that everyone will try to spin this morning is how the EDM-like orgies featuring Guetta and Deadmau5 and Rihanna and Calvin Harris reflect the rise of rave culture in America. Your mom might even call you today and ask about the connection between dance music and Mickey Mouse. Or there’s the talking point about the indie labels staking their claim to the throne, with XL (Adele) and Jagjaguwar (Bon Iver) taking home Gramophones.
People will talk about the fake stained-glass sacrilege of Nicki Minaj’s “Roman Holiday” — a performance that proved Madonna is the Andy Warhol of pop music: the go-to rip-off that masks the middle-brow as avant-garde. Right around the time Minaj performed, the press room rippled with a report that her labelmate Lil Wayne had been arrested on gun charges. It was later revealed to be false.
This year’s Grammys were empty of surprise but flush with theater — ranging from ersatz candy raves to Taylor Swift playing the banjo for a yet to-be-written film score to Walt Disney’s Splash Mountain: The Movie. LL Cool J was the host. Whitney Houston was honored. Bruno Mars raided Little Richard’s pomade jar and ripped off James Brown. Katy Perry unveiled a song about how much Russell Brand is “like totally lame” and her hair is now blue. Say what you will about Jay-Z and Kanye, but they had the good sense to skip this spectacle. Lil Wayne wore shoes that looked like they were manufactured by Snorks. It was a culture clash that mixed like vodka and milk.
As the night wound down, the shell of Diana Ross asked the crowd with a twinge of desperation: “We’re having so much fun, aren’t we?” Inside the press room, a bespectacled and bleary scribe yawned and asked when someone was going to refill the coffee. “The pots have been empty for a while,” he said. Pretty much.
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