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All Alone in the Moonlight: The Muddled Memory-Making of the 2011 Grammy Awards

The Muddled Memory-Making of the 2011 Grammys

February 13th, 2011

Tonight, the Grammy Awards opened with an extended retrospective. As a collection of contemporary female vocalists paid tribute to the music of Aretha Franklin, it established that this was a night to reflect on Grammy history. It was a narrative picked up by Miranda Lambert’s performance of “The House That Built Me” later in the show, which she dedicated to those performers who came before (and who appeared on the screens behind her in a nostalgia-tinged multimedia component), and cemented with a “rare performance” from Barbra Streisand and Mick Jagger’s first ever Grammy performance.

However, earlier in the show, Lady Gaga took to the stage to perform her brand new single, “Born this Way.” Although one could claim that this too is a bit of history, given that the song borrows liberally from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” the song premiered only last week. In another performance, a trio of young performers (Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae, and B.O.B.) were introduced by Ryan Seacrest as being the next generation of Grammy legends, albeit in a performance which had a definite tinge of nostalgia given Bruno Mars’ black-and-white, Jackson Five throwback performance of “Grenade.”

It’s no secret that the Grammys have long ago stopped being an “awards show,” having transitioned into a concert event so blatantly that everyone noticed (if you’ll forgive me the inversion of a classic Simpsons line). However, during tonight’s show (and especially given the few hours I spent half watching the non-televised portion of the awards online), I realized the degree to which this shift has seemingly been designed to disguise the fact that the Grammys, more than any other awards show, utterly fails at capturing the last year in its respective medium.

And how, despite some unquestionable success at making the show “memorable,” it sort of confounds the notion of memory altogether.

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A Sales Spectacular: The Honest Quest for “Buzz” at the 2010 Grammys

When the Jay Leno Show was first pitched by NBC, they claimed that it would be so topical that people wouldn’t dare tape it on their DVRs out of fear of missing something important. This was, of course, a complete lie, as the show was irrelevant from the moment it was conceived, but it raised the point that in this age there is this enigma surrounding that singular program that is so current that it must be watched live to be truly experienced.

And so we turn to last night’s Grammy Awards, the yearly spectacle where music’s biggest stars come together to celebrate their achievements. And while all awards shows are looking for ways to appeal to audiences (with flashy hosts, big production numbers, etc.), the Grammys are built for it: at the end of the day, the show is one giant concert, and in the process becomes part spectacle, part promotional tool, and part awards show (that part, frankly, is secondary).

I wonder, though, whether the show is actually DVR-proof. Let’s take, for example, Pink’s performance of “Glitter in the Air,” which in many ways stole the show for live viewers (I missed the first hour, but when I checked in with my parents it was the first thing I heard about). In the performance, she dangles from a white sheet from the ceiling, in Cirque de Soleil style, spinning and twirling while rarely missing a step in her vocal performance. She drew a standing ovation from the audience, and while I wasn’t as surprised as many (having read about this part of her Funhouse Tour in [gasp] a print magazine a few months ago), it was admittedly quite impressive when I reviewed it, on DVR, when the show ended.

Or when I viewed it, as you can now, on YouTube.

In other words, it stayed DVR-proof for about thirty minutes, at which point anyone could access it: if this is really what all the watercoolers will be buzzing about tomorrow, then YouTube has made live viewing more or less irrelevant. In the end, the Grammys are probably fine with this: combined with other performances (like Lady Gaga’s opening duet with Elton John), an online presence will create the impression that viewers won’t want to miss next year’s Grammys so that they can be one of the “first” to discover such performances (unless of course they’re on the West Coast, where clips hit YouTube before the tape delayed show even aired). And perhaps some might be bummed that they had previous knowledge of the performance before experiencing it, and would have liked to have been one of those on the front lines, going to Twitter or Facebook and throwing in a “Holy crap” or some other variation.

The Grammys are not, like the Oscars, self-important: they know that they exist to drum up sales and interest in a struggling industry, and they know that in this day and age what’s more important is engaging with an audience than actually rewarding the best music. And while I’m going to use this TV-driven analysis to justify some music-driven stuff below the jump, it’s important to note that for the Grammys the evening was a success regardless of who won or lost, and I think the way the show is designed (and how it is received by audiences) is a reflection of this. Sure, some complain about CBS using the show as a springboard for their own shows (L.L. Cool J, Chris O’Donnell, Kaley Cuoco, etc.), but considering the show itself is one big promotional tool, it fit right in for me.

And now, some stray observations about the awards themselves – I can’t help myself.

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