American pop music is—quite literally—nowhere. It’s flying around the world in virtual bits, hovering somewhere between the illegal Internet sites, the iPods in our pockets, and the homemade CDs we burn and trade. It’s everyplace but where the recording industry would like it to be—at the counters of music stores, being paid for in cold hard cash.
Watching the Grammy Awards last night, it was hard not to get the feeling that music is stuck in a figurative nowhere, too. It’s been 40 years since the Beatles first appeared on TheEd Sullivan Show, an event commemorated during the ceremony by a pallid cover of “I Saw Her Standing There,” performed by Dave Matthews, Vince Gill, Sting, and Pharrell Williams. Perhaps more notably, it’s been just over 20 years since the earliest rap groups broke into the pop culture mainstream, and less than 10 since digital technology began to change the way we listen to music. With niche radio markets and endlessly proliferating cable music channels splintering audiences into ever smaller, more isolated pockets, the only cultural reference that everyone at the Grammys seemed to share was Justin Timberlake’s accidental exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl halftime show. Like some mythic coupling of the gods that rebuilds the cosmos, this event has apparently rewritten all of pop history, inaugurating a new period of contrition in which every performer must pay pious tribute at the altar of TV decency.
The fact that the Grammys aired on CBS, the same network that hosted the Super Bowl, gave the whole awards show the feel of a junior-high talent show taking place the day after an unfortunate streaking incident at the homecoming game. The chaperones were on guard, a 5-minute delay was built into the live broadcast lest any flesh come untucked, and when the notoriously (and gloriously) “dirrty” songstress Christina Aguilera appeared to collect an award for Best Female Pop Vocal in a charmeuse halter dress cut down to her navel, she nervously referenced the Jackson debacle, like an eighth-grader eager to distinguish herself from the school slut: “I don’t want to have happen to me what happened to Janet.” Who would? Jackson and Timberlake were warned by the principal’s office that they could attend only on the condition that they publicly apologize for their pectoral faux pas. Timberlake concurred, managing to curry favor with the academy, CBS, and his mom (who was his date at the ceremony) all at the same time, while Janet stayed home alone (I hope) doing tequila shots and flashing her tits at the TV. That woman is all class.
Watching Justin Timorous preside over L.A.’s Staples Center like some 23-year-old éminence grise, I missed Eminem, with his tasteless racial politics and cock-of-the-walk bravado. Remember when pop music was supposed to be about subversion, rebellion, pushing the boundaries? OK, me neither. But it’s part of music’s job—or rock’s, rap’s, and punk’s job, at least—to stage some spectacle of excess, to act out a little for the folks at home. Sure, there were breakout moments that managed to smuggle some spark of life into last night’s mild-mannered proceedings. The White Stripes (who won for Best Alternative Album and Best Rock Song) took to the stage with their usual minimalist outfit—one guitar, one drum set—and completely. Rocked. Out. But it was Andre 3000 of OutKast who easily took home the too-cool-for-school award. After OutKast’s double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below won the award for Best Rap Album, Andre strolled onstage with one hand in his pocket and gave the two-word speech that is the dream of every burned-out awards-show viewer: “Thank you.” Later, just before OutKast took the top prize of Album of the Year, Andre brought down the house with the single best performance of the night, a tightly choreographed staging of his infernally catchy “Hey Ya!” featuring a marching band and go-go girls in Native American feather headdresses emerging from a giant teepee. It was joyful and loopy and racially disquieting, somehow all at the same time.
The terse three-word summary that my TiVo viewing guide gave of the Grammy broadcast—”Festivities honor excellence”—struck me as touchingly naive and hopeful, and some of the time it was even true. There was satisfaction to be found in revisiting archetypal Grammy moments: the pretty young female newcomer amassing five awards for her first solo album—this year, Beyoncé Knowles, tying a record previously set by Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, and Norah Jones. The inevitable bad-boy upset: Losing the Best New Artist trophy to the Arkansas goth-metal band Evanescence, Eminem protégé 50 Cent protested by walking across the stage during their acceptance speech. (Once again invoking junior high—that’s detention for you, young man!) And of course, there were the inevitable dead-guy awards, given this year to Warren Zevon, George Harrison, and Johnny Cash for Best Folk Album, Best Pop Instrumental Performance, and Best Short-Form Video, respectively. Don’t get me wrong—these are wonderful dead guys, towering artists who left us far too soon, and when the seemingly ubiquitous Timberlake beat out two of them—Harrison and Zevon—for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Cry Me a River,” I could have cried one myself. In 40 more years, when some as-yet-unborn teen sensation is belting out a Grammy tribute to Timberlake’s early career, I just hope our shared cultural memory extends back a little further than the great Super Bowl scandal of 2004.