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Grammys: awards ceremony or big concert?

Singer-songweiter Robin Thicke is part of the long-list of artists performing tomorrow at the Grammys.
By Chris Richards
The Washington Post (*)

Numerous ‘moments’ are a brand synergy masquerading as artistic collaboration

Nobody watches the Grammys for the actual Grammys anymore. So what are we tuning in for? Over the past decade, the music industry’s biggest awards show has mutated into a Frankenstein-ish pop concert clogged with duets that feel as desperate and illogical as speed dating.

Tomorrow’s 56th Annual Grammy Awards telecast (TNT from 10pm, Argentina time) is promising plenty of them, going light on trophies and heavy on performances that pair artists of different genres and generations. As random as many of these collaborations may seem, the show’s producers enthusiastically refer to them by their brand name: “Grammy moments.”

So on tomorrow, dance duo Daft Punk will celebrate its tremendous year by jamming with Stevie Wonder, a pop legend who had a completely unremarkable year. Ditto for album of the year nominee Sara Bareilles and the great Carole King. Robin Thicke is expected to croon Blurred Lines with rock pensioners Chicago. Kendrick Lamar will rap alongside motivational rock bros and fellow nominees Imagine Dragons. If the past few years are any indication, roughly half of tomorrow night’s performances will offer collaborations like these.

Call them “Grammy moments” if you must — they feel more like branding partnerships designed to bridge diverging demographics. The veterans lend the rookies some gravitas. The kiddos Febreze their heroes with relevance. Time goes blurry as today’s acts are forced to present their art within the context of yesterday, creating a familiar warmth but very few sparks.

Wonder is no stranger to this stuff. He last performed a Grammy-night duet with the Jonas Brothers in 2009. Paul McCartney — scheduled to perform on tomorrow’s programme with Ringo Starr — took part in two collaborative Grammy performances in 2012; he dueted with Dave Grohl in 2009; and he sang alongside Linkin Park and Jay Z in 2006. Elton John and Lionel Richie are legendary Grammy loiterers, too. They haven’t been announced as a part of tomorrow’s lineup, but who knows when the next Grammy moment might strike?

This year, producers are also touting appearances from Lorde, Taylor Swift and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis — each presumably performing on their own — but it’s the collaborations that lure viewers to their TV screens. Producer Ken Ehrlich recently told Rolling Stone, “There’s no question the Grammys have become a performance show.” Which means an awards system that has spent decades struggling to establish the prestige of, say, the Oscars is facing a new conundrum. Instead of celebrating today’s music by allowing great, new artists to rally viewers with great, new art, the Grammys are addicted to a telecast formula that sells a mirage of consensus and timelessness.

That illusion should feel creepily familiar to fans of new pop music. Cosmetic collaborations are a pox on the radio. Check out last week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart. Four of the top five songs were duets that feel as if they were hatched in a focus group.

So in their own unfortunate way, the Grammys are capturing the zeitgeist, right? Not really. The central problem is that these excessive Grammy moments smudge the actual moment. By being shoehorned into performances with their elders, too many of today’s rising artists are denied their own moment.

It’s rare, but sometimes the righteous refuse to play ball. Two Grammys ago, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver was nominated for four awards, including best new artist, making the helium-voiced rock singer an ideal candidate for a telecast performance. But he declined.

Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age is another rock-and-roll frontman of staunch principles, but on tomorrow he’ll be joined at the telecast finale by Nine Inch Nails, his buddy Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac.

How did pop collaboration become so habitual? Rappers get unfairly blamed for far too many things in the US, but this one kind of falls on them. In the 1990s, hip-hop albums became bloated with cameo appearances. The summer of 1999 brought another trajectory-twist in the form of Santana’s Supernatural, an album of genre-blind duets that swiftly went multi-platinum and won a staggering nine Grammy awards. At the 2000 Grammys ceremony, Carlos Santana played Smooth, the album’s flagship mega-hit, with Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty. During that same telecast, Elton John appeared with the Backstreet Boys.

In the 14 years since, cosmetic collaboration has become pop music’s most noxious reflex. Young artists have been raised in a world where creative partnerships are seen as inherently valuable, regardless of chemistry, regardless of the results.

On a night dedicated to celebrating the strongest aspects of contemporary music, we’ll spend three hours watching our biggest pop stars indulging in one of the worst.

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