Grammy 2014: Press Play, Don't Press Pause!

Writing is therapeutic. No better way to experience this than by writing a post as one watches the Grammy Awards show. I did this a couple of times in the past and in addition to therapy (music covers up rising bile) it is also a self-declared challenge. I know many writers, well organized and eloquent, who write their pieces at one go, but I suck at it on my best days.  I prefer a slow and deliberate stroll, closely tending to clauses waiting in the wings. It is a good writing exercise still, especially as it ties in well with a project on my mind for the near future. The creative arts are intrinsically linked – with each other and with the state of the society. Listening to what the industry thinks is its best-of is a good way to reflect on this interconnectedness of all things.

Disclaimers and Requests: Since my attention is torn between things (getting my morning started, making tea, and a wide range of music, much of which I do not understand or appreciate), get ready for a rambly ride.  If music is not your thing, you can safely skip the next couple of paragraphs. If reading is not your thing, I have included a few videos obliquely related to the awards, but hey, you can still like my Facebook page. And finally, this post is going live on this blog because you guys don't follow the junk I write about music over at The Operative Note.

Before we set out, and as I let Lorde wash over the morning with her performance of Royals, let me share what I am looking forward to this morning. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson regrouping (with Merle Haggard and Blake Shelton) and the possibility of Paul (chappie won the best trad pop album last year with Kisses on the Bottom and is up this year for the filmed live version of the same album) and Ringo playing together (happened!!!) are on top of the list. Somewhere nearby is a hope for a tribute to Phil Everly, someone who ought to be up there along with Robert Johnson, Buddy Holly, Elvis, and The Beatles in the scheme of things. There is no middle or bottom of the list for me, so anything that sounds good (both Lorde – check out her cover of Everybody wants to rule the world from the new Hunger Games soundtrack - and Kacey Musgrave are incredibly promising) will be a bonus. I never “enjoyed” much of the harder variants of rock, but am convinced the NIN-QOTSA act will be more of a massacre than a true McCartney-Grohl moment.  I am totally indifferent to both EDM and rap, so that leaves with nothing else to really be waiting for. Not a very optimistic view of the future of music, I admit, but usually by the end of the awards ceremony, like a Bruce Willis movie, music somehow redeems itself.

The opening act of Bey and Jay was remarkable primarily for the weird love that was so visible in their performance and then all through the show whenever the camera swept over them. As a man in love, I am not at all sure what is going on. And looks like most of the awards are already out, and the awards ceremony is just for a few categories. Before I switch tabs to update myself, let me speculate a little, not exactly betting, but sharing what my fingers are crossed on for a few of the categories – Kacey Musgraves for New Artist (went to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis), Terri Lyne Carrington for Jazz Instrumental Album  (spot on), and of course, RaviShankar for World Music Album (wrong again, it was a tie between Gypsy Kings.and Ladysmith Black Mambazo)  Rock is a hard place to bet on. What do you do when Alabama Shakes is pitted against David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. Or when you have to choose between Gary Clark, Black Sabbath, Rolling Stones and McCartney-Grohl.  After many years, the rock album category is well stacked too, and my bets are on either Bowie’s Next Day and Led Zep’s Celebration Day (went to Led Zep) .

Watching the Grammys gets me thinking about art and society, and I can’t but help relating the trend towards angry and impatient urban “expressionism” to what we are seeing elsewhere in our times. No matter how funny you make it sound, the overall disillusionment with those chosen to represent us, the so called leaders of men, is inescapable. Art and politics have always mirrored each other. We are already looking at a generation of frontline musicians who not only live the urban hiphop credo but whose influences are almost entirely from the same genre, somewhat like children of career politicians choosing careers in politics (classic rocking apologies to all my friends who live the hiphop philosophy, a truly commendable lifestyle -  you guys are much superior to politicians). The fact I am growing old is obvious from the fact that instead of pumping and pounding with my Shah Rukh Khan dope hands at this amazing evolution of music, I am filled with dread.  A dread similar to what I experience as I pick up the newspaper to read about the latest acts of anarchy the president warns us about, like listening to a diss track about yourself and then realizing it is you who wrote it. But then, as the Macklemore track shows, hiphop is already telling itself the things it needs to hear. Noblesse oblige, who are we to complain?

But now we must watch Katy Perry twerk on a broom stick, and I am more amazed by the set they have put together than by the music. One of the things that occupy me is the need to experience the value of art both in its search for beauty and perfection and in its so called external effect. Literature, films, the visual arts, and music have profoundly impacted us as a civilization. When I was growing up, I was able to explain the art of my times to my parents, and they were able to find value in it. I am not so sure the next generation is that fortunate. And this debate does not even begin to address popular versus high art; I am only talking about peer reviewed art, art that shows up at literary festivals and industry voted awards. With the increasing need for art to entertain rather than inspire or provoke growth, and with decreasing attention spans, slowcoach logorrheics like me are in a tight spot. Maybe that is why award shows are so cool - you get the gist of one year of creative output by the entire artistic community in a two-hour prime time edited telecast.  But the good news is that you who are reading this post are just as important and powerful as those who next me halfway into the second commercial break. The newer, more instant, more intense forms perhaps have some distance to go before they learn to balance the quest for inner perfection and outer relevance. Yet, like all things, they will get there, and they will lay the foundation for newer forms to emerge. They too will have their innings of having their relevance questioned by the new generations. So much for being the most followed person on Twitter. That’s a thought that makes me smile.

With the more popular categories being announced, the stuff I am looking at and listening to makes me wonder if the churning of the creative arts is strong enough to survive the onslaught of degradation. But then for every Honey Singh and Robin Thicke, there is a Macklemore. For every Chetan Bhagat, there is a Kiran Desai. Music and literature are not the only artforms to be facing this churning. Visual art and performance art are also on the verge of an overhaul. The kind of overhaul that makes the earlier generation go WTF - like I did hearing Eminem several years back. In cinema, the work of Tarantino, Nolan and Wright has blurred the lines between mainstream commercial cinema and the parallel movements. Sure, there will always be a left of left, just like those who celebrate the death of the death of, and that is healthy; it provides for a system of checks and balances.  What is inspiring is the courage with which emerging forms wear the robot helmets of responsibility, making art more accessible, putting creativity back where it belongs, developing and promoting revenue models that will rescue art from commerce. The poet is cursed no more.

Watching Yoko Ono grooving to Paul and Ringo perform was a high point of the show, though she was soon back to her usual self thanking Alicia Keys for remembering the concert for Bangladesh. But that was soon followed by more magical moments as the entire audience got to its feet again and again - with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Blake Sheldon and Merle Haggard, then for Stevie Wonder, and then for Carole King who ended her performance by saying, "The future of music is in good hands," about Sara Bareilles. And of course, the Same Love wedding ceremony "presided over" by Madonna and Queen Latifah (who kind of ended up getting married to each other, I thought)!  I am not a big electronic or rap fan, and much of the Daft Punk evening was lost on me (beyond thinking that they might be illegitimate offsprings of The Chemical Brothers and the Twisted Sisters), but I was really impressed by Macklemore's message to the world of intolerance and gender arrogance that we live in. The mashups (Metallica/Lang Lang, Kendrick Lamar/Imagine Dragon, and NIN/QOTSA) were just as otherworldly as one would have "never" expected, but none were the disasters I had feared (remember the Beatles tribute some years back?). I was hoping that the Phil Everly tribute would be a little more powerpacked, especially since almost everyone at the show owes their careers to them. As I sign off, here is a rendition of a standard by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong (who did tonight's Everly Bros tribute with Miranda Lambert) and Norah Jones.

For me, the awards were a celebration of all that makes us human - freedom, equality, respect, creativity, hope. Like most years, I came out feeling better about contemporary music than when I started watching the show. Like always, music won. Did you watch the Grammys too? Or do you have something I have missed out on, or am mistaken about? Please do let me know.

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