Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 2, 2013
POP CULTURE: The 2013 American Music Awards
My wife and I recorded last weekend's American Music Awards and watched them with the kids this weekend. A few observations about the 2013 AMAs:
This was one of the worst performance lineups for a music awards show I've ever seen, even in the context of today's music scene, although that may also be a symptom of ongoing shifts in the music landscape from as recently as a year or two ago. Imagine Dragons was the only act that could even halfway plausibly be described as "rock," and the "pop" acts were so overrun with rap interludes (close to half the performances had a rapper involved, even including one of the two country acts) that I actually missed people like Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift (Swift was there to pick up trophies but didn't perform). From my perspective as a fan of both rock and pop-rock, the best performances were by Imagine Dragons, Luke Bryan and Ariana Grande, none of whom are exactly my cup of tea.
As to Bryan, it's the first time I'd seen him perform, and it's not hard to see why the man is a country music superstar; he's got stage presence to burn. The 20-year-old Grande, by contrast, has a lovely voice (although one that produced no comprehensible lyrics) but looked petrified, performing with her eyes closed and using up about half her speaking time - when she accepted the "New Artist of the Year" award - just navigating the steps to the stage in high heels and a tight gown without faceplanting. And the overwhelming impression left by Imagine Dragons was that the lead singer really, really, really likes hitting very large drums.
The weakness of the roster was largely driven by the absence of veteran performers, only a few of whom - Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull (who hosted the show), R. Kelly, a TLC reunion - took the stage. Besides Imagine Dragons, there were no bands, not even bands like Kings of Leon that are currently promoting new albums (Dave Grohl was on hand only as a presenter; the bizarre piano duo of A Great Big World doesn't count as a band). No rap warhorses like Jay-Z, Kanye or Eminem. Besides Aguilera, who contributed an uncharacteristically understated featured vocal to A Great Big World's performance, the veteran pop divas - Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Britney, Avril, Alicia Keys - stayed home. Even Carrie Underwood, customarily ubiquitous at music awards shows, wasn't in the house; Bryan and Florida Georgia Line were the sole country representatives. Nearly everyone left onstage debuted within the past 5-6 years, many of them more recently than that.
Timberlake, who performed a horn section-laden number called "Drink You Away," seems ready at last to embrace his Memphis roots, but his voice and personality are still too smooth and boyish to sing the blues. Meanwhile, speaking of boys, the British talent-show package One Direction performed with the careful stagecraft of a group that knows their fans want screen time for each of the five heartthrobs. They're slightly more talented and no less harmless than the recently-disbanded Jonas Brothers (the core One Direction demographic is girls too young to know who the Jones Brothers were), and still a few years from figuring out if there's a future Timberlake (or Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra or Brian Wilson - boy bands have a richer history than you'd think) in their midst.
As for the rappers, they did their level best to showcase their embrace of musical styles that involve actual music. Pitbull did a Cotton-Eye-Joe-style square-dance type number with Ke$ha, who appeared to have showered for the occasion, while Macklemore spat inaudible verses over a catchy horn section-powered groove.
R. Kelly's performance as...John F. Kennedy?...accompanying Lady Gaga only served to answer the question "how can we make a Lady Gaga appearance even creepier?" Given that Gaga's latest album looks primed to lose her label $25 million, maybe her ambitions will be scaled back in the future.
One of the fun people-watching aspects of a music awards show is watching the crowd, including their peers, react to the musicians (or just be themselves, like Jay-Z sitting in the front row at the Grammys with a snifter of brandy looking like he owned the joint). Taylor Swift got into just about every performance; Lady Gaga looked distinctly nervous and wound up waiting for her turn to go onstage. During Luke Bryan's performance of "That's My Kinda Night," it was painfully obvious that only a fraction of the crowd actually knew any of the words to his song, despite it being a huge hit.
But all that changed when Miley Cyrus took the stage for another bizarre, howling rendition of "Wrecking Ball," dressed in what can best be described as two-thirds of a leotard covered in kittens and performing with a psychedelic floating cat graphic twice her size. Not once in the entire performance, nor its immediate aftermath, did the cameras pan to the crowd to see how they were reacting (they finally cut into the crowd briefly before going to commercial, catching one guy with a skeptical look on his face). I was left wondering whether, after the viral "audience reacts to Miley and Thicke" buzz following the VMAs, one of the conditions of her performance had been to demand that the network not show any crowd shots while she was onstage.
Is modesty making a (slight) comeback? Probably not, but it had a better night than usual. Katy Perry opened the show in a sort of mock kimono as part of a Japanese-themed number; her dress contained enough material for about five typical Katy Perry dresses. Lady Gaga's Marilyn Monroe-themed dress was, basically, just a short skirt, while Rihanna - who was there with her mother - wore a long, classy gown. And Grande brought the old-school class. The men, meanwhile, were mostly on better behavior than Robin Thicke's notorious antics with Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, while Timberlake and Pitbull set the tuxedo tone. Cyrus, of course, was the exception as far as clothing, but even her outfit looked more like she was dressed for a 1981 aerobics session with Olivia Newton-John than for a stripper's pole.
The AMAs are a fan-voted awards show, so the awards themselves were dominated by the kinds of acts - Swift, Grande, One Direction, and the boy-band granddaddy Timberlake - who appeal most strongly to the kind of teen and preteen girls who are the most devoted "early and often" voters for this kind of thing. Swift has finally abandoned the patented and increasingly unconvincing "Taylor Swift shocked at winning an award" face, but her acceptance speech for "Artist of the Year" showed why she commands the loyalty of "Taylor Nation," as she tells her fans that she and they are still "on the same page" in what matters to them, what affects them, and how they feel:
Faith and Politics
Speaking of reaction shots, one of the show's more vivid moments of frisson was generated when Rihanna's mother - presenting her daughter with an "Icon" award after being introduced by Bill Maher - prefaced her remarks by saying, "First of all, all praises and honor be to God Almighty through Jesus" while Maher rolled his eyes looking like a teenager embarrassed by his square older relatives:
America has perhaps no nastier public "atheist" (I put the word in quotes because a man that angry at God can't really claim not to believe in him) than Maher, so naturally watching a proud mother from Barbados discomfit him merely by sincerely witnessing her faith without embarrassment. But the evening's other more explicitly political moment was more cringe-inducing, as pasty Irish Seattle rapper Macklemore (who may or may not have cribbed his nom de rap from Mark McLemore) offered up a ham-fisted sermonette on the Trayvon Martin case from Miami, where he had a scheduled show:
Martin Luther King, Jr. said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And due to the fact that we are in Florida tonight accepting this award, I want to acknowledge Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids each year that are dying due to racial profiling and the violence that follows it.
This is nonsense, junk law and junk statistics of the worst kind - and what's more, obvious pandering by a white guy trying to polish his street cred - but a decidedly subpar evening for the music business wouldn't be complete without some subpar political posturing.
For once, I actually ended the evening thinking, "well, the Grammys have to be better than this."