Gorillaz kicked off Wednesday night’s television broadcast with their hit “Feel Good Inc.,” which actually isn’t bad at all as far as hip-hop goes. Halfway through their performance, a woman rose by mechanized platform from somewhere beneath the stage, the backlight streaming between her legs. It was Madonna, who is, apparently, still pursuing a music career, and the Grammys had begun.
I should back up and tell you that the Gorillaz are actually slightly creepy, life-sized cartoon characters who rap, sing, play instruments, and, on this night, duet with a has-been pop star who dresses and dances like an extra from Boogie Nights. While Madonna was flouncing around, the laconic lead Gorilla reached in his pocket and did something that looked an awful lot like someone checking his cell phone. Can’t miss a text message for the Grammys.
While on the train or some other public place, most solitary people affect an impassive air. They look out the window, or straight ahead, or at their shoes, but they don’t convey emotion. They play it cool. But the mask often cracks while talking on the phone or text messaging. They smile, they knit their brow and a little bit of private emotion is briefly on public display because someone has actually felt something.
But look at the iPodders. They all wear the cool mask, even though they’re presumably listening to a stream of songs they chose themselves for just this occasion. There are different possibilities as to why this is. Maybe, inspired by their self-soundtrack, they are deep into their own heads, directing the movie in which they star. Maybe, like me when I’m on a plane or some other form of mass transit, they are simply trying to keep their agoraphobia from crashing into their claustrophobia with some Metallica or some really loud, really fast bluegrass. Or maybe the music they’ve picked simply doesn’t have the capacity to provoke emotion.
Now, I’m not enough of a snob to think that I’m the only one who doesn’t listen to crap, but if people are buying, ripping, burning, or otherwise consuming a lot of the stuff that was performed and awarded last night, the latter hypothesis of mine my in fact be substantially true.
Music is right when it serves its own purpose, when the singer’s emotion blends with the songwriter’s lyric and melody and with the musician’s rhythm and harmony. Not when it’s done according to a tightly scripted, demographic-conscious formula (Kelly Clarkson, Faith Hill, Keith Urban, Sugarland), not when it’s done solely for a cause or to pay tribute (multi-personality performances for Sly Stone, Wilson Pickett, and Hurricane Katrina) and certainly not when its done in service to ego-pumping displays of style (Kanye West and Jamie Foxx, Jay-Z and Linkin Park, and, of course, Madonna).
John Legend’s solo-piano R&B ballad “Ordinary People” was right. Paul McCartney pulling a snarling “Helter Skelter” from out of nowhere was right. Even Mariah Carey’s multi-octave, melismatic two-song medley was right, because she felt it and she made me feel it.
And then there’s U2, who won five awards, including best album, for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Accepting one of the trophies, Bono mumbled something about being glad to make music that actually conveys real emotion, and, as over-the-top as his music can sometimes be, he and his band get it right most of the time. They got it right last night, again, ripping through “Vertigo,” then being joined by R&B singer Mary J. Blige for “One,” a great performance of a great song. Put it on your iPod when you get a chance, and see what happens.
–Aaron Keith Harris writes for Country Music Today and Bluegrass Unlimited and is the author of the blog Listen to the Lion.