The whole point of music is to transcend politics, grievances, and the differences that divide to help us reconnect to those essential human emotions we all share: love, loss, anger, regret. Unless, that is, you work for the music industry.
Like its wicked stepsister, Hollywood, the music business has become increasingly divorced from its purpose, estranged from its audience, and maliciously partisan. Not that they seem to care. Case in point: the 49th Annual Grammy Awards held at the Los Angeles Staples Center on Sunday night. Watching the proceedings, who could be blamed for wanting to staple some mouths shut?
For the Dixie Chicks, who won a total of five Grammys, the evening was a triumph. No big surprise. Natalie Maines, the lead singer for the group, all but insured this outcome in 2003, when, during a concert in London she announced, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Back on the mainland, a huge chunk of their fan base in red-state America stop whistling Dixie Chicks; the comments would eventually lead to dwindling record sales and a banishment from many country-radio stations. The Chicks were unrepentant, and decided to court a more urbane crowd, shaking off the “rednecks” that had made them stars.
On Sunday, they communed with their new fan base: Grammy voters. For the tune “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the Chicks snagged Best Song and Best Record of the Year Grammys, despite the fact that it never broke the top 20 on any chart. And to prove the power of an offhanded comment against a beleaguered president, the trio took home an Album of the Year Grammy as well.
Accepting the award Natalie Maines droned, “To quote the great Simpsons, ‘Heh, heh.’ A lot of people have turned off their TV sets now.” That’s assuming her performance earlier in the evening hadn’t already had viewers rushing for their remotes — for part of that live number, poor Natalie sounded flatter than her record sales. It was enough to tempt one to beg Laura Ingraham to retitle her book: “Shut up, And Don’t Sing Either.”
For an institution approaching its 50th year, and an industry hemorrhaging financially, one would have imagined that the Grammy telecast would have at least tried to reach as wide an audience as possible. No such luck. Save for the American Idol champion, Carrie Underwood, who picked up a pair of Grammys for her Jesus Take the Wheel, there was little for Middle America to revel in.
The aging Police opened the show to prove that they could still stand on stage together and pull off a reasonably good version of “Roxanne.” The Latin diva Shakira popped her pelvis and undulated her way through her summer hit, “Hips Don’t Lie,” wandering through a set that looked like a Bollywood strip club.
The rapper Ludacris, who won Best Rap Album honors for the “masterpiece” (his words) Release Therapy, gave a “shout out to Oprah and Bill O’Reilly” (both of whom have been critical of his lyrics). With a catalog that includes such hits as “Hoes in My Room” and “Girls Gone Wild,” how ludicrous that anyone would take umbrage at the Ludacris view of women in his music. The video for his latest work, broadcast in part at the Grammys, featured Ludacris surrounded by bikini-clad women writhing all over him. One clip featured he and “his employees” lying on a bed of cash. Oprah and O’Reilly seem to have this one right.
Finally, near the end of the of the torturous ceremony, as if the nerves could take any more, that musical giant Al Gore took the stage to announce the winner of the Best Rock Album. Why? I have no idea. But as evidence that global warming is wreaking some havoc, perhaps on what is left of good taste, Jimmy Carter won a spoken-word Grammy for his audio book, Our Endangered Values. If you’re very quiet you can still hear the cries of jubilation rising in Gaza.
Insignificant musical talents like Bob Dylan, John Williams, the San Francisco Symphony, Randy Newman, and more than 90 others were not of sufficient caliber to be featured on the Grammy telecast, though they all took home prizes. The airtime had to be saved for the real talent out there: Shakira, the Chicks, and Ludacris, and their scintillating performances. Ludicrous.
Given this one night’s collective assault on the ears, the eyes, and decency itself, is it any wonder that record sales have plummeted? If this is the best that the American recording industry has to offer the world, their future is very bleak indeed. While relatively cheap music downloads doubled last year, the industry’s bread and butter, CDs sales, continued to slide. In the year 2000, ’N Sync sold more than nine million copies of their album, No Strings Attached. This year’s bestseller, High School Musical sold a paltry 3.7 million. Big retailers like Musicland and Tower Records have called it quits for good. People will download a tune here and there, but their devotion to individual artists is slipping; their willingness to plop down 18 bucks to hear slickly packaged, homogenized drek is gone. As one record exec told a Canadian newspaper this week, “I think the fan is in control now… they have the power.” To quote those great Simpsons: “Heh, heh.”
— Raymond Arroyo is editor of the forthcoming, Mother Angelica’s Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality (Doubleday, March) and host of EWTN’s The World Over Live.