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Ann Powers on the 2010 Grammy Awards: It's not all about the music

January 31, 2010 | 11:16 pm
These days, visuals, media saturation and listener interaction are as crucial as the notes.

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When will.i.am shouted, "Welcome to the future!" as he and the rest of the Black Eyed Peas cavorted with a blur of dancers through a medley that sounded like a military cadence mixed with an ad jingle at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, he wasn't only spouting a cliche. His bulletin announced that pop music's winning game is changing, and that the only way for the music business to survive is to jump into the pandemonium.

This year's telecast and the awards it celebrated showed how the recording industry is definitively moving beyond albums, and even songs, as the basic unit by which music is both sold and affects our lives. Music is increasingly enhanced by visual or dramatic elements that deepen or even change its messages; it intersects with other art forms, like dance and fashion, to form more complex statements, and benefits profoundly from the active engagement of fans. These perennial realities have now thoroughly transcended the idea that the literary, privately absorbed version of music -- exemplified by the records that played on the gramophone that is the Grammy symbol -- matters most.

The night's performances connected to Broadway (best rock album winner Green Day's performance of "21 Guns" with the cast of the forthcoming New York musical based on their 2004 album "American Idiot"), Cirque du Soleil (Pink's gorgeous "Glitter in the Air," which featured the soulful rock star doing an aerial routine with silk ropes), opera (Mary J. Blige's duet of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with tenor Andrea Bocelli), and the rise of social media (Bon Jovi playing a song requested by fans over the Internet.)

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Plenty of artists were rewarded for good old-fashioned songcraft, including the Nashville rockers Kings of Leon, who nabbed record of the year for the yearning "Use Somebody," and country jam specialists the Zac Brown Band, who took home best new artist and performed a rousing, if overly patriotic, medley with the venerable piano man Leon Russell. But these days, the real payoff comes for artists who can augment their musical efforts with other accomplishments.

Neil Portnow, president of the Grammy-sponsoring organization the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, noted in his speech that if fans are no longer willing to pay for albums and singles -- the creeping reality in the age of illegal downloads -- the quality of music may precipitously decline. He's wrong, however. Instead, music is transforming, becoming thoroughly interwoven with other forms of expression and with daily experiences as fans hear and love it in myriad environments.

The most telling statement of the night, in fact, came from comic Stephen Colbert, who told the crowd that the Grammys were "the highest honor that the music industry can bestow, other than your song being covered by the cast of 'Glee,' " the popular TV show about a high school choir. Today's most powerful songs often reach listeners as ads -- the specialty of the Peas -- in YouTube video tributes, as with Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which won song of the year, or in other "nonmusical" contexts.

And more than ever, today's biggest stars are those who embody powerful archetypes so well that a misplaced note or two may be kindly overlooked.

That last situation applies to Taylor Swift, who continued her winning streak by taking home album of the year for "Fearless," a recording that has seemingly won every available prize in the last year. Swift, 20, is a songwriter; she thanked her record label for "letting me write every song on my album" while accepting one of her awards.

But as well-crafted as her platinum-selling tales of suburban high school life are, it's Swift's persona that really sells. This smart young woman comes across as a perky, living American Girl doll, and that appealing version of traditional young womanhood, not her music, is at the heart of her stardom.

Her singing certainly can't be credited. Appealing enough on record, it always seems to let her down live. Swift gave a strikingly bad vocal performance at Staples Center on Sunday, sounding tinny and rhythmically flat-footed as she shared the microphone with the distinctive Stevie Nicks. Swift's inability to match or support Nicks as they worked through a medley of each woman's hits stood in stark contrast to the evening's other pairings, particularly soul man Maxwell's sensitive response to Roberta Flack and Lady Gaga's bravado turn with Elton John.

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That number, which opened the show, embodied pop's excitement in these days of mixed media and wildly multiple meanings. After a fantastical start that took the brazen performance artist's "Monster Ball" tour staging to a new level, she and her forebear in glitter pop sat at dueling pianos adorned with fake body parts and sang their flamboyant hearts out. The theatrics meant something -- Gaga and Elton presented themselves as freakish but self-determined mutants created by fame -- and the music was powerful.

Another artist who reached for such heights was Beyonce, who broke a Grammy record by winning six awards, the most for a female solo artist in a single night. The R&B singer showed her rock side by combining her own hit "If I Were a Boy" with Alanis Morissette's 1995 rock jeremiad "You Oughta Know."

Beyonce delivered spectacle in buckets. But she also sang from her gut and her heart. This was great music, and it was "music plus" -- plus risky theatrics and absorbing passion. This was the sound of the future. It was welcome.

--Ann Powers

Complete 2010 Grammy Awards coverage:

- Taylor Swift wins Grammy album of the year

- Fashion: At the Grammys, it's the wild bunch

- Backstage at the Staples Center: A Grammy scene Will Rogers would have loved

- Words wrapped in long silences: Lil Wayne and his rap pals charge ahead with lyrics that don't make it to listeners at home.

- 2010 Grammys: Best & Worst: Lady Gaga, Beyonce and the (sorta) magic of 3-D!

- A touching high-tech tribute to Michael Jackson

- Relive the Grammys! The Pop & Hiss live blog

- The 2010 Grammy Awards | Red carpet arrivals

- Clive Davis' pre-Grammy gala: A few high points before crowd makes early night of it

- Grammy fashion: At the Grammys, style doesn’t stop at the red carpet

- Familiar names dot Grammy jazz categories

- Notes from backstage at the Grammys 

- Nominees & winners for the 52nd Grammy Awards

- Video and interviews from the Grammy red carpet

- Live review: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Norah Jones, Dave Matthews, CSN, Elton John, Wilco and more pay tribute to Neil Young

- VIDEO: Miley Cyrus on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards

Photos: Beyonce, Green Day and Taylor Swift with Stevie Nicks. Credits: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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