By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
There were a couple moments early on in the Grammy Awards show last Sunday that felt surprisingly indicative of the current state of popular music. None of them, unfortunately, involved Grammy voters recognizing and rewarding young, cutting-edge artists.
The first was when Kelly Clarkson, upon winning Best Pop Vocal Album, admitted that she didn't know who R&B singer Miguel is, but was (rightfully) wowed by his stunning performance of "Adore" moments earlier. Miguel, shoehorned into what felt like a consolation spot with zilch production values, except for the dubious assistance of rapper Wiz Khalifa, gave what was easily one of the night's best performances.
"Adore" was a sizeable hit for Miguel, and his album "Kaleidoscope Dream" debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Clarkson's ignorance of the young talent isn't necessarily evidence that the entire music industry, including what was once considered the mainstream, has fragmented into microsystems that compete for the attention of a dwindling audience.
Still, they are on the same record label.
The other moments included Prince just walking on the stage and Jay-Z clowning on The-Dream for his hat. Both earned responses from the live audience and on Twitter that rivaled any for the actual performances.
My guess why? Because Prince and Jay-Z are legitimate, honest-to-god stars -- the last of a dying breed -- and something the Grammys was sorely lacking.
Do we really want to live in a world where our biggest rock stars are called Mumford and Sons -- a bunch of unremarkable-looking British guys pretending to be a Depression-era jug band?
These are our rock stars? They make Coldplay look like "Appetite for Destruction"-era Guns N' Roses by comparison. Not that I actively dislike M&S -- they're better, at least, than the Lumineers.
I believe popular music is a wide river with ample room for small eddies, such as this current one we're experiencing where old-timey music made by anthropomorphic beards and suspenders rules the charts. Just don't be surprised if, in 10 years, Mumford is as influential as fellow Grammy Album of the Year winner Christopher Cross.
I don't expect the Grammys, of course, to act as a kingmaker, charting or even accurately predicting the future of music. But is it too much to ask that we reward some music that sounds as if it were created in the past 25 years?
And if the Grammys are going to ignore innovation, as they habitually do -- criminally underrepresenting rap and electronic music in the major award categories -- a graver mistake, at least from a self-preservation standpoint, is ignoring personality.
Where are the weirdoes? The iconoclasts?
The other big winners of the night were Fun (or fun.), an indie-rock band that made the lucrative decision to focus on ready-made radio anthems, and Australian singer-songwriter Gotye, who had the out-of-leftfield hit "Somebody That I Used to Know." All of them seem like nice, humble guys, but whenever they were on stage I couldn't help wishing Kanye West had decided to attend.
Surprisingly, nothing was too atrocious. The "tribute" to Bob Marley with Bruno Mars, Sting, Rihanna and some of Marley's children wasn't nearly as bad as I had anticipated. The Elton John-led tribute to Levon Helm was more of a cluster but was elevated by the powerful voices of Mavis Staple and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes.
The most disappointing performance of the night was by Frank Ocean, the young R&B wunderkind whose album "channel ORANGE" was one of the few masterpieces of 2012.
Scheduled for the end of the broadcast, he made the unusual decision to perform "Forrest Gump," a great song but one guaranteed to confuse anyone unfamiliar with his work. According to a profile of him in last Sunday's New York Times, the Grammys had requested he play something else, but he refused.
He had the most visually interesting setup of the night, appearing to run in place on a desert road while he played his keyboard. The studio version is playful and sells the unusual conceit at the heart of the song, but during his Grammy performance his voice was unusually flat and the spare arrangement bitter.
Which is too bad. I was hoping Ocean's performance would make an argument for rewarding interesting artists. Apparently, someone has to.