For years now, the Grammys have been regarded less as the recording industry's highest honor than as the wheezing granddaddy of the MTV Video Music Awards, a dinosaur to whom props are given for its endurance rather than its relevance. And while last night's 43rd annual ceremony with hipster host Jon Stewart poking fun at his own advanced age of 38 right off the bat didn't entirely dispel the notion that members of the Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences considers crow's feet an indicator of excellence, it did suggest that they aren't altogether out of sync with either contemporary music or the times. Here's how:
They gave the show to Eminem. Yeah, yeah, the rusty duo of Steely Dan struck gold in the most hotly contested category, Album of the Year, with their Two Against Nature disc, and the old fogies of U2 scored three times for their hit, "Beautiful Day." But hip-hop's great white dark prince also bagged a biggie the Best Rap Album prize, for The Marshall Mathers LP as well as two more statuettes, presented prior to the broadcast. And his chilling performance of the killer cut "Stan" with queen of pop Elton John filling in for Dido on the sung verses of her track, "Thank You" was the last of the evening... and the only one to be introduced by the Academy president with a speech on First Amendment rights. (Parents who fear that the real Slim Shady could warp their children's minds ought to consider giving the little darlings permission to listen to his CD anytime they want provided that they first sit through the prez's monologue, which was eloquent, absolutely, but also longer than his tribute to the year's Lifetime Achievement Award recipients.)
The young whippersnappers that they lined up to perform came through for them. The girly-boys of 'N Sync harmonized their gooey ballad, "This I Promise You," like they had been raised by a barbershop quartet (and dressed by Joseph in remnants from his amazing technicolor dreamcoat); Best Female Pop Vocal victor Macy Gray dropped her goofy demeanor and changed out of a blouse emblazoned with that very adjective long enough to croak her hit, "I Try," as if she hadn't already done so a million times before; and, after making a grand entrance, descending from the rafters perched on a giant Christmas ornament, Christina Aguilera belted out a number in the overblown fashion that has become her signature style and in Spanish. (However, judging from the bemused look on the face of Shakira who, immediately following Aguilera's performance, claimed from her the Best Latin Pop Album prize something might have gotten lost in the translation.)
Much of the show was produced like an episode of Short Attention Span Theater. Instead of relying on mere vocal prowess or fancy footwork to engage the audience, many acts hedged their bets by flashing videos on a screen behind them or bringing along elaborate distractions (and no, that's not a coy euphemism for Dolly Parton's cleavage). Before launching into her energetic (if not exactly pitch-perfect) opening number, "Music," Madonna was driven on-stage in a glittering limousine. During their right-on rendition of "Say My Name," Destiny's Child (who took home the Best R&B Duo or Group with Vocal prize) were backed by a bunch of acrobats straining artfully on a futuristic jungle gym. And while jazz singer Jill Scott showed off her powerful pipes collaborating with techno whiz kid Moby, the far-out performance-art troupe Blue Man Group... well, they kind of banged pipes and impersonated guests at a Star Trek convention.
The shtick was pretty juvenile and pretty funny, too. Lamenting the fact that they had bombed on the broadcast in 2000, sitcom stars Ray Romano and Kevin James decided that instead of punchlines, what folks really wanted at this particular venue Los Angeles' Staples Center was... T-shirts, which they promptly fired into the crowd. Afterward, emcee Stewart cracked that the MIA Sean "Puffy" Combs had been spotted "giving his limo driver $50,000 to say the air gun [that the co-presenters used] was his." The sophomoric humor didn't stop there, either. Jokes about sex went over so big that the Staples Center might as well have been a locker room. Saucy Sisqó dove below the belt to explain the inspiration for his smash, "The Thong Song": "I'm moved by beautiful women," he remarked, eyeing his comely co-presenter, Mya. "In fact, right now I'm movin' a little bit." On being informed by co-presenter Jenna Elfman that she was a big fan, lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge offered to make a guest appearance on the actress's show "Dharma & Meg." And, of course, the biggest chuckle was reserved for Grammy's oddest couple. "After performing the duet with Elton John," Stewart deadpanned, "[Eminem] has agreed to go to the bathroom with George Michael as well."