On the Grammys and Whitney Houston

February 13, 2012

True to form, the 54th annual Grammy Awards Sunday night chose to sidestep its mission “to honor artistic excellence” and instead heap prizes on artists who, amid the ugly death throes of the old-school record industry, continue to sell mountains of product the old-fashioned way: through a blizzard of hype.

British soul singer Adele claimed six prizes, including the top honors of song and record of the year for “Rolling in the Deep” and album of the year for 21. Here, again in typical fashion, the Grammys were late to the party: Her debut effort was much stronger, and the follow-up was robbed of much of its personality by superstar producer Rick Rubin. (Here’s my review.) But it happened to be the best-selling disc last year.

Also on the most egregious errors list: an astounding five Grammys for the Foo Fighters, who, despite dumping a true load of crap on the market in 2011 with Wasting Light (it earned a double “trash it” on Sound Opinions), provided conservative voters at the Recording Academy with evidence that soulless, corporate, over-produced guitar rock still matters.

The final prize of the “big four,” best new artist, went to Bon Iver, whose self-titled second album was neither evidence of a new voice nor any good. (Here’s my review.) This, in honor of last year’s most surprising golden gramophone, we can call “the Arcade Fire award” (though that group deserved its honor—sort of).

Rather than proving that Grammy voters finally have caught a clue that indie rock matters, it seems that, late once again to the party, they have decided they’d better acknowlede that Pitchfork moves units.

In any event, if you’re a glutton for mundane network awards shows that ultimately mean nothing, more Grammy rehash can be found courtesy of my colleagues Greg Kot at the Tribune and Tom Conner at the Sun-Times, as well as the always excellent L.A. Times music blog (shout-outs to Todd Martens and Lorraine Ali!) and the N.Y. Times arts and culture blog.

As for Whitney Houston, the saddest thing about her tragic demise at age 48 is how, once again, the world watched an artist slowly and painfully self-destruct, and no one did a damn thing to stop it. She joins the pathetic roster that includes Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter and Amy Winehouse, to name just a few of far too many, male and female.

For all of the endless declarations of shock in the media since the news broke on Saturday, was anyone really surprised? To some degree, we all expected it and all were complicit, even if we never watched a second of Being Bobby Brown and never found Kathy Griffin’s jokes about his wife the least bit funny. (“Bobby!!!”)

Houston was, of course, a creation and major darling of the crumbling institution the Grammys represent. Her mentor and star-maker, Clive Davis, went right ahead with his celebrated Grammy Eve party; the business, such as it is these days, stops for no one and nothing. And, with their cynicism a proven fact, it’s no stretch to imagine that awards’ organizers, rather than being saddened by the singer’s death, did a gleeful dance in private, as the kind of maudlin melodrama that the mourning inserted into the endless and endlessly boring show gave it a theme and a sudden topicality that no doubt helped a hair with the ratings.

To its credit, the telecast dealt with this loss rather tastefully, turning to Chicago native Jennifer Hudson to pay tribute in song—and never mind that it was neither a song Houston wrote nor was first to record. In 1992, she forever claimed Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” as her own, and, by the way, scored one of the best-selling and most Grammy-loved tunes of that decade.

Hudson’s performance underscored the best aspects of the legacy Houston leaves. For all of that amazing, octaves-spanning vocal range, the enduring thing about the diva’s considerable talent was that she never failed to lose the genuine, gospel-fueled passion in her performances on record or on stage—not even with her celebrated version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Hudson, who knows a thing or three about making art from deep personal loss suffered in the public realm, maintained that essential humanity and empathy, where so many of Houston’s acolytes—Celine Dion to Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera—embrace only the trills and tricks of the overdone vocal rollercoaster ride.

That is to say, Whitney had soul. And even the Grammys couldn’t fail to remind us that soul is what separates the greatest pop music from mere product.