A Grammys Postmortem

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Elton John and Eminem after performing a duet at the Grammys

Inside the the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Charlotte Church were handing out tiny gold statuettes to artists you may nor may not have heard of, for albums you probably never listened to, as part of a pre-telecast program that you will almost certainly never see. The 43rd Grammy Awards had begun with a characteristic whimper. On the streets around the Staples Center, curious ticketless onlookers had already gathered. On stage, tiny outrages were already taking place. In the wordy category of Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media, "Things Have Changed‚" from "Wonder Boys‚" written by Bob Dylan, lost out to "When She Loved Me." from "Toy Story 2," written by Randy Newman. There weren't enough people in attendance for the horrified gasp to be as loud as it deserved to be. After Bridgewater handed out her share of awards she then sang a brief bit of "Happy Birthday" to mark co-presenters Charlotte Church's 15th birthday. Church responded with a brief aria. Impressed bby Church's performance, co-host David Foster added in his two cent by quipping "I'm gonna go home and slap my 15 year-old. No, that's not true. Yes, it is." Maybe that's why you don't see this stuff on television.

Everybody was waiting for Eminem. In the weeks leading up to the Grammys I went on MSNBC, CNN, "Charlie Rose" and even CNBC to talk about Slim Shady, a.k.a. Marshall Mathers. I'm still waiting for a call from the Food Network. My take on it basically boiled down to this: Eminem has some talent — all you have to do is listen to his smoothly rapped hook on "Forgot About Dre" to realize that. But, truth be told, his album isn't all that. Wyclef, OutKast, Dead Prez and even Dr.Dre made better, richer, edgier albums last year. And why are people giving Eminem credit for simply raising issues? If we gave awards to people simply for displaying the "courage" to be bigoted, John Rocker would be a Nobel laureate and Jimmy the Greek would be a Pulitzer prize winner. On the other hand, the furor about Eminem's lyrics is a bit overblown. The most nominated movie at the Oscars is the ultra-violent "Gladiator." The number one movie at the box office is the ultra-violent "Hannibal." Say what you want about Slim Shady, he's not eating anybody's brains.

On stage, the pre-telecast was handing out some of the bigger smaller awards. D'Angelo's "Voodoo" won for Best R&B Album. Good. The Foo Fighters' goofy "There Is Nothing Left to Lose" beat out Rage Against the Machine's brilliant "The Battle of Los Angeles." Wha? At the close of the pre-telecast there was a possible indication of things to come: Eminem picked up an award for Best Rap Solo Performance, and his mentor Dr.Dre (along with Eminem) picked one for his duet with Em, "Forgot About Dre." A possible Slim Shady sweep seemed to be building.

Backstage, a parade of musical celebrities was marched in front of the press. Baha Men were one of the first. Somebody asked them if anyone ever figured out who exactly let the dogs out. Another journalist asked them to state and spell their names. People tend not to ask the Rolling Stones either of those two questions.

Personally, I think all the Baha Men need is a new catchphrase. I have one: "Could somebody empty the kitty litter?" I think it's a winner.

The artists whom I talked to backstage seemed, in general, to be supportive of Eminem's freedom of speech, though perhaps not so supportive of his message. "There are a lot of artists nominated this year with homophobic or violent lyrics, so I think the focus on Eminem is strange," Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine told me. "But, my position is, there are only two positions on free speech: you're either for it or against it. And we're for it."

Colin Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead, said to me: "I think he [Eminem] should win. He sold the most records and people are talking about him. Isn't than why these awards are given out?" It was hard to tell if he was being serious, ironic or just British. In any case, Greenwood changed the subject quickly. "Look at that room over there — I've never seen so many power books in my life!"

Moby gave the smartest answers. He said Eminem had the right to say what he wanted but people had no obligation to honor him. "I find it deeply disturbing that people are lending him as much support as they do," he said. He also added: "I hope at the end of the performance he and Elton John make out." That would be must-see TV.

Michael Greene, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, gave a speech before Eminem's performance that was self-serving, rambling and a bit bizarre. I only was able to register individual words and phrases as he sought to defend Eminem's presence on the show: "Music... rebellion... uncomfortable... tolerance." Instead, I heard the words beneath the words, the things he was really saying: "Money... ratings... money.... ratings... shameless whoring of our values...."

In the end the show was a big, crushing disappointment. It was the reverse of "The Sixth Sense" — instead of a cool ending that made the whole thing more interesting, the ending made what had proceeded it even more boring and foolish. I felt like I had watched one of those pay-per view Mike Tyson fights where there are like a million clowns on the undercard and the main bout ends up with somebody biting somebody else's nose and so the whole thing is a waste. There were a few nice moments — Shelby Lynne's win for Best New Artist was well-deserved, and Eminem's duet with Elton John was sharp and well-executed. But it was all undone by the last award of the night: a big win for Steely Dan for their boring, old-school album "Two Against Nature." Grammy had passed over D'Angelo and Fiona Apple, sided with the bigoted but talented Eminem, and ended up with a winner that was several decades out of date. At an afterparty, Phil Selway of Radiohead suggested he was glad his band didn't win Album of the Year. "It was really Eminem's award. Nothing against Steely Dan, but people were expecting Eminem to win."

Could somebody empty the kitty litter?