Whatever their cultural reputation have been at any given time,there isn’t one time when I can say consciously that I ever finished an Award Show. Growing up I always watched them with my family,usually my mother as she was more inclined to be interested in music from a visual perspective as opposed to an aural one. One of the first and favorite memories I can recall clearly is Michael Jackson’s appearance on the 1988 Grammy Award’s performing his then current hit “Man In The Mirror”-very much at the height of his performing abilities. It actually enhanced a song with a great message,but seemed perhaps a tad held back on record. The next award shows I remember clearly were in 1993 and 1994 when Mariah Carey seemed to almost humorously win the award in every single nominated category. Of course one of my very favorite award show moments was one I only saw online over two decades after the fact. It was a live synthesizer based medley of the hits of Stevie Wonder,Herbie Hancock,Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones. Not only was it a biracial statement of four extremely funky talents,but considering their general abhorrence for 1980’s pop culture many of my generation seemed to have condemned the performance as not being genuine and featuring prerecorded music. Though seen belatedly its probably my very favorite moments of any award show.
Following the passing of Ray Charles,I began to notice a drastic decline in the quality of award shows-which considering my absence from them might’ve been occurring for far longer. The presentation of the acts became very extreme,closer to what one would expect on the Academy Award presentation. The performers,usually of the most adolescent variety, would usually appear featuring an extremely overdone costumes and severely over-singing their performances,or rock bands imitating some mild variation of the early 90’s punk “grunge” sound-full of incoherent rage. This culminated in a what I saw as a very unhappy appearance by Earth Wind & Fire at the 2005 Grammy’s on which host Ellen DeGeneres referred to them as “Earth Wind & Fiber” and the band altered the lyrics to their hit song “September” to reflect the commercial sponsors of the award show’s telecast. This all culminated in a period from around 2007 to 2009 or so when most performing at any award ceremony would put on musical displays that seemed more appropriate for a post modern Bacchanal/Romanesque orgy: fireworks,acrobats and simulated erotic choreography performed before versions of said acts current hits performed with sometimes huge symphony orchestras. It all seemed to be a giant and decedent parody of how award shows has always been satirized. So I self consciously stopped watching them. Last week,that changed.
At the suggested of my mother again,I decided to tune into the American Music Awards. Mainly due to the indication Justin Timberlake would be a featured performer. Of course I was also aware that Rihanna and Miley Cyrus,two artists who represent the reasons why I no longer watched award shows,would be participating as well. While typically I never finished watching the show,what I did see was so personally rewarding that its possible to comment on the pleasant changes I observed. First a hip-hop duo consisting of Ryan Lewis and Seattle native Macklemore appeared via video screen as they prepared for a Florida gig,as you can see in the picture above. During their video announcement to the award show,Macklemore dedicated their message to the unjustly slain Treyvon Martin and the continuing promise of racial fairness and justice. For the first time ever watching an award show,I actually found myself applauding for a totally non musical aspect of it. While the flamboyantly juvenile antics of the hip-hopper Pitbull,who was hosting the show,hearkened to what I remember from award shows a decade ago even the performance of current teen sensations Ariana Grande and One Direction showcased young artists with an elegant and even very soulful presentations. Even including Ke$ha,an artist I typically place in the same performance level as Pitbull actually focused attention to performances that were more classy and surprisingly eclectic.
As for Timberlake’s performance? It was something I’d never seen on an award show before. Here we had a contemporary artist,once associated and stigmatized for his membership in Disney based boy band N’Sync,appearing before an audience on network television slicked up in a tuxedo and finger waves in his hair. He then launched into the song “Drink Me Away”,a heavily blues/country influenced funk rocker that is a rather obscure album track from the second half of his recent and ambitious album project The 20/20 Experience. And in the setting of a juke joint from across the tracks no less. This wasn’t angst-y alternative rock. This wasn’t some ostentatiously presented theatrical dance-pop. This was something entirely new for me to see in this setting. And more than a little refreshing. Though her new album Artpop is the most creatively impressive album I’ve heard her make,Lady Gaga’s collaboration with Miley Cyrus-which apparently included visuals of a kitten floating in space,held no interest to me. Not sure as of yet if even this unexpectedly exciting and happy section of the AMA awards I did see represents an interest in watching future award shows. And the basic idea of encouraging outright creative competitiveness between artists seems rather insipid. But still if,as lead by Maclemore’s assertions against racism and Justin Timberlake’s magnificent performance? Perhaps award shows have a change of at least expressing musicality over mere facade.