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More idols than ideals

THE GRAMMYS | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Marathon show is short on riveting moments

February 24, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Are the Grammy Awards hoping to be a summer replacement for "American Idol"?

It looked that way Sunday on CBS.

There are those who have maintained for years that the Grammys are no more significant than "American Idol," but rarely has the statement felt more true -- as we watched excellent artists (Bruce Springsteen, Eminem and Norah Jones) juxtaposed for an interminable 3 1/2 hours on stage against mediocre ones (Vanessa Carlton, Faith Hill, Kid Rock) with little sense of shame or differentiation.

The evening had certainly seemed promising on paper.

The talent list was topped by a gifted, diverse trio of artists -- veteran rock spokesman Springsteen, rap provocateur Eminem and stylish pop singer Jones -- that showed quite dramatically how varied great pop music can be.

In returning to New York City for the first time in five years, the Grammy ceremony, too, figured to be a moving salute to the resilience of the city in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

To underscore the point, the Grammy team designated the city of New York as the "host" of the show, which meant various New Yorkers took turns at the host role during the evening -- all with an idea of showing the city's resilience.

There was also the hope that the musicians could show some courage or heart by stepping away from the usual thank yous to reflect (pro or con) on the approaching war in Iraq or express sympathy for the nearly 100 music fans who were killed in the Rhode Island rock club fire last week.

But little of this was delivered.

The New York reps proved all too often to be a predictable parade of B-level celebrities, including TV band leader Paul Shaffer.

One of just two references to Iraq came from rowdy rap-rocker Fred Durst, who said he hoped "this war should go away as soon as possible." No one said a prayer for the Rhode Island dead.

For all the wasted opportunities Sunday, the show gave us some stirring reminders of the musical highlights of 2002.

Springsteen and the E Street Band's spirited rendition of "The Rising" showed why he is one of the most heralded figures in pop music.

The chances of potential Iraq comment was hurt when Springsteen failed to win an award during the telecast (he won three awards earlier in the non-televised portion of the evening). He had been favored to win album of the year for "The Rising," but it appears he may have split the vote of the progressive wing of the recording academy with Eminem's "The Eminem Show," giving the award to Jones.

Eminem's rendition of "Lose Yourself," a song that urges young people to reach for their dreams, was one of the night's highlights -- with the Detroit rapper backed live by the Roots hip-hop band. His failure to win album of the year honors for "The Eminem Show" was the evening's most serious misjudgment.

Jones' live rendition of "Don't Know Why" was as tasteful and gently understated as the recording, which was named record of the year. Her shy, nervous manner at the microphone and at the podium underscored her natural, anti-show business stance.

By establishing a blue-ribbon screening committee to select the final nominees in the best album and best record categories, the recording academy has greatly increased the chances of worthy acts being placed in the finals.

It's too bad the Grammy organization doesn't have the committee oversee the choice of acts featured on the television show. If so, we might never again have to watch unproven talents such as Carlton and, to a lesser extent, John Mayer in a singer-songwriter tribute when the show's planners could have picked such other, far more substantial Grammy nominees as Beck and Steve Earle.

But the show is concerned with ratings and Carlton and Mayer sold infinitely more albums last year than Beck and Earle.

For all the talk about honoring excellence, the Grammy Awards are one big sales-op for the record industry -- a chance to generate enough buzz on artists to get consumers to actually buy their CDs.

Neil Portnow, the new Grammy president, tried to generate some industry buzz on his own when he took to the stage late in the show to tell viewers about how "music is very much alive."

The music was alive Sunday -- for about the 30 minutes Eminem, Jones and Springsteen were on stage.

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