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Dreams and schemes

The Dixie Chicks and Mary J. Blige get their due. But so does pop pap.

February 12, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

THE Grammys aren't supposed to feel real. Like any award show, it upholds the fantasy of glitz and glamour that conceals the hard work and often bitter luck behind show business success. The night's performers and winners offer moments of real gratitude and even zeal that add color to the night's staginess. But this year, the conflict between pop product and gospel truth played out as if the struggle were for the soul of pop music itself.

With top awards Sunday going to the Dixie Chicks, Mary J. Blige and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it seemed that triumph belonged to individualists who've endured much and always stood up for themselves. But then, with "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood taking best new artist and the show even incorporating an "Idol" element, in which an off-puttingly poised if vocally unremarkable 19-year-old, Robyn Troup, took the stage with Justin Timberlake after being voted on by viewers, contrivance had its victories too.

Not like the two can be easily separated. The Grammys historically has often been bashed for honoring the best-groomed stars instead of the most startlingly gifted, but these days it's hard to break things down that way; the most "sincere" and "independent" artists are happy to have their songs used in TV commercials, while the "mainstream" is blatantly sexual, streetwise and sometimes (especially if Timbaland or Danger Mouse are behind the boards) quite musically weird. Either way, with the popularity machine on overdrive, turning phenoms into washouts seemingly overnight, everybody wants the same thing: a formula for survival in a new pop scene that equally values passion and serious artifice.

In this contradictory and transitional time, the Grammys, for once, can actually tell us something important. Taking the temperature of a music industry desperate for something to believe in, it shows how commercially prominent artists are fighting to stay relevant, whether that means playing by every showbiz rule they know, tossing out every preconception or, more likely, trying to do both at once. The mix (or, really, mixup) is fascinating.

The Dixie Chicks won big because the music industry wants to believe that a musically virtuosic group can make autobiographically influenced, maverick music and still be successful; but they also won because their wonderful album is impeccably produced and, musically at least, more conservative than many full-on country albums.

Blige won big because she's the epitome of the "real thing": unpolished singing, personal lyrics, normal looks. But she also won because she has very carefully emulated the soul greats whose mantle she hoped to inherit, modulating her hip-hop origins with injections of churchiness and social uplift. Grammy voters didn't just vote for quality in elevating these artists. They voted for old dreams.

Yet the nominations, and the night itself, had plenty of new dreams too. Throughout the evening, the most exciting moments -- Gnarls Barkley's risky, almost operatic version of "Crazy," the electrifyingly macho stepping routine that powered Chris Brown's rendition of "Run It!," Christina Aguilera's gutsy, ugly, almost Janis Joplinesque take on James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" -- embraced showmanship wholeheartedly as a way into intense emotions. Low points, including James Blunt's dishwater-dull "You're Beautiful" or, sad to say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' too-straight rendition of "Snow (Hey Oh)," showed that right now sincerity just isn't enough. Artists who desire popularity must embrace pop's big bamboozle and push truth at the same time.

Underwood is a good example of how many emerging artists are fighting to master this tricky task. The country music darling is preternaturally gifted at injecting cliches with sincerity.

Yet for all her natural craftiness and good-girl charm, she's fairly blank and gets flummoxed when the drama gets too hot. Performing a medley with Rascal Flatts, she connected perfectly with the brilliantly cultivated corn of Bob Wills as she sang "San Antonio Rose"; on the Eagles' equally sentimental "Desperado," she lost herself in the melodrama.

Plenty of viewers surely hated Aguilera's James Brown tribute but it was the most rock 'n' roll (and spiritually funky) move of the night. When has a well-groomed, Grammy-winning ingenue taken the chance and screamed like that before? Here was a real sound ripping apart a showbiz turn.

When Brown's longtime emcee Danny Ray brought out his old boss' cape and held it aloft, he wouldn't have been wrong to put it on Aguilera's shoulders. She'd shown a bit of the understanding the Godfather had possessed -- that glitter needs sweat to make it stick, and sweat needs glitter to make it shine.

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