After watching the Oscars this week, I found myself thinking of sharing my experience of attending the Grammy Awards. I am not a music mogul. I grew out of my rock and roll dreams long ago. Attending a major award show is not something I ever expected to log into my date book – certainly not something I sought out. Nonetheless, it was my good fortune to be a “plus 1” for the second time at the Grammy Awards. As a cultural observer, I approached the Grammys with the caution of an interloper and a gleeful sponge for an eye. I expect these things to be odd and they generally come through.
The Grammys, like the Academy Awards are a spectacular event – as in spectacle. In watching both we experience love as well as loathing. There was more than one moving musical moment at the Grammys, along with the insufferably tedious, but here I choose to focus on what I saw more than on what I heard.
On television the Grammys look much like other sparkly shows, but live, the visuals make a phenomenal statement – all flashing, pulsing, kinetic mania. The sophistication of the production, projections, audio capability and timing is really quite impressive, like a fully lit birthday cake or Fourth of July sparklers on crack.
The pre-telecast ceremony is held in the cavernous LA Convention Center. At one in the afternoon everyone was dressed in evening attire. A large number of men and women looked wonderful and elegant and some looked so in less than conventional ways. Yet there were plenty who looked dowdy while wrapped too tightly in brightly colored satins and ill-fitting suits – trying a little too hard. Then again, everyone seemed drug down by the Convention Center lobby. While modern and spacious, it suffered from a kind of generic, fluorescent, corporate lack of splendor, which made everyone’s attempts at glamour seem slightly tired and in some cases, desperate.
I half expected to see large displays of hot tubs or speedboats or solar arrays – more often the featured act within the walls of this building. Even so, the lobby is the first and best spot to view the extensive array of fashion statements. While I am no budding musical genius, I am no doyen of fashion either. I’ve directed fashion photo shoots, slogged my way through the awkward task of casting models and grew up with a father whose profession in the clothing business brought Vogue into my reach at an early age, when Peggy Moffitt and Veruschka filled its pages. I’m not completely in the dark, but my interest in making a fashion statement at the Grammys reflects my somewhat lazy and indifferent approach. I want to look good, but I just don’t want to put much effort into the task.
Last year I’d imagined the event to be so far beyond my personal glam-ability that I was in a cold sweat about it. This year I knew better. I knew I wouldn’t be sharing cocktails with Paul McCartney or Diana Krall. With that knowledge came a certain amount of relief and I managed to cherry-pick an elegant costume from the hinterlands of my closet. I should say I culled together an outfit both fashionable AND comfortable, because comfort is important here.
The Grammys are spread out between two enormous buildings of stadium size and their adjacent parking lots. There is much walking to do. It’s not a scene of exiting your limo curbside and making a short stilettoed entrance with cameras flashing. That likely happens for the stars, in a separate entrance, but the bulk of Grammy attendees have to hoof it. We don’t even get to see that entrance. Yet even facing an event that starts in the early afternoon and goes into the wee hours, most women decided to pay the price of fashion conformity in the form of often impossible shoes. Glittery gowns and eight-inch heels abound and they screamed simultaneously for attention.
Giant colorful suits on giant colorful men and hair of all heights and lengths were scattered throughout the entry hall, yet the predominant color as one would expect, was black. It’s ironic, but hair in this room had more volume than the music. It’s the real and the unreal clustering around multiple hors d’oeurvre tables and cocktail bars. The big name faces did not walk among us, not even here. Again I realized I would not be reaching for Brie and spring rolls along with Norah Jones or even with Kurt Elling or Levon Helm.
Inside the immense expanse of the flat-carpeted floor of the convention hall, thousands of chairs are placed in neat rows facing a stage built and lit for the awards. As a lover of theaters, I was at first mildly shocked that such a big production happened without a real proscenium stage or raked seating. Nonetheless, I quickly learned to appreciate the pleasure of open seating. This is an egalitarian room. One can sit wherever there is an available seat. The trick is to get close enough to see people on stage, but not so close that a great opportunity for people watching would be missed.
Comedian Kathy Griffin, who hosted the pre-telecast last year, refers to the awards as the Schmammys. It’s the stepchild of the main show, but also a room full of immense talent, even if that talent isn’t a large-scale headliner. You’re more likely to see T Bone Burnett than Jennifer Hudson.
Meanwhile, a rather robustly built woman walked slowly and deliberately across the mid-audience aisle in front of us – her walk timed and intended for maximum viewing and distraction. I have no idea who she was, but she was a poser extraordinaire – a voyeur’s dream. Super Freak, she’s super freaky! I fumbled for my camera. Hot pink Lycra short shorts and plunging bra strained dramatically against her brown skin and all were made the merrier by color coordinated fuzzy boot slash leggings that look like a 99 Cent store Day-Glo bathmat. One man could not resist and even while an award was being given on stage, he dropped to his knees to take her photograph. Moments later her “manager” appeared and business cards were exchanged. I would love to have seen what was written on that card.
Four skinny young guys in spin-offs of Beatles jackets may have been nominees or they might have been there to see their dad win a techy award. I noticed a woman stepping into the aisle to retrieve her fallen program and within minutes that same woman, Judith Sherman, was up on stage accepting the classical producer of the year award. Back on stage Chick Corea was giving out awards and later won a couple. Esperanza Spaulding announced winners and looked as though she missed having her bass to hold onto. Skrillex’s acceptance speech lasted too long. I imagined a long vaudevillian hook reaching out and pulling him offstage.
Awards were given in Christian music. I fidgeted and muttered to myself. I have no problem when an award is given in Gospel music. There is a long-standing tradition in Gospel after all. But these new Christian categories made me squirm. I struggled to refrain from having an outburst. An opera singer from Kansas took center stage. Thankfully, saved from the saccharin “thank the Lord” acceptance speeches, all eyes and ears found rapture in Joyce DiDonato’s undeniably phenomenal solo. The entire room erupted in a standing ovation – people from all genres – Americana, Rap, Jazz, Classical, and Rock rose to their feet in appreciation of this delightful voice – her instrument. Minutes later she won a Grammy for best Classical Vocal solo and in her speech, passionately took up the important cause of defending arts education in America. “There’s a war on in our country against the arts right now…we need more musicians in our lives.” Unknown to most when she first entered the room; she quickly became everyone’s darling.
Several hours later we made our way to the Staples Center next door. This is the house the Lakers built. The circular lobby surrounding the arena is lined with super graphics of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. It’s a sports facility first and foremost and it’s lined with fast-food concessions. This is where any preconceived notions of glamour fell apart. As the smell of burgers and fries filled the air, women in Versace and men in Tom Ford huddled at stand-up bars wolfing nachos and burritos. Maybe because I attend an occasional basketball game, I was overly aware, but the effect was unseemly. Staples is first-rate for sports, but for a dress-up event, the lobby at least, is like Fred Astaire dancing in a tavern instead of a ballroom. It’s a classic example of Hollywood smoke and mirrors, glitzy in the television camera lens and not so much outside of it.
With abundant extremities of people watching all around, we stalled as long as possible in the lobby. With the most elaborate outfits, I forgot photographs completely and found myself dumbly staring in awe. Once seated by 4pm we were on lockdown.
At the Academy Awards, fashion reflects the classic trends in gowns and tuxedos, with only the occasional renegade bold deviation. The music industry makes its living though, not only in song, but also in risk-taking wardrobes. The lavish gold lame suit made by Nudie for Elvis Presley pushed some early boundaries. Madonna’s rocket-cone bra by Gaultier or her post-punk ragamuffin re-embracing of the fish net stockings shook things up as well. Lady Gaga proved to be a happy source of amusement throughout the evening as she could be seen skulking through the main floor audience with a huge golden scepter in hand, like a Goth Bo Peep. Even better, when the giant video screens on either side of the stage zoomed in on her close-up, it was apparent her designer had taken Madonna’s fish nets (essentially) and strung them across Gaga’s face. Talk about a tribute. She didn’t perform this year. She didn’t beam down in a glowing egg. She didn’t even win anything. But each time she appeared, she induced a gleeful laugh and I was glad for her peculiarity.
Pound for pound the Grammys offer a lot of entertainment and not only in terms of star power. Thankfully, the interior of Staples Center has miraculously good acoustics, owing I’m sure to the sophisticated production team. With two side-by-side stages, one was live while the other was built simultaneously. Since Chris Brown’s isn’t much of a vocalist, I largely watched the animation projections on the cubes upon which he danced and thought about him beating his former girlfriend. Digital projection has so greatly expanded what’s possible on a theatrical stage it can be quite remarkable, but it wasn’t so captivating that everyone in the room forgot the kind of man he can be. Still, there were mostly positive feelings in the room. The power of a strong voice, like Adele’s, Alicia Keys’ or Glen Campbell’s or Bonnie Raitt’s slide guitar commands some healthy respect. Bruce Springsteen’s working class ethics, the funky moves of Bruno Mars or the Beach Boys reuniting to perform Good Vibrations or the fact there was a Beatle on stage – these were wonderful gifts to those of us lucky to be in the room.
Our seats were good ones – not the floor where the stars are seated, but not nosebleeds either. It was impossible to guess who was seated near us. Who was the young woman a row ahead of us who struggled to keep her stretchy dress from rising up too high? I’ve seen some short ones, but at the risk of sounding like an old fart, this one was well into Brittany territory. Did she hope to get a gig with that dress? She tugged at it uncomfortably while inching her way down the aisle to her seat and then tugged again.
Two couples a few rows down couldn’t get enough of taking pictures of each other with the Grammy stage in the deep background. While cameras are banned, cell phones are permissible so outside and inside it’s a cell-photo feeding frenzy. I always though of music people as a pretty cool lot, but cell phone cameras have carved into any sort of aloof coolness people may have had in the past. Everyone looks just as goofy as everyone else, no matter how they’re dressed.
The Japanese couple next to me must have just gotten off a flight from Tokyo as they slept off and on through the last few hours of the awards. With her date fast asleep with head tipped back, even the woman’s authentic traditional pink kimono with its mid-waist binding couldn’t keep her fully upright. Jet lag got the best of them, in spite of the sound wall of the Foo Fighters. She perked up considerably when the bracelets given to us at the door for Coldplay’s set began to blink on and off in pastel fluorescent colors – the entire audience a sea of twinkly LED lights amid the blackness.
After a brief tour of the after-party I noticed women removing their shoes. Lots of them had no coats on and were wearing strapless dresses with no shawls, no jackets. It was February. Yes, it’s Los Angeles, but February still means chilly nights. The long walk to parking was covered in women carrying their sequined platform shoes and seriously limping the long cold distance to their cars.
I’m thinking about the dialogues going on around Congress regarding women’s health care right now. I’m thinking of the discomfort I felt in witnessing women hobbling en masse in evening gowns. I struggle to understand the self-infliction of injury to of a good portion of this audience. Feminism once brought to light the downside of high heels and when feminism was made a dirty word, the popularity of even more daredevil shoes snowballed. I read recently of podiatrists reporting a huge surge in high-heel related foot damage women are sustaining. Somehow a lot of Koolaid is being drunk.
Outside a restaurant last night my mother-in-law was complaining of her feet hurting in heels that likely were no higher than an inch and a half and we began talking to a young woman near us about shoes. She spoke gleefully of getting dolled up with her friends all in super high heels to go clubbing and how their feet all killed them before the night was out. She said “they make us look so pretty, but we don’t care how we look at the end, our feet hurt so bad.” I think about her. I think about how unsexy a herd of gimpy women looks. I don’t get it. I end up thinking the woman with the hot pink fuzzy bathmat boots looked somewhat sensible. She had her feet pretty much on the ground and she still managed to steal the scene.