Everyone hated it, but everyone watched it. That seems to be the takeaway from this year's Grammy Awards telecast. Top critics called the program discordant, bloated and full of fumbles. The Internet belched in frustration as the Foo Fighters (nice guys, but overplayed) and Chris Brown (problematic, to say the least) made multiple appearances. Yet people tuned in — boy, did they tune in — and kept watching all the way through the Paul McCartney-led five-man effort to resuscitate rock that was the finale.
So what gives? Are we who tune in to these entertainment industry beauty pageants simply connoisseurs of television-induced torture? Or was there a way in which the 2012 Grammys show worked, despite (or even because of) the weird combo numbers, the stretches of incoherent spectacle and the dearth of awards presented?
Here's what I think: the difference lay in the devices viewers cradled in hand or lap.
I'm talking about mobile phones and laptops — the instruments that allow entry to the magically reactive realm of social media. It's been a while since media trend followers first identified Twitter (and, for some, Facebook) as a source of renewed interest in awards shows. This year's Grammys struck me as the first major event designed, at least in part, to cash in on that trend.
17 performances crammed into four broadcast hours touched upon nearly every potential viewer/Tweeter's favorite style of pop, though Bon Iver's reticence created a gap where indie was concerned, and it would have been nice if Latin music, suffering from the recent cutbacks in awards categories, had received some airtime. Many were the wacky, genre-hopping collaborations that producer Ken Ehrlich has long preferred. (Think that's new? Behold this one from 2006.)
The show was also jam-packed with controversial bookings, notably Brown's and the odd, rockist tribute to electronic dance music; "historic moments" including the Beach Boys reunion and Glen Campbell appearance and real news, topped by Adele's comeback after throat surgery.
Instead of even trying to structure this wild array into a coherent narrative, the show's creators opted for an utterly non-linear, rapid-fire approach that juxtaposed acts from opposite ends of the pop music spectrum. Bruce Springsteen and Bruno Mars are both ebullient performers, but the Boss's gritty, political anthem rock and the Smeezingtons' shiny Broadway-flavored soul are hair oil and water, affect-wise. Taylor Swift's gingham tribute to O Brother, Where Art Thou was bookended by Brown's videogame-inspired dance routine and Katy Perry's sci-fi erotica.
We all well know that this is how mainstream pop music survives in the single-download age. No one style dominates, and as artists compete for attention, they're turning ever more hyperbolic. At the Grammys, this was best illustrated by Nicki Minaj's wild debut of the title track from her upcoming second album, Roman Holiday. A tribute to The Exorcist that more closely recalled a florid Dario Argento horror opera, the number included mock clergy, levitation and Minaj singing "I Feel Pretty" in an accent that would horrify Downton Abbey admirers. "Roman Holiday" sent the Twitterverse into hysterics. And it's impossible to think that wasn't part of the reason it was approved.
Neck-breaking variety kept those of us sharing the night on social media engaged, excited and frequently enraged. Never did the show lag into a predictable rhythm, despite the fact that the unscripted part of the show — the contest for Grammy statues — were a foregone conclusion. The major wins by Adele, the industry-beloved Foo Fighters and even dance music leprechaun Skrillex, well-augured by the media, came to pass. Bon Iver accepted the prize for Best New Artist, and was uncomfortable doing so. I could have written those last two sentences a week ago; I knew what was coming.
Instead of tapping into the anticipatory mood that greets most public contests, the Grammy telecast encouraged Tweeters to participate in a parallel awarding process based on snap judgments of the performances and grounded in personal taste. Twitter, after all, is like a T-shirt whose slogan you can keep changing: every new tap of the keyboard trumpets your tastes.
Love classic pop? The Grammys gave you a chance to gush about Joe Walsh and Brian Wilson. Don't get Deadmau5? Hey, there he is! Slap out an incredulous 140 characters. Tweeters live to spout, and spout they did, as proven by the night's most popular roundups from the platform — some of which were hilarious ("who is Bonnie Bear?"), others, disturbing. Never did my feed read, "This is boring," because the Grammys left no space for ennui.
The placement of controversial elements similarly kept stimulation levels high. Brown's heavy presence was foremost among them: since his assault on ex-girlfriend Rihanna after a pre-Grammy party three years ago, the R&B star has become one of pop's most contentious characters. The show's producer, Ehrlich, has expressed the view that enough time had passed, and Brown deserved a "second chance." Yet to play that return so strongly, with two featured numbers augmenting an award win, is to craft a mini-narrative that guarantees intense reaction.
The folks I follow on Twitter hurled their disgust at every glimpse of Brown. Elsewhere, his fans shouted support — most upsetting were the women who made light of his history of abuse by declaring their willingness to have him beat them. Were these responses serious? I pray not. Their rawness and insensitivity seemed more like a drunken football chant than a well-considered apology for Team Breezy.
Maybe I'm being cynical, but the Grammy double-shot of Brown struck me as a ploy to keep both fans and haters on boil. The Foo Fighters' ubiquity was more benign, yet also pointedly attention-getting. Dave Grohl has been mouthing off in favor of "real rock" over electronic pop enhancements for months, if not years. To put a guy guaranteed to make a speech dripping in disdain for synthesizers in a segment dedicated to celebrating them was maniacally brilliant. Twitter went ... oh, you know.
Some might criticize the disjointed, all-peaks mood of the Grammys as a matter of poor design, just as others have protested the elimination of many categories as yet another step away from meaningful influence. I think it's more deliberate.
Two strong conventional narrative arcs could have dominated the telecast: Adele's return and expected sweep, and the mourning of Whitney Houston. One was available from the start; the other arose suddenly. Decisions were obviously made, however, to prevent either from dominating the evening. Host LL Cool J's opening prayer for Houston established a calm mood that extended to Jennifer Hudson's performance of the late star's signature song. Adele's fine turn on "Rolling In the Deep" was almost upstaged by the bigger number that followed it — the lively and sweet country tribute to the ailing Glen Campbell, who also appeared.
This is what Twitter does to us; it makes us crave the next amazing thing just after we've consumed the last one. Any pause to absorb unfolding events offers a chance for observers to turn away. This year's Grammys made sure that didn't happen. Should we be dismissive of this? Only if we're willing to put down our smart phones.