I admit it. I did not open one newspaper this week. I thought about it, hell I even bought a couple, but the daunting grimace of John Kerry, and the He said/She said antics of George W., George Tenet, and David Kay stopped me before I started. I realized we’ve reached an impasse. The dreary, gray days of journalistic winter are upon us and until Howard Dean starts shooting from a clock tower, there’s really nothing to talk about. That is, except maybe a little thing I like to call THE GRAMMYS! That candy-coated celebration of pop music banality finally arrived and, by golly, it was just terrible.
I mean, Outkast was, of course, great. And Justin Timberlake did an amazing impersonation of Stevie Wonder’s whole back catalog while playing call and response with Afro-Cuban trumpet master Arturo Sandoval. Even the Foo Fighters showed a little bit of class, using jazz great Chick Corea to create a haunting intro to their grunge-tinged bat guano. All this was overshadowed, however, by an ominous and daunting threat. And that threat is Beyonce.
Not Beyonce alone, but Christina, Brandy, Alicia, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas and all the octave jumping, water in the lungs warbling, aspiring R&B Divas. Beyonce just happened to win. A lot.
In the context of pop music the word diva conjures visions of Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner or Nina Simone. A diva is a woman with an amazing voice, but also a presence, a force to be reckoned with. From the politically and socially-aware lyrics of Simone’s soulful jazz, to Aretha’s patriarch-crushing wail, to the sexual liberation of Donna Summer, these women were originators. They redefined genres and were uncompromising performers.
Beyonce, with five awards in last night’s crap-fest, preformed twice, and was upstaged both times. First she was out-diva’d by the artist formerly known as “the artist formerly known as Prince,” when they shared the stage to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his magnum opus Purple Rain. To be fair, no one stands a chance against his royal badness, the sexiest munchkin ever to don stiletto boots, but I had no idea Beyonce would be reduced to girl-toy so easily. She even did her best Tina Turner impersonation, but without Tina’s legs Beyonce’s wiggle was closer to an ad for Miami Booty Bass than Proud Mary.
Her second performance of the night was a visually stunning homage to the Harlem Renaissance paintings of Jacob Lawrence and Ernie Barnes, recreated with dancers, and enclosed in a colossal gilded frame. And while the set was a step above the awkward “high school play” aesthetic perpetrated throughout the rest of the Grammys, Beyonce’s performance was one of unbridled fecality. As she yodeled her way through the three-word chorus of “Dangerously in Love 2,” changing octaves so often the words were rendered inaudible and my poor dog peed himself, Beyonce showed none of the restraint or ingenuity she is so celebrated for. Her performance ended with appropriate dramatic flair as she stepped out of the painting and from off stage the “white dove of shit” flew in and ate from her hand. It takes a lot to be outshined by a pigeon, but Beyonce pulled it off.
I blame the success of Whitney Huston for all this. If her uncanny ability to sustain a single note for an entire album had put her on “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” with the other freaks instead selling a million records, none of this would have happened. We’d have never had to endure Mariah Carey’s interpretation of dolphins’ mating cries, or Celine Dion’s lazy-eyed “Titanic” theme. The title of Diva would be bestowed upon a performer with soul, strength and strut, someone who redefines the role of women’s music, not just some Barbie Doll chanteuse who chews her way through the lyrics. Performers like Joyo Velarde or Jill Scott would receive the recognition they deserve, the yodeling would be left to Jewel, and Beyonce would stick to doing what she’s good at: not being as sexy as Prince.