I did my best to watch the American Music Awards last night, in an attempt to see if contemporary music still had a pulse, much less a heartbeat. Alas, I give pop music ten minutes to live based on the glitzy garbage I witnessed. With the exception of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum — still bearing a whisper of Nashville sincerity — I was reminded how far rock and roll has fallen from its touchstone days of yore.
I have a theory as to why today's pop music is so processed and stale and lifeless. Back in the halcyon 1960s, there were plenty of role models from the worlds of folk, country and r&b to inspire young musicians to follow in their dignified tracks. Bob Dylan wouldn't have been possible without Woody Guthrie; the Rolling Stones followed Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters with religious devotion; and groups like The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash took inspiration from country giants like Hank Williams and his ilk.
So if you imagine present-day culture as if it were an automobile — looking in the rear-view mirror at one's forebears — one doesn't see honorable musicians like Janis Joplin or Marvin Gaye two car-lengths behind, you see one-dimensional, cut-out figures like Britney Spears and Milli Vanilli. Pop music used to take raw folkloric material — whether from gospel or white rural roots — and secularize the themes while conveying the same kind of raw emotion. Not anymore.
The one person who might have provided that spark of authenticity on last night's show was British singer Adele, who proves that having a big, throaty voice and inspired material still carries the day. Unfortunately, she wasn't there to perform due to recent vocal cord surgery. Instead of a heartful Adele song we got an empty-headed Jennifer Lopez performance, accompanied by Black Eyed Pea will.i.am. The amped-up production values — black-lit figures and a television-head feed featuring Mick Jagger in an embarrassing turn — tried to compensate for the tired material, but to no avail.
The grand finale was neither grand nor final in any sense of the word, in fact was like a treacly-sweet dessert after a greasy meal. LMFAO is a dance music-outfit featuring the son and grandson of Motown Records' founder Berry Gordy — otherwise they wouldn't have a career to speak of. Singing lyrics that were beyond juvenile but reaching for true inanity ("When I'm at the beach, I'm in a Speedo trying to tan my cheeks"), these mental midgets were joined by a dancing Justin Bieber and even hip-shaking David Hasselhoff in smiley-face underwear. These two kids should be locked in a room for a month and be forced to listen to the Four Tops and The Temptations as punishment.
Not that the AMA's mean anything whatsoever when it comes to artistic merit. Voted on by young fans, the winners of these trophies are usually the acts that sell the most units, and whose record labels help pay the bill for the evening's performances. Remember that the show was created and produced by Dick Clark, whose involvement in pay-for-play scandals back in the 60s is long-forgotten (except by those songwriters forced to offer him a share of royalties for playing their records on American Bandstand). With a lineage like that, why would one expect these awards to honor quality over quantity?