Bob Dylan (and Lady Gaga) at the Grammys

So what’s to say about Dylan at the Grammys last night?

Exactly twenty years ago, in 1991, Dylan performed at the Grammys while collecting his “Lifetime Achievement Award” (hmm … shouldn’t he either give that back or get another one?). He performed an all-but incomprehensible version of Masters of War. Lots of people said then: “Wow, how washed up is that old guy?” Twenty years later, after Dylan’s performance of Maggie’s Farm at last night’s show, it seems a lot of people are saying much the same thing. And they’re probably just as correct. (So we can expect another twenty years of great music from Dylan.)

Even for fans, though, I’m not sure that there was all that much to get from Bob’s performance last night. He played nice; I admit I was hoping he’d do something to freak everyone out. The choice of Maggie’s Farm as a song had some irony for what was billed as a “salute to acoustic music,” since, both in its performance at Newport ’65 and in its substance as a song, it constituted a declaration of independence by Bob from any kind of folk purist rules — or any rules at all. If one hadn’t seen him live in some years, one might have been surprised to see him center-stage at the mike sans guitar, and one might have various levels of surprise and/or dismay at the condition of his vocal cords. But I thought his singing was good, in terms of having nuance and expression and humor, and I think he was quite mesmerizing as a stage presence — especially after everything that had come before.

And as to what came before: Maybe it’s good to watch the Grammy Awards show every once in a while, just to see where the world is at. It’s a salutary stare into the abyss. I can’t say I’m familiar with Lady Gaga’s ouevre, although, after last night, I am at least familiar with her oeuf. Her performance, and song, was so Madonna-like that Ms. Ciccone could really sue for royalties. Yet, it was different too: it seems to me that Miss Gaga is several steps more removed from what she’s doing than even Madonna was (or is). There seemed to be nobody there. A pose of a pose of a pose.

And for that matter so many of the performances last night, from Justin Bieber on down, seemed to me — and maybe I’m hopelessly jaded — to be just various levels of cold pastiche, which to me is even worse than cold pasta. Lord knows, there’s nothing wrong with being derivative, but you have to have your own heart visible, or audible, in what you’re doing as well. The interchangeable platoons of dancers and light shows was fatiguing in the extreme. All I saw was emptiness. I turned off after Bob, so I don’t know about what came later.

The bands who played with Bob, the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, were at least refreshing in that they appeared to be actual humans playing actual songs. But I wasn’t incredibly blown away, despite the best efforts of all that, well, aerobic acoustic guitar playing. Of-course no one should be judged by one appearance at an awards show.

Last words to Bob:

Got to be an important person to be in here, honey
Got to have done some evil deed
Got to have your own harem when you come in the door
Got to play your harp until your lips bleed

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