“Music makes the people come together.”
Rarely has an opening song spoken more directly to the spirit of the Grammys than Madonna’s “Music,” which kick started the 43rd annual show in Los Angeles’ Staples Center. Her Blondness made a big entrance onto the stage in a glittery limo driven by Lil’ Bow Wow. Soon the number took a sexier turn, and at one point, Madonna took off her leather jacket to reveal a Material Girl T-shirt and then seemed to thoroughly enjoy what is perhaps best described as a cargasm.
Host Jon Stewart established his self-deprecating tone right off, talking about how he’s getting older and noting, “As I was watching Madonna writhing around on the hood of the car, all I could think was — that’s really gonna drive up her insurance premiums.”
Yet it was not Madonna providing the biggest controversy du jour on this Grammy night. Instead, the big talk of the night was Eminem who had already achieved tremendous commercial success, but not yet the mainstream cultural respectability that would come with the film 8 Mile two years later. Often criticized for homophobic and sexist lyrics, Eminem made huge headlines by agreeing to perform “Stan,” his edgy song about an obsessed fan, with openly gay music legend Elton John.
Stewart both commented on the tension and slyly diffused it, explaining in his monologue, “There’s a tremendous amount of controversy here tonight. I think we have to deal with it right off the top. I don’t know what all the controversy is about, quite frankly. I’ve met Eminem. I met him backstage and he’s really gay. I mean just about the gayest guy you’d ever meet.”
Before the night’s most buzzed about unlikely duo took the stage, a procession of other significant stars took their turn: ’N Sync (introduced by Stewart as including two extra members, “Fredo” and “Kitten”) performed an inventively lit rendition of “This I Promise You.” Sheryl Crow (who took home Best Female Rock Vocal Performance (for “There Goes The Neighborhood” from Live In Central Park) and Shelby Lynne (who won Best New Artist) teamed up for a strong duet on Crow’s “The Difficult Kind.” Moby, Jill Scott and the Blue Man Group pooled their deep talents on Moby’s “Natural Blues” for one of the more beautiful and experimental Grammy performances. Destiny’s Child sang “Independent Women, Part 1” and “Say My Name” for a big, sultry three-ring production number. Later, Faith Hill would perform “Breathe” in front of assorted art masterpieces looking very much like a masterpiece herself.
And when Eminem first took to the stage for his acceptance speech for the Best Rap Album Grammy for The Marshall Mathers LP, he came across as charming and uncharacteristically diplomatic. “What should I say first?” he asked openly. “I guess, first of all, I want to thank everybody who could look past the controversy or whatever and see the album for what it was...and also for what it isn’t.” Among the many people he thanked was his mentor Dr. Dre, named Producer Of The Year.
“I don’t know how you feel, but I was very impressed by Eminem’s poise,” the host noted later. “I really think this experience is gonna help him grow as a person. As a matter of fact, after doing the duet with Elton John, I’ve heard that he’s agreed to go to the bathroom with George Michael as well.” Despite considerable laughter, Stewart then added, “Can I say something: I feel your scorn and I accept it.”
There was no scorn and a few big awards for U2. The band performed a fittingly radiant version of “Beautiful Day,” which was named Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year and Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. During an acceptance speech, Bono said, “It’s a very unusual emotion I’m feeling right now. I think it’s called humility. The whole year’s been humbling — going back to scratch, reapplying for the job. What job? The best band in the world job.” Meanwhile, it was a significantly older band who won Album Of The Year: Steely Dan for their impressive comeback effort, Two Against Nature.
When they finally hit the stage, Eminem and Elton John didn’t seem like two against nature, or even two against the world, but an unbeatable musical team. Academy President Michael Greene introduced the performance, pointing out, “We can’t edit out the art that makes us uncomfortable — remember that’s what our parents tried to do to Elvis, the Stones and the Beatles.” In the end, Eminem and Elton John’s Grammy date with destiny was nervy, artistic and a defining moment in Grammy history.