As the GRAMMY Awards approached the Big Five-O, Music’s Biggest Night rarely seemed more culturally relevant in a number of fascinating ways. First and foremost, the 49th Annual GRAMMY Awards proved to be a politically charged moment of truth for the Dixie Chicks. Indeed, the Chicks have long been GRAMMY voter favorites, but with the popularity of the war in Iraq in steep decline, the three prominent, on-air GRAMMY wins by the Dixie Chicks were also seen as a statement beyond merely saluting the musical excellence of Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. As Jeff Leeds and Lorne Manly reported in The New York Times the next day under the headline “Defiant Dixie Chicks Are Big Winners at the GRAMMYs”: “After death threats, boycotts and a cold shoulder from the country music establishment, the Dixie Chicks gained sweet vindication Sunday night at the 49th Annual GRAMMY Awards, capturing honors in all five of the categories in which they were nominated.”
In the wake of Maines’ spontaneous 2003 antiwar remark to a London audience (“Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”), the Dixie Chicks found themselves at the center of a tremendous firestorm—one that would seemingly end up burning many bridges between the group and their relationship with country music radio, their longtime musical base. By the end of this GRAMMY night, the Dixie Chicks would surprise many observers—and by the looks on their faces, themselves as well—by taking home GRAMMY Awards for Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year, as well as Best Country Album and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal
Meanwhile, in another nod to the currency of the times, the 49th awards, acknowledging the growing popularity of user-influenced media, also responded to the realities of the world around it in a far less political way with the first-ever inclusion of the “My GRAMMY Moment” segment in which viewers voted to decide which of three unsigned artists would get the chance to sing live during the GRAMMY telecast with Justin Timberlake. Ultimately, Robyn Troup, 18, from Houston, Texas, would prevail and perform an impressive medley of Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Timberlake’s “My Love” for which she and Timberlake were joined by rap sensation T.I. Interestingly, Troup’s victory was announced by Dreamgirls Academy Award-nominee (and, within weeks, winner) Jennifer Hudson, a former “American Idol” contestant, who declared, “I know what it’s like to compete to win the chance of a lifetime.”
There were, of course, many other big winners on this hot GRAMMY night. The Red Hot Chili Peppers won four awards, and gave the final performance of the night with “Snow” from their Stadium Arcadium album surrounded by the biggest faux indoor snowstorm in GRAMMY history. Mary J. Blige won three awards, for Best R&B Album, Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and gave one of the longest and most emotional GRAMMY acceptance speeches in memory.
Other notable winners included both Timberlake and T.I., who won for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for “My Love.” Timberlake also won for Best Dance Recording for “Sexy Back,” while T.I. won for Best Rap Solo Performance for “What You Know.” A more senior GRAMMY victory was enjoyed by the great Tony Bennett—loudly saluted on air by his enthusiastic co-presenter Quentin Tarantino—who won Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for his duet with Stevie Wonder on “For Once in My Life.” Not bad at all for a legendary artist who at age 80 was old enough to have also performed on the GRAMMY’s very first “The Best on Record” telecast back in 1963. That was 20 years before the birth of country sensation Carrie Underwood, who took home the Best Female Country Vocal Performance and Best New Artist GRAMMYs, the latter presented to her by Natalie Cole and new Lifetime Achievement honoree Ornette Coleman.
This GRAMMY show also helped launch one of the highest profile comebacks in pop music history when the reunited Police opened the night with “Roxanne,” the very hit that launched their career some 30 years earlier. The performance by Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland marked the first live appearance of what would become one of the biggest reunion tours of all-time.
Exciting in a different way was Colombian superstar Shakira, who made her first-ever GRAMMY appearance despite running a high fever. Her electrifying performance with Wyclef Jean proved the enduring truth behind the title of their smash duet, “Hips Don’t Lie.”
And, in a segment that looked back on the rich history of seductive R&B and featured Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie and Chris Brown, Christina Aguilera brought down the house with an otherworldly version of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” in tribute to the recently deceased James Brown.
More restrained but exceedingly powerful was a soulful and musically collaborative medley in which Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend and John Mayer came together to sing and play on each other’s compositions—vivid proof, as Stevie Wonder suggested in his introduction, that anyone who thinks “they don’t make singer/songwriters like they used to” ought to think again.
Finally, though, the GRAMMY Awards appeared to be looking energetically forward at a very healthy 49 years young, using the strength of its position as Music’s Biggest Night to continue to advocate for a healthier music future. As President Neil Portnow, arguing for stronger music education and its long-term impact on the development of young musicians, said, “The time is now to contact your elected leaders. Tell them that music is just as essential to the next generation’s development as any other subject…Together let us all ensure that music stays just as vital and alive for generations still to come.”