As a child, I used to live for the Grammy Awards, waiting for performances by some of my favorites, like Michael Jackson, the Police, Tears for Fears, Janet Jackson and, of course, Whitney Houston. I remember once getting into trouble with my parents, and my punishment was that I could not watch the Grammys. Michael Jackson was supposed to perform that night, so I lost it. In my young mind, my mother might as well have killed me, as opposed to forbidding me to watch Michael Jackson perform at the Grammys.
Honestly, I had not planned to watch this year's Grammy Awards in real time until I learned of the death of Houston. When I heard that Jennifer Hudson would perform the tribute to the legendary singer, it became a must-see television show for me. Why? Because Hudson is a great singer.
While I particularly enjoyed performances by Glen Campbell, the Foo Fighters, Bruno Mars and Kelly Clarkson, I could not get into performances by Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. The low level of talent on display by both of them was in stark contrast to the tremendous amount of talent on display elsewhere during the broadcast.
I loved the all-star guitar jam session of "Golden Slumbers," and Stevie Wonder's singing is always infectious. In addition to hearing the references to Houston throughout the broadcast, I had her songs in heavy rotation on my iPod throughout the day, so Houston's vocal prowess was at the forefront of my mind.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare Rihanna and Minaj (the latter of whom is billed as a rapper) with Houston, since they are very different types of musical artists. Still, it did not escape me that these two young women are around the same age Houston was when she broke through and helped change the landscape of the music industry. Houston's talent was undeniable, and she challenged what it meant to be a black female singer through her music and performances, which were stellar for most of her career.
I am acutely aware that listening to Houston or other singers of her caliber (Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan, to name a few) and then listening to many of today's singers leaves a lot to be desired. While I found Rihanna's performance boring and uninspired, I was extremely disappointed in Minaj's performance, which was god-awful, pun intended.
I'm not a complete Minaj hater (although each time I watch her perform, I think of Pootie Tang's Biggie Shorty, played brilliantly by Wanda Sykes), but it appears that Minaj is building a legitimate music career that is patterned on an illegitimate caricature. The colorful hair, the focus on her protruding buttocks and the shenanigans add nothing to Minaj's appeal and take away from her perceived talent.
As I watched Minaj's performance, I thought, "She can't be serious," followed by, "What is she doing?" Minaj seems to be stuck between doing too much and doing herself in, because she's not a big-enough star or talent to challenge Lady Gaga or Madonna, which is what it would take to pull off such a convoluted performance. Instead of making a statement, Minaj ended up making a mockery out of herself.
I don't know if Minaj and Rihanna have any real talent, but watching them perform made me remember why I no longer watch awards shows. I'm sure I sound like an old fogy, but the awards shows have become less about the awards or even the artists and more about the spectacle.
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters had it right when he urged artists to learn to play instruments, sing their songs and stop relying on technology to make music. While I agree with his sentiment, I believe that technology and music actually go hand in hand, so I don't think it has to be an either-or proposition. However, I do believe that there should be some modicum of talent present in the artist.
For example, back in the funk era, iconic singer Roger Troutman used the "talk box" in his music productions. Instead of relying solely on the talk box, like many who can only perform using Auto-Tune, Troutman played numerous instruments and could actually sing without the talk box.
That is one of many differences between the late Troutman and an artist like T-Pain or even Katy Perry. Throughout the evening, Grohl's words resonated with performance after performance (only nine awards were given out during the broadcast, which ran more than three hours): Those who could sing sang, and those who couldn't were achingly exposed as pretenders relying on technology and shock performances that came off more as contrived than as controversial.
If Minaj plans on having any longevity in the music business, she might want to focus less on theatrics and more on levitating her artistic standards.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.