Every winter, we flip on the Grammys, searching for meaning. Somewhere in that mess of trophies and singalongs, maybe we'll be able to uncover a kernel of what the music biz is trying to say about itself, about the state of the art and where everything might be headed.
This year, those clues didn't surface from the stage, from the winner's circle or from beneath Pharrell's Dudley Do-Right hat.
They came during the commercial breaks.
Justin Timberlake tried to sign us up for a MasterCard. Katy Perry was peddling CoverGirl cosmetics. John Legend invited us to test drive a Chevy. The subtext was quietly waving in our faces like a red flag soaked in Pepsi: Pop music's excellence is now defined by its ability to sell something else.
Yeah, sure, we live in a fog of late-capitalist ennui where it's become passe -- maybe even boorish -- to point your fingers and cry "sellout!" Nobody's buying recorded music anymore, and musicians still need to eat. So why get ruffled when a favorite rapper or beloved rock band resorts to licensing their songs to the corporations holding the cash? We don't sweat it anymore. We don't even blink.
But it's hard to feel that pseudo-empathy for someone like Timberlake. Having scored the top-selling album of 2013, he was up for seven awards at Sunday night's Grammys and didn't even bother to show. He didn't need to. He'd surprise his fan bloc during the telecast by appearing in a series of commercials for MasterCard, offering the ultimate customer reward: Timberlake ding-donging your doorbell. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for both of us," the singer says in the ad. "And how cool is that?" Um.
Timberlake also appeared in a series of Target ads that aired during Sunday's telecast -- as did R&B firecracker Janelle Monae, country trio the Band Perry, Colombian superstar Shakira and bachata heartthrob Prince Royce.
These artists were each promoting their own music -- their CDs for Target contain exclusive bonus tracks -- but they were also vouching for a retail behemoth trying to smooth over its public image after suffering a massive and humiliating consumer data breach. (Sadly, these fleeting ads featured more Latin music than the entire Grammy ceremony.)
And because it's a televised industry party hungry for ratings, the Grammys themselves frequently felt like a weird, tail-eating advertisement for itself -- not to mention CBS, the network that hosts the thing.
Rapper LL Cool J wasn't invited back to host for the third time because "Pink Cookies In A Plastic Bag Getting Crushed By Buildings" might be the weirdest-ever rap song about sex -- it's because he stars on the CBS police-military drama "NCIS: Los Angeles."
And was Sunday night's performance by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr commemorating 50 years of Beatlemania? Or was it a plug for "The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles," a TV special commemorating 50 years of American Beatlemania, airing Feb. 9 on CBS?
Macklemore, Sunday's breakout star, spent his big night navigating various brand-management riptides.
Having won four big prizes with his producer Ryan Lewis, the radio-friendly newcomer seemed to sense an approaching backlash from the greater hip-hop universe. So he dashed off a text message to Kendrick Lamar, saying, "It's weird and sucks that I robbed you," suggesting that the Los Angeles rapper's "Good Kidd, M.A.A.D. City" deserved the prize for best rap album. Then, he posted a screenshot of his text to Instagram so the world could see what a swell guy he is.
If that wasn't sketchy enough, check out Macklemore's new commercial spot for Dr Pepper where he pats himself on the back for turning down various major record label contracts, as if completely unaware that he's narrating a soda commercial.
The Dr Pepper ad didn't air during the Grammys, perhaps because it would have muddled the message Macklemore and Lewis were trying to send while performing their marriage-equality anthem, "Same Love." But if you're a couple planning a wedding -- gay, straight or otherwise -- there's a delicious soft drink the duo hopes you'll consider serving at the reception.
Anyone could argue that the Grammys have always been a celebration of money, but this year's show -- and the advertisers that supported it -- seemed to stealthily cross a line. When pop music is no longer able to sell itself, its newfound reliance on ad dollars should make artists and fans extremely uneasy. This is a model that will continue to strip musicians of their power to take aesthetic risks, unpack contentious social issues, explore and explain the beautiful, horrific weirdness of living in the 21st century and -- to paraphrase LL Cool J's Grammy night monologue -- truly unleash us.
In actuality, the leash is getting shorter. But we'll never notice if we don't pull in the opposite direction.