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Politics in the spotlight at the Grammys

February 13,2017 10:13

Skip Marley (left) and Katy Perry, who wore a “Persist” armband and Planned Parenthood lapel pin, wrap up their performance with the words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution dramatically scrolling up behind them at the 2017 Grammy Awards.and more »

Photo: Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

Skip Marley (left) and Katy Perry, who wore a “Persist” armband and Planned Parenthood lapel pin, wrap up their performance with the words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution dramatically scrolling up behind them at the 2017 Grammy Awards.

Skip Marley (left) and Katy Perry, who wore a “Persist” armband...
Host James Corden referenced it while he was comically falling down stairs at the start of the show, Jennifer Lopez declared “at this particular point in history, our voices are needed more than ever,” and Paris Jackson wished the evening’s excitement could be transplanted to a pipeline protest.Those few benighted souls who thought politics wouldn’t get past the Staples Center metal detectors at the 59th annual Grammy Awards Sunday night were immediately disabused of their fantasies.
Early in Sunday’s Grammys show, Lopez quoted author Toni Morrison’s insistence that “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. ... This is how civilizations heal,” before she handed out the evening’s first award to Chance the Rapper as best new artist.

A lot of tweeters cheered Lopez’s call to artistic arms, but others responded more cynically, with some doubting the singer’s familiarity with the Nobel Prize-winning author of “Beloved.”
The 2017 awards season is as much about politics as entertainment, and has been since Meryl Streep’s headline-grabbing public rebuke of then-President-elect Donald Trump at the Golden Globes in early January. The leitmotif continued through the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Sunday’s Grammys and is tuning up for the 89th annual Academy Awards in two weeks.
But how much of it is sincere?
At this point in the cavalcade of tinsel and special effects, it’s not surprising that many tweeters are beginning to smell a marketing consultant behind some of the issue-oriented oratory.
No one who heard Streep at the Globes should have questioned whether she believed every word she uttered, but some griped that the show wasn’t the proper forum — code for saying, “we don’t agree with her but don’t want to say that because, you know: It’s Meryl freakin’ Streep.”
Katy Perry didn’t quite achieve that level of credibility Sunday as she performed her single “Chained to the Rhythm,” featuring the now blonde singer bouncing around the stage wearing a “Persist” armband and a Planned Parenthood lapel pin. She ended the performance with the words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution rising dramatically behind her and Skip Marley like the closing credits of a Frank Capra movie.
The focus was direct and unmistakable as Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest got political and current in a blistering performance: “I want to thank president Agent Orange for perpetuating all the evil that you’ve been perpetuating throughout the United States,” Rhymes shouted. “I wanna thank president Agent Orange for your unsuccessful attempt at the Muslim ban. Now we come together.”
Laverne Cox took a moment before introducing Lady Gaga’s performance with Metallica, to urge viewers to stand with transgender teen Gavin Grimm as his case arguing the right to use the men’s bathroom at his Virginia school heads to the Supreme Court. Only two days ago, the Trump administration filed a brief withdrawing the government’s opposition to an injunction designed to allow students to use bathrooms that matched their gender identity.
Singing another tune altogether, recording academy president Neil Portnow waved a metaphorical flag in a short speech that featured a trumpet soloist playing a bit of “America the Beautiful.” Portnow made a direct appeal to Congress to update music laws, protect music education and renew “America’s commitment to the arts.”
He closed by reminding the audience that the United States is “one people from sea to shining sea. In times of triumph and tragedy, we turn to song.”
As long as there are awards shows and performers have a temporary bully pulpit to talk about issues, they will. We’re long past discussing whether these shows are the proper place for speechifying. This is an especially ripe year for politics. The nation is feeling chaotic and somewhat bruised after the divisive 2016 presidential election campaigns. There are moments of clarity coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but so far, they’ve done everything but bring the country back together again. Whether artists believe passionately in whatever cause they will espouse on the Globes, the Grammys, the Oscars, Tonys or Emmys, or not, buckle up: It’s going to be a bumpy year.

David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor and the TV critic of The San Francisco Chronicle and co-host of “The Do List” every Friday morning at 6:22 and 8:22 on KQED FM, 88.5 FM in San Francisco, 89.3 FM in Sacramento. Follow him on Facebook. Email: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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