David Zurawik

Adele, Hudson and the energy of archetype elevate Grammy telecast

I haven't watched a Grammy telecast all the way through in quite awhile. As much as I love the great TV-music moments when they happen, there haven't been enough of them lately to keep me tuned in when all the wretched excess, bizarre productions and self-absorbed, pop-star silliness inevitably arrived. Furthermore, I always felt the main reviewing rightfully belonged to the pop music critics at the paper on Grammy night.

But I watched Sunday from beginning to end -- and then some. And it was worth it -- and then some.

For all the tone deaf, dumb and blind moments like the Beach Boys reunion, there was a profound energy to portions of the CBS telecast that could be felt right through the tube and into the psyche. It was the soul-deep energy that comes when a culture connects with an archetype through a ritual -- as described by Carl Jung. (Or, if you want the pop TV version, think Joseph Campbell.)

The archetype animating the telecast of the 54th Grammy Awards Sunday night was connected to the death Saturday of Whitney Houston and the comeback celebration of Adele who dominated in Grammy wins including best song ("Rolling in the Deep") and best album ("21").

Let me get one bit of traditional TV reviewing out of the way before I get to the culture talk. When I say I watched the telecast all the way through and then some, the "then some" part refers to watching "60 Minutes"to see Anderson Cooper's superb interview/profile piece with Adele. I cannot remember the last time I saw as engaging a TV conversation and as seamless a piece of TV production and editing.

While some might criticize CBS for using a news program to essentially promote the Grammy telecast, I say put in a sock in that sanctimonius, phony talk. "60 Minutes" does enough journalism-journalism for 50 primetime newsmagazines on any other network (think of the pathetic "Rock Center"). And the Adele interview enriched my Grammy viewing experience enormously with the background information it provided on the singer who owned the stage in the telecast that followed.

But here's what mattered at Sunday's telecast: the way that the narrative of Houston's life and the circumstances of her death tapped our shared cultural memory and literally animated the telecast. Diana Ross commented onstage about "the incredible energy in the room" last night. I will take her word that, but I sure felt something coming through on the screen I was watching.

Houston's death in Los Angeles plugged into this great narrative in American culture of performers (often pop musicians) who rise up from the masses on a talent so extraordinary it seems it could only be a gift from the gods.

But they also bring their demons with them as the arrive in the promised land of celebrity and fame in California. And as much or little success as they might have for as many years, the demons win, and they are found dead alone in a hotel room or house in Hollywood or Beverly Hills. And on the news reports, the death in the show-biz promised land mainly looks and feels like a sad, cold, lonely, existential ending to their epic journeys.

Wih minor variations, think of Janis Joplin or Marilyn Monroe, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And then, like Michael Jackson, you have the added dimension in Houston's death of race -- which makes it an even deeper and more complicated cultural moment, because of all the extra obstacles a person of color has to overcome in this culture to reach that promised land. And don't forget all the contradictions and lies we have told and continue to tell ourselves about this nation's racial past.

Houston's death took a TV, music industry and pop culture event that is often defined as superficial and overly commercial and plugged it straight into that mythic chord of American life. And then, the telecast tapped it beautifully with the tribute to Houston from Jennifer Hudson. Kudos to the producers of the telecast for the way they handled the tribute on short notice, and hosanna in the highest to Hudson who touched a nerve -- and then some in her  simple and elegant performance.

The narrative of Adele's comeback from vocal problems and her triumph Sunday further tapped into all of that in the most fundamental, mythic and animating way. The vocal issues the British singer overcame reminded everyone of how whimsical and wicked the gods can be with their gifts.

And Adele's moving, straightforward, here's-my--voice-I-don't-need-no-gimmicks performance onstage was as perfect a death-and-rebirth moment as any ancient ritual has ever offered. One soaring and marvelous voice is lost, but another is regained and takes the stage to give us a taste of all the pleasure she will hopefully be able to provide in years to come.

Jung saw the archetypes locked in our collective unconscious as the humankind's greatest source of artistic and cultural energy. And I believe the mythic energy tapped onstage Sunday night by the Adele and Whitney Houston narratives inspired other artists even though they were not directly connected to it -- musicians like Bruce Springsteen and even Paul McCarthney (in the performance that closed the telecast). Springsteen, at least, is an artist wise enough to know where the energy was coming from Sunday night -- and McCartney certainly seemed to feel it in those final moments.

And for once, I am glad I didn't miss a TV second of those rare and elevated moments.