On a night already heavy with absence — June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, George Harrison all won awards posthumously, and Luther Vandross is recovering from a stroke — fallout from Janet Jackson's Super Bowl breast revelation forced an atmosphere of guarded caution on last night's 46th Grammy awards telecast and kept a tight lid on the recording industry's celebration of itself.
CBS's response to the previous week's Super Bowl halftime scandal included a "enhanced" five-minute delay on the "live" Grammy telecast, banishment of Jackson from the kingdom, and a requirement that Justin Timberlake — who took home two pop vocal awards — apologize on-air for the incident. He did so rather sheepishly, saying, "I know it's been a rough week on everybody — what occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable, and I apologize if anyone was offended." Okay little boy, your timeout is over.
Despite some outstanding live performances by Album of the Year champs OutKast (both "I Like the Way You Move" and "Hey Ya!" from "Speakerboxx/The Love Below"), five-award winner Beyoncé (who appeared in a medley with Prince and elegantly performed her own ballad "Dangerously In Love" against the backdrop of a living painting), the White Stripes, the Black Eyed Peas, and a rousing funk-fest featuring Earth, Wind & Fire, fiery steel guitarist Robert Randolph, and George Clinton's P-Funk troupe, the evening had about it the whiff of disinfectant.
Even last year, when the threat of war hung over the proceedings and the network reportedly made stern requests to keep the focus on music, the anticipatory excitement of a truly live show charged the air and the lack of a time delay emboldened some of the performers to make political statements. Doesn't CBS realize that much of the appeal of any awards show is the very real possibility that something may go horribly wrong?
Oddly, the network didn't utilize the delay to eliminate the awkward failure of Celine Dion's microphone, which delayed her performance of Vandross's "Dance With My Father" and facilitated much concerned on-air mumbling from the control booth. Finally, a stagehand ran another mike out to Dion — whose own father died this year — and piano accompanist/co-writer Richard Marx cycled around to the song's beginning for the third time. Dion, with showbiz clearly flowing in her veins, retained a calm dignity throughout the ordeal and turned in a restrained, moving performance of the Grammy-winning song of loss and remembrance. I have never felt sympathetic toward Celine Dion before — a strange sensation.
The impetus behind all this caution is, of course, the halftime show at last Sunday's Super Bowl, also televised on CBS, in which an already tawdry pageant of bumping-and-grinding and crotch-grabbing entered uncharted territory when Justin Timberlake, flirting with Jackson through his "Rock Your Body," sang the fateful lines: "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song."
True to his word, Timberlake then ripped away the self-proclaimed "Miss Nasty's" right breastplate, exposing her for all the world to see save for a star-like device we have subsequently come to know as a "nipple shield."
Though Jackson was exposed for only a moment before covering herself, the incident — which might have passed with relatively little hoopla in an earlier era due to its brevity and the general commotion — was recorded by millions of Americans on their handy new TiVOs, spread almost instantly across the Internet (where it became the most searched-for image ever), and replayed in slow motion ad infinitum (with strategic masking) by cable news channels that could scarcely contain their glee over the titillation of it all.
Timberlake added an instantly classic new term to the lexicon when he flippantly tossed the incident off as a "wardrobe malfunction." He's a funny guy as well as a wardrobe "malfuncter."
Reaction was swift and heavy-handed. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue distanced the NFL from the proceedings, issuing the following statement: "We were extremely disappointed by the MTV-produced halftime show. It was totally inconsistent with assurances our office was given about the content of the show. The show was offensive, inappropriate and embarrassing to us and our fans. We will change our policy, our people and our processes for managing the halftime entertainment in the future." And your little dog too.
MTV and CBS both said they had no idea that their halftime show Sunday night would include such a display. Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell called it "a classless, crass and deplorable stunt" and called for, literally, a federal investigation. With potential fines of up to $27,500 per station from the FCC, CBS sat up and took notice.
No fools, Jackson's record label Virgin released her single "Just a Little While" the following day, weeks ahead of schedule. Jackson apologized not once but twice, saying that her red lace bra was not supposed to yield to Timberlake's manly tug, and that "in the end it all went wrong." Well, yeah.
CBS denies that it uninvited Janet Jackson from the Grammys (where she was to introduce the tribute to Luther Vandross), saying that it only asked her to apologize a la Timberlake, but her camp says she was first told to get lost, then reinvited with the stipulation that she apologize.
Regardless, she did not attend and the threat implicit in her absence, along with the deadening hand of the five-minute delay, cast a pall over the entire evening that even the giddy ebullience of OutKast's "Hey Ya!" — with singer Andre 3000, dancers, and marching band all garbed in florescent green American Indian wear — couldn't chase away.
The lessons: a five-second delay would have taken care of any egregious breech in decorum, appeased the FCC, and kept the live feel so crucial to the show. I hope the Oscars take note.
The show would have had a much lighter feel had Janet been allowed to attend, and a joint apology with Timberlake — though hokey — would have allowed all the main players, including CBS, to put the incident behind them.
Keep some perspective friends, it's all just entertainment.
Eric Olsen is the editor of .