Infiltrating the American Music Awards

On Sunday, November 14, 2004 I worked as a talent escort at the 32nd Annual American Music Awards. True to its name, the show, which was broadcast live on ABC from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, rewarded recording artists within such celebrated American genres as country, rap, and alternative. Even though they attract plenty of glitz, glamour, and gossip, music industry awards shows like the AMAs differ from those of their entertainment industry counterparts because nominees and winners are chosen solely on the strength of record sales, rather than by artistic and critical merit, the standard criteria for film and television awards.

In fact, most critically-acclaimed musicians are disregarded by the recording industry and such awards-show producing companies as Dick Clark Productions, which produced the AMAs. Commonly misunderstood as the industry's Emmys or Oscars, even the Grammys have long since been dismissed by most rock journalists like myself as a lost cause, a symptom of the widespread commercialization of the music industry. Like the AMAs, the Grammys are tucked away in the pocketbooks of the record labels, which repeatedly refuse to acknowledge the constant elephant in the room: the downloadable music/file sharing revolution (which ceased to be a revolution the minute everyone started to lose money, but don't tell Metallica that). With profit the main objective for the labels, the network, the media, the random celebrities who take advantage of the free publicity, and the musicians themselves, it's no surprise that paranoia reigns supreme and obscene amounts of money are spent in a desperate effort to get as many Nielsen televisions tuned in to ABC as possible.

Whether my favorite, less publicized musicians deserve an awards show is besides the point. Elliot Smith's beautifully awkward performance at the Good Will Academy Awards proved that indie rock and awards shows are mutually exclusive - they don't mix, except in rare, golden moments of crossover appeal, when both the mainstream radiophile and underground rock snob can appreciate the same music. As far as my humble tastes go, I prefer the more progressive, innovative outer limits of the recording industry. I tend to avoid non-NPR radio at all costs in favor of frequenting Rockaway Records, Amoeba Music, and mp3 blogs that expose me to music I never would have encountered on K-CROCK, let alone on the iPod of anyone who actually tuned in to the AMAs.

You might ask me, then, what the hell I was doing caught alive at such an event? Why do I have the audacity to detail my experience on the very blog that I hope will someday showcase my ability to dismantle the ills of the music industry, the symptoms of which were raging at the AMAs? What kind of poseur did I think I was, cheering Guided by Voices into presumed retirement one night, and two nights later brushing shoulders with Nick 'N' Jessica and drunkenly challenging some rapper-of-the-week's posse to a dis battle on the shuttle bus back to the parking lot? Well, I'm on the stand, my hand is on the Bible, so I have to shamefully admit that I agreed to volunteer my Sunday out of pure intrigue. As a bona-fide escort with an official plastic credential fastened to the collar of my stylish black frock, I could roam wherever I pleased. I had free reign over the backstage, auditorium, trailer park, and the Red Carpet (which, contrary to my cynical assumptions, is actually a red carpet and not red astro-turf).

Escort status also granted me the uncontested right to bother celebrities with creative offers to bring them "anything" - a bottle of water, a flask full of Hennessy, a vial of cocaine that President Bush keeps around the White House as a souvenir from his wild days, etc. I could inhale Snoop Dogg's posse's THC-filled aroma, make eyes at John Mayer, and witness Billy Idol shamelessly checking out my friend after she told him he rocked. Best of all, outside the Green Room I could revisit the pre-adolescent fondness I used to cultivate for John "Uncle Jesse" Stamos.

Most of talent escorts were assigned an individual celebrity, but I weaseled out of that bullshit. I was a "floater," which meant I could potentially be called upon to carry Anna Nicole Smith's lapdog and prescription drug Pez dispenser. I cleverly avoided this danger by staying one step ahead of the madness, wandering around and keeping anonymous so I could actually do some undercover reporting on this event. Not even Rod Stewart's fleeting, inquisitive glance at me writing in my notebook on the stairs backstage could deter me from my objective, which, if I'd known beforehand that he was going to put everyone to sleep with "What a Wonderful World," would have been persuading him to perform a surprise medley featuring "Maggie May," "Every Picture Tells a Story." and "Hot Legs." But, since I didn't get the chance, I settled for jotting random thoughts and observations in hopes of piecing together some grand revelation about the music business.

Awards shows, as I was told by some of the veteran talent escorts, were notoriously chaotic and off-schedule. Even the upper-tier production staff had no idea what would happen until the cameras snapped and the press set up a windfall of gossip that would inevitably be generated in order to sell copies of US and People this week. Opportunistic paparazzi sniffed around for the goods while I wandered around with my rusty notebook, searching for the clues as to how the hottest, most commercially successful musicians connect with their fans through participating in such a circus. Is it really about the fans? Or, as I mused, glancing at Kobe Bryant towering over the red carpet into the screaming fan bleachers, is it about self-indulgent publicity fabrication? Did I really give a shit? Mysteriously enough, I did. I just had to figure out why.

For my debut among the stars I tried to dress the part but ended up overlooking key areas of glamour. My brown eyes were expertly disguised in liner, shadow, and mascara, to the point where only Kelly Clarkson looked more like a raccoon. My trendily layered hair, while badly in need of a trim and glaringly naturally brown, was blown straight and shiny. My dress was fabulously retro, pitch black, and brand-new. However, my glaringly out-of-place soccer legs - knees bruised and shin guard tanned - stood exposed by the flared skirt of my dress and lengthened by the height of my heels. I also failed to trim and paint my nails and neglected to cover up my lovely but tacky "I'm 18 and I'm old enough to get a tattoo, so there, Mom!" moon & stars on my back. But even if I didn't exactly look the part, I could sure act. After all, it's what everyone else was doing.

But some stars hid behind expensive masks that looked remarkably human. My most frequent inner speculative remarks were reserved for the likes of cosmetic surgery champions Diana Ross and Dick "I'm drowning in the Fountain of Youth" Clark, who are often hiding in the shadows of Michael Jackson's monstrosity but are just as responsible for keeping the plastic industry afloat. As I gawked at Ross cascading down the red carpet in electric blue, I desperately tried to remember the name of the black Barbie so I could name-drop, but instead I heard voices saying, "she looks INCREDIBLE! Oh my God. Look at Diana. She looks fabulous. Oh my God," and they sure as hell weren't coming from inside my head. Maybe she didn't have a name and was just the black Barbie. But could anyone except the black Barbie and Diana Ross look like this at age 60? More random ridiculousness was thrown my way, and too naive to believe my own eyes, I started to cave in to the hype. Am I hallucinating, or is that Kenny fucking G rocking the red carpet? What's next? Michael Bolton? Rick Astley? Snap, snap. Intermittent screams. There's Bon Jovi! Snap. Big Boi! Snap. Usher is shorter than half of Kobe! Snap. Carmen Electra sans Dave Navarro - is their marriage on the rocks? Snap. As spectacle danced all around me, speculation grew more contagious. All of a sudden, as if catching a bug from my surroundings, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin.

It got worse once a tutu-wearing, glamed-out Gwen Stefani took the stage, debuting her it's-about-time solo career, which is destined to be a success. I wondered if it wouldn't be cool to wander on stage and meekly request that she sing "Sunday Morning" instead of "What You Waiting For," her trendy, self-indulgent, yawn-inducing New Wave-y first hit single. After a split second of wondering, I decided that it wouldn't be cool, but it would help the show suck significantly less. Once I began brainstorming potential improvements to the AMAs, I started feeling better, more like myself again, ready for a pitch meeting.

Well, Mr. Clark, how about I call up Jay-Z, he shows up unannounced, appears on stage with Kanye West, and doing a stripped down rendition of "Never Let Me Down," the standout track from West's album College Dropout? Or, check this out - fasc-esque former Attorney General John Ashcroft and flaming liberal documentarian Michael Moore dueting on Ashcroft's Fahrenheit 9/11 masterpiece, "Let the Eagle Soar," and then President Bush and John Kerry walk on stage from separate sides - decorated red and blue, respectively - and join in, encouraging the whole nation to come together as one, because regardless of your polarizing political orientation, regardless of how swollen the Republican conspiracy has become, we all share the same god damn moral values. Come on, Dick, how 'bout it? It would be a monumental achievement, a chance to bring this broken country back together, because freedom is on the march. Look, there's Bruce Springsteen! And Ann Coulter! Are you really 74 years old?

So you can see by the mind-wandering that I had grown a bit bored by the hype, or maybe it was Bush-twin wannabe Gretchen Wilson droning in the background. Actually, the hype wasn't boring me. Jaded is the word. Guilty is still a more accurate descriptor. Out of place, puzzled, frustrated, overanxious to cause some trouble I would likely regret later. Did I really deserve to be here? Shouldn't someone else be standing here? Maybe one of the millions of fans across the world would love to be standing in my shoes? A true fan would look around and see musicians and celebrities she absolutely adored. She might scream and ask for autographs and pictures. She would bypass the Diana Ross plastic surgery comments and dwell on how the Supremes once reigned fabulous and how "Love Hangover" will endure as a hot dance track regardless of whether disco actually died. She would watch the live performances with the genuine appreciation. She might even sing along to "Redneck Woman" while I detest the song's very existence as a celebration of Red State virtues in the wake of a very bitter liberal political defeat.

To me, the AMAs were discomforting because I found symptoms of the very same consumer-driven propaganda that duped so many Americans into re-electing President Bush. If you take everything at face value, you take any potential deception for granted. The first amendment grants us the freedom of speech, but this very same freedom also creates abundant opportunities for those in power to deceive the populace in order to serve selfish interests. While I'm not denouncing stargazers and gossip mongers to idiocy, I am questioning their undying faith in the cult of celebrity. I wonder why they don't ever question its legitimacy, just like they never question the legitimacy of Bush misleading the world about his rationale for going to war with Iraq. While not as politically savvy as Karl Rove, record labels have learned to rely on this power at play in American culture, marketing on the strength of sensation rather than talent, spreading the word through reality shows rather than critical acclaim. And while I'm not as politically savvy as Karl Rove, I can smell brainwashing propaganda a mile away. It sure stunk at the AMAs.

Luckily, once the show was over, a unrelated chain of events lead me to a never-ending supply of alcohol known as the open bar at the AMA After-Party, which, unlike Gwen Stefani's gathering at the Standard, boasted zero famous people, unless you counted Bobby Brown rocking the mic Marvin Gaye-style with the "we're on hiatus from prom season so we had to take this lame gig" band. In order to calm my what-the-hell-am-I-still-doing-here nerves and help my roommate recover from the overt rudeness of Kelly Osbourne's publicist, I suggested we drink as much as possible before leaving as a big "fuck you" to the music industry. And even though the music industry might not have seen me flip it off, I hope my finger will have lasting effects as my crusade for underground, indie, unsigned, unhyped, unanimously brilliant music continues.


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