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Posted at 8:12 AM ET, 02/14/2011

Most impressive? The real message of the 2011 Grammys

By Alexandra Petri

apphotomariotestinovogue.jpg(AP Photo/Mario Testino for Vogue)

"You are confusing what is important with what is impressive," says a character in E. M. Forster's Maurice.

That's the Grammys in a nutshell.

Oh, Mubarak just stepped down. But is Charlie Sheen all right? There might be protests in Bahrain? We can't check! What was going on with Ceelo Green? He looked like the offspring of Elton John and the NBC peacock! Can we talk about that instead?

So I'll be nattering on about the Grammys.

What seems to emerge from the show is that we like surprises. And fire. The only thing we like more than surprises is fire that is also a surprise. And it's not just good surprises, like parties, but also bad surprises, like an appearance by Mick Jagger, or the announcement that "Someone named Esperanza Saltine? Spalding? Spackle? I don't know -- does anyone? -- has been named Best New Artist."

I could try to make a stretch here. I could say, "Look, this is what voting does. The nature of democracy is that everyone is disappointed, a little." (But, seriously, Esperanza Spalding? Hosni Mubarak would have been a more popular choice. At least people on Twitter have heard of him.)

But it's too easy to just say that this is a metaphor for something and look away from what it, in fact, is.

As a culture, we are stuck trying to gauge the significance of things through the funhouse mirror of the Internet. Online, if a molecule of Justin Bieber's hair shifts in the breeze, thousands of voices cry out in terror, but massive floods in Pakistan or Australia can be reduced to a simple Twitter hashtag.

This is the easy conversation. There are tough conversations looming in the background -- about our role in the world today, how much and how to tighten our belts, and what our future is going to be. "We have to talk," history says. "Sure, sure," we say. "Right after these messages!" It's the world-perspective equivalent of talking about the weather.

Sometimes the Web tells us more about ourselves than we want to know. For instance, according to Google Trends, at no point in the past 12 months has the volume of searches for Mubarak been greater than that for Bieber.

These days, the frivolous is serious business. As a nation, we've switched from exporting textiles to exporting ideas, acts, entertainers. The rest of the world may be out-competing us in serious affairs, but let them try to seize our monopoly on pop stars with hats that look like angry lamps! We aren't very good at, well, anything, but we are perfecting the art of acting like we're big deals. Look on Twitter. Thousands of accounts with hundreds of self-aggrandizing tweets to -- almost no one. We're tossing rose petals into the grand canyon and waiting for a booming echo. Everyone is a tiny publicist. Everyone is a tiny superstar. Lady Gaga's term for her fans is apt -- we are little monsters -- fame monsters, to be precise. And every day, like bored cattle, we are branding ourselves.

Lady Gaga epitomized the notion that all it requires to become a superstar is to act like one. Some would argue that's America's attitude all over. Our test scores fall in the middle of the pack. Our students emerge from two years of college knowing barely more than when they went in. We're caught in the talons of a sluggish economy. Our print media is wilting. But, somehow, we still think we're the all-singing, all-dancing king of the world.

But even Gaga's fading. This year, as she's told us that she's bringing the Album of the Decade and confessed to Vogue that she thinks she has one of the best voices in the industry, her performance has been, frankly, underwhelming. Emerging from an egg? Yawn. Our evolutionary cousins several times removed did that millennia ago. And Born This Way? It sounds sort of like the noise my printer made in the '90s. I know it's supposed to be an affirmation, and at two minutes, it would be, but at minute three and a half, I get bored and wander off to eat something, which can't have been what she had in mind.

Maybe Gaga will prove me wrong. But it seems as though she is confusing her own impressive hype with the quality of the music that made her famous. Sure, acting like a big deal has gotten her far. But only so far.

Perhaps there's a lesson here for all of us.

But hey, while we're here, anyone want to follow me on Twitter?

By Alexandra Petri  | February 14, 2011; 8:12 AM ET
Categories:  Epic Failures, Petri, Reality? Television  | Tags:  America, Lady Gaga, hubris, oops  
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Next: Happy Valentine's Day! Can someone explain this 'love' thing?


I'm a little out of order here, but I just read your next column where you will say:

"The only reason everyone says they want their mate to have a sense of humor is that it's creepy to list 'ample cleavage' on an online dating form."

I certainly want my ComPost columnist(s) to have a sense of humor, but do you think you could put more pictures of women with 'ample cleavage' at the top your future columns too?

The only problem is that each inch of cleavage takes away 50 male IQ points. I can't understand a thing you wrote!

Posted by: divtune | February 14, 2011 8:49 PM | Report abuse

True. There is a lot of bad news out there. Which puts a premium on 'good' news.
The Nobel winning American playwright, Eugene O'Neil, wrote a lot of deep, meaningful stories. Yet, his best, most meaningful 'earner' was "Ah Wilderness". Slammed by the critics as a 'sellout', it was a huge public success.
It seems some of the artistes, Grammy/MTV crowd are marginally talented, at best. Yet, by staying somewhat 'upbeat' about things, most of them do realize commercial success for a time. Like O'Neil, they have learned to stop worrying about the details so much ... and let others "read between the lines".

Posted by: deepthroat21 | February 15, 2011 5:11 PM | Report abuse

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